Pruning trees and shrubs correctly is not as difficult as some careful people may think, though pruning incorrectly is as easy as some careless people make it look. First, leave those shears in the shed. Shears are effective at cutting back herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses, but are otherwise detrimental to the health of woody plants because they leave behind stubs. Don’t leave stubs!
Stubs are what is left of a woody twig or branch after the person pruning it has failed to cut it off at the proper place, which is close to a node where it joins the main plant, and instead has cut it haphazardly somewhere along its length. Shears by definition make cuts haphazardly on woody plants, even if at a distance the poor shrub looks neatly trimmed in shapes that some people find pleasing. Who hasn’t looked at a shrub minding its own business and thought, “That bush would be much more attractive shaped like a cube”? After several swipes of the shears, the bush appears neatly cubed from a distance, but upon closer inspection it will be evident it has suffered numerous wounds it will have trouble healing, if it can do so at all. Don’t leave stubs!
Hand pruners – or secateurs – in use. Photo by Pellencgroup. The cut being made in the photo is too far out along the branch to be a proper pruning cut. It could be a preliminary cut intended to take away most of the weight of the branch to reduce the possibility of bark tearing away from the trunk when the branch falls loose. In that case, the final pruning cut should be close to – but not flush with – the trunk, as shown with the cut a bit higher on the trunk.
There are three principle reasons for pruning trees and shrubs, in descending order of importance.
To preserve the safety and well-being of people, other animals, and property. Obviously, this applies primarily to trees, since shrubs are typically less capable of menace.
To preserve or improve the health of the plant being pruned, such as by removing dead wood and crossing branches.
Aesthetics, which of course is in the eye of the beholder, though the beholder should remain mindful of the precedence of reasons one and two, and of the vital importance of not leaving stubs.
Timing can be another critical aspect of pruning, and it can be confusing in light of differing requirements from plant to plant, with some requirements relevant to plant health and others to aesthetics, as in promoting or preserving flowering. In areas of the country with winter freezes, however, there is one general rule applicable to avoiding injury or weakening of a woody plant, and that is to refrain from any major pruning in the weeks leading up to the first frost in late summer and early autumn. The reason is that pruning encourages new growth, and tender new growth is susceptible to cold injury. The results are not apt to be catastrophic for the plant, but it will have wasted valuable energy on damaged top growth at a time of year when it would be healthier for it to be storing energy in its roots. It’s like shaking a person who wants to go to sleep.
Later in the year, in winter and especially in late winter, it is alright to perform major pruning on many woody plants because they are dormant. The plant’s hormones will not awaken it to push out new growth at that inopportune time. The exception is a sappy plant such as a maple tree. As anyone knows who has ever tapped a sugar maple tree for maple syrup, a maple produces sap copiously in late winter and early spring, and drawing too much of it at one time, as occurs in cutting off a major limb, will weaken the tree. It’s better to leave pruning of sappy plants until summer, when they will only dribble, and not gush, from wounds.
These are all great bits from a first series episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but the portion relevant to this post begins at the 9:46 mark of the video.
If it seems this language of pruning is evocative of surgery on humans and other animals, the good reason for it is that the two procedures are more alike than different in their effects, and it is helpful to be aware when pruning that you are making cuts into a living organism. Too many people with shears, particularly the mechanical kind, appear to proceed blithely without any awareness that their hedges and foundation plantings are composed of living organisms that must expend energy recovering from an assault with carelessly wielded cutting implements.
As for appearance, while there are few people who can carry off the page boy haircut look successfully, there are for some bewildering reason an awful lot of people who think the plant equivalent of that haircut looks just dandy on their shrubs. If the shrubs themselves could speak, they might express a preference to be left alone to allow their natural beauty to shine through, with only an occasional light touch from a deft hand to help them look their best. Most of all, to keep trees and shrubs beauteous and robust, don’t leave stubs!
People who don’t do hard physical labor regularly are quite taken with tools that make it appear the person wielding them is really doing a lot, such as pickaxes and sledgehammers. Using those tools will indeed wear out even the fittest person over the course of a day, which is why the professional laborer who has to get up the next morning and work again all day uses those tools sparingly given the option, and will resort to other tools that may take longer to do a job but will save wear on tear on the user’s body.
A pickaxe works best at breaking up hard ground. Photo by cogdogblog.
A pickaxe is good for breaking up dry, rocky ground,but not as good for working on normal soil as a mattock. A pickaxe is a better tool overall for a miner than it is for a gardener. Swinging it certainly does make it look like the laborer is going at the job full bore, however, and ultimately that may be what it takes to satisfy the homeowner who is paying the laborer to make work look chain gang hard. Sledgehammers are more directly up that same alley, since they have limited uses in everyday gardening, but are great for breaking rocks in a sweaty, back-breaking setting. Maybe that’s what some people are paying to see.
