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Monday, August 29, 2011

Don't Let Anyone Call You A Plant Butcher - Pruning Shrubs In July

Q.  I have some bushes in the front garden that hide the front door. Due to a recent break in on our block, I want to trim these bushes. However, if I trim them as low as I'd like, it would expose bare branches. Will exposing these bare branches cause new growth to occur or do I have to cut them to the ground and start over?

Pruning cuts like this heading cut results in
many side buds below the cut growing, all fighting
for light and dominance.

Closeup of heading cut and side buds breaking

A.  I would not cut these branches at this time of the year which is late summer. Light pruning can be done during the summer months but if you cut into older wood you may cause some serious damage. Wait to do this type of pruning until at least mid fall, around October. It would be good to know what kind of shrub it is. Some shrubs respond to pruning very nicely while others really struggle to grow back. In making the pruning cuts it would be wise to make thinning cuts rather than heading cuts. Heading cuts are like giving the shrub a butch haircut. We usually call this type of pruning, butchering. Cuts are made indiscriminately anywhere along the branches frequently all of the same height. This is a big no no no no no.

Shrub showing lots of older wood that may
be slow to come back from pruning
cuts particularly during summer months

Thinning cuts are removal of entire branches back to another major branch that leaving no stub. Identify the branches which are the tallest visually. Follow this branch down along its length until it intersects with another major branch. If this intersection is low enough, make the cut so that it removes the taller branch that you followed. The cut is made flush, leaving no stub. Identify another tall branch and do the same thing, tracing its length down inside the canopy until it intersects with another branch and remove it. Do this until all of the branches which are too tall have been removed to another major branch deeper inside the canopy.

This technique called thinning maintains the integrity of the shrub and its eye-appeal without damaging it and causing a surge of growth that will be unsightly. If you do this, no one can call you a plant butcher.

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