How does it happen that shrubs we cut and cut, still get
Look inside this boxwood with us. One branch tells the whole
(The complete story of this particular boxwood is at Boxwood
We've sketched one branch from this shrub to the right of the
photo to help you see what we see. Cross our fingers, it tells the
tale but in case it doesn't, there is more text below.
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1) Green arrows: The newest growth has two places where it has
branched out. That means it was nipped twice while soft and while
its natural response was to branch from the point of injury. Each
time those cuts were made, a little of the new growth was left
above the older wood. There was a total of 3" of creep.
2) Black arrows: When we look down along the branch we've
sketched for you, we see regular occurrences of that branching
pattern -- nipped, branched, nipped branched. There was almost the
same amount of creep each year and this has been happening for all
five this shrub's years on site. We'd say that means the same
gardener's been doing the work, except that we see this same
tendency everywhere. That is, no one wants to cut hard -- to cut
into the harder, twiggier growth.
3) Blue arrow: When we make our thinning cuts we'll cut out
thick branches -- about 20% of the branches, or 1 in 5. We'll cut
at the blue arrow or lower. Usually lower! Every branch we cut will
have 2- to 5 years to grow before we take it out again and every
year before that time its greenery will be new and relatively soft
inside the shrubs outline.
Thinning makes shearing easier
The gardener who thins makes the shearing easier because there
are fewer heavy, densely branched limbs up at the outer edge. We
can cut back without worrying, "Oh, look at all that bare wood left
showing, I hope it re-grows!"
We shear to the same level every year -- three inches below the
windowsill, for instance, or hip high. We choose the line based on
how much the shrub grows -- we want to prune it once in early
spring or in August and then let it grow all season. It
will be healthier and more attractive and we have les work to do.
This year we'll shear this shrub to remove everything spanned by
the green arrows.
Deciding which limbs to thin
We decide which branches to cut out based on the "pat method" --
we pat the shrub's surface to feel for the stiffest wood. This
helps us find and remove the branches that have been sheared most
times. This not only makes the shearing easier. It lets light reach
tips still growing up from the interior from our previous years'
(Note: We usually thin first, shear second. We describe the
steps in opposite order to encourage those just learning this
technique to shear first before thinning. Come to a Garden By Janet &
Steven and prune with us and we'll help your hands learn
why that's the easier way to learn.)
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