Another tool amateurs feel compelled to use themselves and are gratified to see professionals use on their behalf are powered shears. About the only shrub that can tolerate shearing long term is privet; everything else will turn into stiffly twigged shells of foliage needing frequent shearing to look presentable, and that only at a passing glance. Any closer examination will reveal a shrub with nothing going on inside but the dead, moldering pile-up of sticks and leaves from past shearing.
It’s better to cut back shrubs with hand pruners, even though a hedgerow will take longer to do than with powered shears. The time will be made up in longer intervals between cuttings, and the shrubs will be healthier. It’s fussy work and it doesn’t make a lot of noise and commotion like the powered shears do, and that upsets some people who like the roar of machinery as much as the sweat of unnecessarily hard physical labor in order to convince themselves that work is being accomplished.
Farm workers shoulder their tools at the end of the day near Ripley, in the Palo Verde Valley of the lower Colorado River in California in May 1972. Environmental Protection Agency photo by Charles O’Rear.
A few good shovels, hand pruners and saws, maybe loppers, powered or manual shears for cutting back perennials only instead of cutting back shrubs, and various rakes as well as a strong digging bar are about all a gardener needs on a daily basis. It’s nice to have the other tools, mattocks and hoes especially, but a gardener interested in saving himself or herself for another day will seldom find use for a pickaxe or a sledgehammer. There are often other ways of accomplishing the tasks those tools might do, though they won’t look as dramatically labor intensive.
Take the Money and Run, a 1969 film directed by Woody Allen and in which he plays a hapless criminal, who in this scene has been sentenced to work on a chain gang.
The last thing a professional or amateur gardener might want to consider is rain gear, and that too ends up being a personal choice outside of what bossy people might think best for others. Ponchos are cooler to wear in summer than raincoats and permit greater freedom of movement, while raincoats are more effective at keeping the gardener dry. A raincoat would be the best choice in cool weather, and might even suit in summer if the gardener parts with several more dollars for a raincoat made with breathable fabric. Otherwise, a cheap raincoat will repel rain on the outside at the cost of getting wet on the inside from the wearer’s sweat, particularly in the case of someone who is active, like a gardener. Perhaps the most welcome option on a rainy day is a third one, which is the opportunity it affords to drop tools and go indoors to relax and muse about working some other day. — Izzy
The expansive, pastoral cemeteries we are familiar with today came into being in the nineteenth century when municipal officials dedicated large amounts of land in the suburbs or just outside cities to landscaped burial grounds. Church graveyards within city limits had become overcrowded, prompting worries about public health and the integrity of nearby building foundations. The rural cemetery movement took its cues from English garden design of the eighteenth century, with vast expanses of mowed grass broken up trees and shrubbery, and taking advantage of vistas where possible. Since there were no public parks when these new cemeteries were designed and built, they soon functioned as parks at a time when enjoyment of the outdoors was more restrained and dignified than it is today. No one in Victorian times was jogging past the gravestones in shorts and very little else.
Those Victorian era rural cemeteries became part of the suburbs and then eventually were swallowed up by their city when urban growth expanded to encompass them. They can still be islands for quiet contemplation within a city if they are large enough for visitors to get away from the noise and bustle of surrounding streets. Their park function has been usurped by purpose built parks that allow a greater range of activities, such as jogging or playing softball. No worries there about disrespect for the dead. Since the fine old garden cemeteries of the nineteenth century have become incorporated within cities their boundaries have been limited and now they are either full or nearly full of permanent guests.
A monument at Lowell Cemetery in Lowell, Masachusetts. Photo by Bernie Ongewe.
The serenity invoked by well tended grounds and beautiful vistas is of course for the living, not the dead, who presumably are beyond caring. The same can be said for the fine caskets and embalming services offered by funeral parlors at a fine price to the lately bereaved. Nothing but the best for the dearly departed, and by extension to the social standing of those paying for it all. Cremation offers one way out of some of the unnecessary expenses and fuss of burial in a recognized cemetery. Where people have space available at home, a family plot is often outlawed by zoning regulations, and anyway the new custom of moving from one house to another several times throughout life makes it impractical. House buyers are understandably queasy about moving into a place with a stranger’s recently interred relatives just outside the back door.
The Loved One, a 1965 film based on a satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, was directed by Tony Richardson and in this scene starred Robert Morse affecting an English accent as Dennis Barlow, who must see to the burial of his uncle while on a trip to Los Angeles, California. Liberace played Mr. Starker and Anjanette Comer played Miss Thanatogenos, both of the fictional Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary.
