Prune harder for less cutting overall

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Hard cuts rely on shrubs' and trees' ability to develop new shoots from dormant buds. Such buds remain viable even when they are so old that they must push their way out from under years of bark, creating a lag of weeks or more between pruning and new greenery. The buds indicated in this photo took over a year to develop. Yet if you cut woody plants regularly the way we describe here, there is always young wood with dormant buds ready to grow even deep within the plant's canopy. 

Prune harder more often to cut less overall.

- Janet -

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In this article:
Common practice not the best way
A smarter cut
Applies to many plants
Better: Just one cut per year
Proof in pictures:
     • the pros do it
     • drawing the line and cutting a foundation yew
Sometimes you must first rehabilitate a shrub

Common practice to simply shear shrubs

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 wayHollowRedtwigS.jpg

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 brown tips.

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 'Elegantissima'.)

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 article.)

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 shrub.

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More about this boxwood further in this article.

Applies to many plants

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 qualify.

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 per year

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

Proof positive

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 results.

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.

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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 and cut

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 surface.

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 line.

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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.

Boxwood, for example

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.

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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 width limits.
Below, right: Here it is the next spring, quite full and ready to be clipped again.

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Real story of yews rehabilitated

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 start over.

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 plants.

Below: Shrubs that have become so thin they're see-through, or that have this much dead wood, are not good candidates for a hard cut.

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