Prune harder more often to cut less overall.
- Janet -
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Common practice not the best way
A smarter cut
Applies to many plants
Better: Just one cut per year
Proof in pictures:
• the pros
• drawing the line and cutting a foundation yew
Sometimes you must first rehabilitate a
Common practice to simply
You can keep a hedge or shrub neat by shearing it in spring,
giving it another cut a few weeks later and one more in late
summer. Each time you remove some inches of soft new growth and
perform a tedious clean up to extract all the fallen bits.
Not the most successful way
The trouble is, that's more work than we care to do. It's also
almost always unsuccessful in the long run since the gardener
usually allows the plant to advance by an inch or so each year. He
or she leaves just a bit of the soft new branches at the outer edge
because it's so hard to cut into the thickest wood and scary to see
This common cut also weakens the plants by increasing the
ratio of old wood to new leaf. A hollow shape develops as the shell
of the plant becomes so dense that it shades out all new growth
from the interior. (Redtwig dogwood Cornus alba
A smarter cut
A hard cut in early spring is a smarter cut. Go out in spring
and cut that hedge or shrub by nine inches rather than three times
three inches. Or eight inches rather than two inches four times --
in the history of its shearing is the answer to how much it will
grow in a year.
With that one cut you will be done with it for the year except
for a July touch up -- a touch up that is not always needed. It's
called for only if the weather promotes unevenness in the second
growth spurt. (See a boxwood as example below, or our example yew further along in this
So that reduces cutting time. It also reduces clean up time
because you work with hand pruners, creating waste in chunks in
your hand rather than in thousands of shorn bits. You simply toss
most of the debris clear of the hedge.
We had our hand on each bit we cut from this boxwood so we
could toss it as we cut it. Now we're all done pruning until July
yet our clean up does not involve any little bits in and under the
More about this boxwood
further in this article.
Applies to many
This advice applies to fast growing shrubs grown for summer
bloom or colorful foliage, too. Make just one cut, in spring or in
late summer, then sit back and let the plant grow for a year.
Privet, yew, burning bush, smoke bush, spirea and many more shrubs
If you must cut to bare wood, remember that most shrubs and
trees can sprout from leafless wood but juniper, arb, pine, spruce
and fir rarely do. So cutting any of those back means cutting to
leaf. We've shown this in explaining how to cut back
spruce, juniper and arborvitae; what we wrote
there applies to all in this group.
Better yet: One cut
If the shrub or hedge is not already too big you can reduce your
work even more by waiting until late summer to make the cut. We cut
many woody plants we tend just once per year
We use the "one cut" method as well as one cut plus touch up and
we see pros do it at many public gardens, with beautiful
Below, left: At Niagara Falls, Ontario there is a wall shrub
collection in the Oakes Amphitheater area across from the American
Falls. This includes a couple dozen types of trees and shrubs from
apple to redtwig. The horticulturists of the Niagara Falls
Botanical Garden keep these 90-year old plants healthy and blooming
beautifully even though they are only a few inches deep -- lush
living tapestry "hanging" against the garden's wall. They do it
with two cuts per year: one hard cut in April and a touch up for
errant growth in July.
Above, right: The rhododendron and other shrubs in this
rooftop garden are also wall shrubs, cut twice a year. They form a
cushier tapestry than Niagara Parks' collection, about 18 inches
from wall to branch tip. This well-carpeted wall lets you
forget that you're seven stories up from the streets of Kensington
in west central London.
Yew simply draw the line
Early spring and late summer are best for this kind of pruning,
in terms of plant health and your efficiency. However, you
can cut at any time of year.
At your chosen time, set height and width markers -- set up
guide lines, decide to keep it below the fifth row of a background
building's siding, etc. Then reach to just below and inside those
lines and cut out the thickest branches that cross the boundary.
Finally, use hedge shears if necessary to even the whole
We prefer the softer look to a tightly sheared surface. So
we did this cut with hand pruners alone. It took just 20 minutes
including clean up.
Notice the window sill. It's our marker, our upper limit. After
our cut, all parts of the yew are one year's growth below that
The first time or first few times you do this to a shrub that
was formerly sheared-only, you may have to cut more thick old
branches than anything else because shearing created a thicket at
or above your line. Do it. Make those cuts and suffer the bald
spots. They'll fill as spring growth begins and once dormant buds
grow in the light thus allowed to reach them. From the depths you
open many shoots will sprout that will be simple to shear and thin
in later years.
The branch at the beginning of this
article was cut from the yew shown above, in its second year of
one-cut after many years of shearing. We were delighted to see its
dormant buds. In the first year we cut out many branches that
thick, but none had dormant buds coming.
Here's the tale of a boxwood simply sheared for several years
before we brought it back into line. (USDA hardiness zone 6.) Given
shearing alone, it had crept larger each year. When we found it too
big, we cut it back.
Below, left: Here it is when we found it in fall and said,
"You need a proper cut next spring!"
Below, right: And here it is early the next April as
we're partway done cutting. We paused to take the photo so you can
see the dense shell that shearing was promoting. However, there has
been only about four years of shearing abuse, so it still has
plenty of green deep inside.
Below, left: That's good that there's green inside, because
we must cut it back even smaller than we want it to be. That way it
can grow for an entire year without re-crossing our height and
Below, right: Here it is the next spring, quite full and ready to
be clipped again.
Real story of yews
We won't kid you. If your shrubs are old, have been shorn
repeatedly so they have little depth to their foliage layer, and
have been allowed to creep way beyond their bounds, they may take a
year or two to complete recovery from a cutback. We think it's
usually worth the wait to use a well established plant, rather than
However, starting new and beginning right away with the right
cuts may be the better bet for you. Take a look at what gradual recovery looked like in a
real cutback as you decide how to handle your own too-big
Below: Shrubs that have become so thin they're see-through,
or that have this much dead wood, are not good candidates for a
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