There is another option, one that chucks all the trappings of the funeral industry and the land grabbing of permanent cemeteries, and that is natural burial. The dead are not embalmed nor are they buried in monstrously expensive containers that prevent or delay decomposition of the corpse and casket. The dead are buried in a cloth shroud or a simple wooden coffin which will decompose readily without contaminating the soil. Grave markers are not permanent reminders such as the headstones found at a conventional cemetery, but low key natural markers meant to degrade within a generation, or plantings such as a tree which will eventually supersede its function as a mere grave marker. The land is conserved as wild space rather than subject to continuous environmental destruction by modern landscaping practices.
Natural burial is a return to the practices of our ancestors. In some parts of the world, people have never deviated from natural burial practices. Returning to dust is inevitable, and it might as well happen in a way that preserves the economic and environmental resources of the living. Memories of the departed can be kept alive in ways other than the permanent reminders of headstones and the expensive and often environmentally destructive tending of a cemetery landscape designed to appear natural, though upon reflection it is hardly that at all, any more than the neatly clipped lawns in the suburban and city lots surrounding it.
Sting wrote “All This Time” in 1990 about the recent death of his father and about his memories of growing up near the shipyards of Wallsend in Northumberland, England.
There is no time of year when you absolutely should not prune trees and shrubs, particularly when it comes to pruning for the safety of people and property or for the health of the plant. There are better and worse times, however, to paraphrase Charles Dickens from the beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Photo by Flickr user Albert Herring
Late summer and early fall is the worst time to prune, and late winter and early spring is the best time. The reason for leaving trees and shrubs alone from August through October (the timing changes depending on the first frost date where you live) is that during frost-free weather pruning encourages new growth, yet the first frost is not far off. If the plant puts out tender new growth at this time of year, a frost may damage or kill the new growth, wasting the the energy the plant just put into top growth at a time when it should be drawing its energy toward its roots in preparation for winter dormancy.
For most trees and shrubs, February through April is the best time for pruning because the plant is dormant, yet it will break dormancy soon and the flush of energy to its top growth will help heal the pruning cuts and cover them. There are exceptions to this rule, and a maple tree is one. Any maple tree produces copious sap in late winter and early spring, not just the sugar maple from which we derive maple syrup. Wounding – and yes, a pruning cut can amount to just that – a maple at that time of year results in excessive bleeding of sap, weakening it. It is better to prune a maple in the summer, when the sap does not run as freely.
Proper pruning technique is necessary in allowing a tree or shrub to to heal a cut. Do not leave stubs! A plant cannot close over a stub, and the stub eventually dies yet remains on the living plant for an inordinate time. The stub then becomes a route for insects and fungi to the interior of the plant. Pruning to the branch collar on trees and to a bud on shrubs allows the plant to seal a cut much sooner, diminishing the opportunity for pests to infest live wood.
Boston Public Garden, Massachusetts; photo by Flickr user Robert Linsdell.
Shearing is a form of pruning that makes cuts willy-nilly as far as the plant is concerned, but which to people presents the plant at a uniform shape and size, the effect of which is a matter of personal taste and opinion. At no time is shearing a boon to a plant’s health, though some plants, such as boxwood and privet, are better able to tolerate it than others. The cumulative effects of this detrimental practice are evident after several years as the plant ends up with leaves growing on its outer shell only and no leaves growing inside of that, and the outer shell becomes stiff as the branches thicken. The interior clogs over time with leaves and twigs falling from the shears, allowing fungus to grow and eventually degrade the bark. The remedy for shearing is patience to make pruning cuts by hand in the proper place as far as the plant is concerned, rather than clipping it for the sake of neatness as if a living plant was inert like hair. But as always in our culture, patience is in short supply.
As summer fades into fall, gardeners consider tidying their flower beds and around their trees and shrubs. Putting down new mulch can be part of this process, and it raises the question: How much mulch? Mulching two to three inches in total depth is plenty, making sure to keep the mulch from touching plant stems, and not piling up volcanoes of the stuff around trees. Any “professional” landscaping outfit or individual who does otherwise is acting out of either ignorance or the desire to sell more mulch, perhaps both.
Another consideration is whether to put down commercially produced mulch or wood chips. The term “mulch” can apply to organic or inorganic ground covers, such as pine bark, shredded hardwood, or stone. Wood chips are made from every part of a tree, and chips range in size from coarse chunks to finely ground pieces no larger than an inch. Gardeners should be careful to check the source of wood chips because they may have come from trees infested with beetles or borers, and if the chips have not been ground up finely enough or heat treated, then the insects may survive to cause further damage in new surroundings. Commercial wood mulch should not cause similar problems if the manufacturer has effectively screened it for pests, though gardeners should not apply it directly up to the foundation of a house, where it can serve as cover for termites already present in the soil.
A good rule of thumb to follow when applying mulch is not to apply it so thickly as to make it a heavy slog for the average happy garden gnome pushing a wheelbarrow.