Let’s Talk Pruning

Were I ever to be appointed garden czar, I would require a certificate in proper pruning before I would ever sell a pair of pruners to anyone interested in growing plants.  OK, just kidding. This is the USA, and everyone’s freedom to prune as they see fit is guarenteed by the constitution. But I do see lots of evidence of uninformed pruning, so I thought it might be a good idea to offer some pointers; does this sound more friendly?

 Plants have a natural habit of growth.  Anyone interested in plant habit has no end of sources to research this subject.  Plant tags give this information at no extra cost.  Where people get into trouble is placing a plant they like in the wrong place. Shrubs that mature at 8′ by 8′ have no business being planted next to the sidewalk.  Planting two giant shrubs closely on either side of a walk that with true and brave pruning that results in an arch overhead-brilliant. The single shrub placed properly for the pot size, and not the mature size, will grow into a pruning nightmare. The pruning required to correct a mistake will make you look like a dictator-not a gardener.

The appearance of a large growing shrub planted in a too small a space, that has been pruned back to fit that arbitrary space, will offend the eye.  Pruning is about giving every branch light and air; pruning is about keeping a shrub green and thriving top to bottom.  Pruning is not about wedging a plant into a space that nature never intended. Any plant, given the time, space and care to mature to its finest form-glorious. 

        Woody flowering shrubs have a specific period of bloom-nothing tricky here.  Prune promptly after the bloom. I am talking forsythia, lilac, rhodendron, roses, and the like. Every pruning cut encourages a plant to send out multiple shoots from the cut. The best time of the year to see how one cut produces multiple shoots is right now.  There is not much foliage yet to obscure how a plant is responding to your pruning.  Get out in your garden, and study the pattern of the sticks-the results of your pruning. 

 Woody deciduous shrubs have a natural habit that provides no end of clues about how to properly prune. Euonymus compactus alata-dwarf burning bush, grows strongly to 8 feet high, and as wide. The yews pictured above are some form of taxus densiformis.  Their natural form is loose and sprawly. Should you be pruning in a box or ball shape 4 by 4 feet-there is conflict sure to come. Each cut brings forth a proliferation of new growth.  Sooner or later the growth on the skin of this yew will be so dense, all the foliage on the interior will languish and finally die from lack of light.  Though closely trimmed yews can be very pretty, I try to cut a few light holes in various spots-I call this swiss-cheesing the plant.  Let some light reach the interior.  These yews are placed such that should they get bigger and bigger, they will not obstruct a walk. Yews cut back to bare wood will sprout again-but the recovery will be slow. 

 Once hydrangea buds show green, I prune.  Annabelle I never prune hard.  Like a tea rose, a hard pruned Annabelle will reward you with fewer, and even more giant ball shaped blooms.  As this shrub has weak stems, and goes over in the first hard rain after blooming-there is no need to exascerbate its shortcomings. Those giant balls on the ground in the mud-not so satisfying. Prune lightly, and all over.  Every branch; take the time to cut them so they have a little sun and air space all their own. Your patience will be rewarded with lots of a little bit smaller blooms-making the entire shrub more weather resistant. 

There are those yards where I see everything pruned into a green meatballs, green boxes, mushrooms, or rectangles. Or some lopsided version of the above. Should it be your idea to prune towards a geometric shape, get out the level lines and do it right.  Imposing mathematical geometry on a natural form needs to be done with knowledge aforethought.  And purpose. And most importantly-the right plant. Some plants respond and thrive in response to this treatment.  Other plants respond by throwing a skin of leaves-the interior branches go dead from lack of light.  Boxwood tolerates this type of treatment; other plants-not so much.

 No plant needs a heavy hand.  Heavy hands come from those non-gardening people who have been given the chore to get the yard in shape.  Heavy hands given a sharp instrument-not always the best result.  I think about every cut.  I cut with a natural form in mind.  I cut to help provide air, light, and densely natural shape. There are those for whom this statement is an utter bore-but if you garden with a passion, you know exactly what I mean.  

Prune with sharp and clean clips.  It is no good to spread communicable trouble around with dirty and infected clips.  Clip what needs be clipped-pass on what does not. Stop the pruning in midstream, and consult-should you have any questions.  Poor pruning is not the end of the world; plants have an incredibly strong instinct to survive.  They will endure, and possibly outlast you. But the season comes but once a year. 

Stay tuned.  More on proper pruning to come.


  1. I am so glad you are writing about this. As a novice gardener I think pruning gives me the most anxiety. If you have any suggestions on making a green wall out of shrubs I would really appreciate it. Our neighborhood is full of top heavy, thin lines of bushes that make my skin crawl. Help! By the way your blog is my first click every morning…Im addicted to your beautiful work!!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Erin, don’t be too afraid. Plants are very forgiving of most things. Thank you for your comment! Deborah

  2. Lots of good pruning info, Deborah. Thank you.

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