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plant smaller than its potential has the simplest of all steps:
1) Assess the new or existing
2) Establish a
limit for height and width you can allow.
3) Allow the plant to grow. After one year this
one didn't reach its limit. So the gardener did not prune.
4. In the year when the plant
grows beyond the line...
...cut off everything that crosses the
5) Thin the surface. Clip farther back about
20% of the branches to allow them to grow for at least a year
before once more reaching the line.
Step 5 thinning allows light to reach the plant's interior.
Fresh new growth will always be coming from within. Outermost
branches will not become dense witches' brooms that block light and
bear too little foliage to support vigorous growth and good
More photos of steps 4 and 5 in Cut n expectations.
An overgrown yew
hedge at the foundation:
Sometimes we must first reduce a plant that's gotten away from
us. Watch us reduce this yew hedge and then apply simple
Our target: Four yews that make up the central
low hedge along this north-facing foundation.
Their history: Sheared annually without any
thinning for over ten years. Each spring they lost most but not all
of the new soft growth. So every year they gained a little in
height and width until they filled the bed from walk to wall and
each year threatened to block the windows.
The plants' history, continued: They became
woodier every year.
Stubs branch after shearing. The tips branch and branch again.
These yews' surfaces became increasingly criss-crossed and tangled
(right) and this shell blocked light that once reached the
interior. Foliage in the plants' centers died and new buds ceased
to develop. The surface and sides became less leafy, too, since
needles grew only on the upper side of the shell of tangled
So, the plants became weaker. Leafy cells create fuel from
sunlight -- a feat wood and roots cannot match. With far more wood
than leaf and every woody cell relying for energy on the leaves'
photosynthesis, the plants have less energy to use for repairing
damage, surviving tough times, and creating substances that
Our two objectives: To make the shrubs
healthier as well as smaller. We want to lower them and also
reclaim room for some annual flowers and the contrasting border of
Below: A border of hostas? Where?! In that narrow space at
Janet's feet, hostas grow. They lap onto the walk like ketchup
squeezed from an overstuffed sandwich bun.
Janet's checking the depth of foliage to answer the question, "How
far can we cut these before we're going to see nothing but bare
Our two options:
A) Start from scratch:
• Cut the shrubs all the way to needleless stubs just a few inches
• Wait for the bare wood to "break" -- sprout new greenery
• Then begin pruning when they return to the desired height and
That process would take about two years, given a healthy yew's
12-inch growth rate.
B) Reduce and gradually rejuvenate.
• Cut the shrubs back to a few inches below the desired height and
• Thin them so light reaches the inner wood.
Afterward, some breaks should occur in the depths and on the bared
sides, and more will come as we thin the plants' shells each time
we prune. That will give depth to the foliage layer for better
health and a richer appearance.
We chose option two.
Below: Our first cut lowered the top. It completely bared
the front as we cut it back away from the walkway and sloped that
side to prevent upper branch tips from shading those below. We cut
hard, to leave thick stubs that could yield the heftiest new
We made this cut in early spring before budbreak, timing that
usually insures development of breaks.
Setback! Unfortunately, the shrubs didn't
break in response to the first cut.
Sometimes breaks don't occur right away. They might be
delayed by a plant's diminished health -- years of living with
almost more wood than the meager foliage could support. Another
damper can come from weather -- a hot, dry spell can suppress
production of new shoots.
Whatever the reason, these shrubs did not break in their first
season. They will.
Below: At the end of the season we cut bare wood further,
since thick stem bases tend to yield stronger shoots.
Then, we waited. At least they're more thickly leafed after
a summer's growing than they were when we first cut (far
We begin restriction pruning:
Year two began, and still no breaks deep inside. A very odd
growing season might be to blame -- it came early, then froze new
shoots before turning very dry and hot.
Whatever the reason for the stall, we know they will break in
time. For now, we give the shrubs a pep talk and commence standard reduction pruning and
Below: Here is the hedge shorn almost all the way
across its top (below, left) and all clipped (below,
Below: Left side cluster is about to be thinned;
right side already thinned. The hedge's surface is still dense,
even after two rounds of thinning cuts. But there is more light
reaching the middle than before and that will be the key to
As these yews grow this year and next we'll post updates.
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