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Five Rules To Prune By

What! When did this happen?

I was looking up, up at my DWARF burning bushes, Euonymus alatus, that were towering above me, at least fifteen feet tall. The lower part of the branches were bare, while green growth was concentrated at the top.

When did I last prune these things?

I did remember pruning them, once upon a time, but how many years ago I could not say. I sighed. I should have done it back in January or February, but I certainly couldn't wait another year. Emergency surgery was needed, and it would not be easy or pretty. 

Rule one: Low maintenance means regular maintenance. A postponed job always involves more work.

I enjoy pruning. It is my favorite of all gardening chores. I shake my head at overgrown or poorly pruned shrubs in other yards, thinking what a difference a good trim would make. Plants enjoy a proper cut! It stimulates new growth and can make a huge difference in a plant's appearance. People neglect pruning for several reasons, but the most common one is lack of knowledge. They are afraid to prune. Others prune, but they prune their shrubs with a one technique fits all, usually a flat top approach with the hedge shears. This results in shrubs with excessive growth on top and little growth below. Ugly!

Rule two: Almost all shrubs benefit from layered pruning, with cuts made at the top, middle, and lower parts of the shrub. The widest part of the shrub should be at the bottom, tapering inward toward the top. If the widest part of the shrub is the top, sunlight will have a hard time reaching the lower branches, and naked stems are the result. Even hedges should be cut slightly wider at the bottom, never trimmed straight across the top.

This is a photo of a couple of the burning bushes after I pruned them. They look traumatized for now, but soon new growth will cover the cuts. I promise not to wait so long next time.

Rule three: Prune at the appropriate time of the year. When is that? It is always good to research individual plants if you don't know anything about them. If you prune a plant at the wrong time, you are unlikely to kill it, but you may lose the next season's blooms or fruit. I doubt if I will have berries this year on my burning bushes, but I am fine with that. Generally, deciduous shrubs that bloom in the spring should be pruned soon after flowering, while summer bloomers should be trimmed late winter/early spring. I like to prune deciduous trees in winter while they are dormant and I can see their branch structure. Dead limbs can be pruned away any time of the year. Evergreens should be pruned as new growth begins in the spring, and light pruning may be done later in the summer if needed. Avoid pruning shrubs and trees in the fall when new growth could suffer frost damage.

I worked hard yesterday to prune my burning bushes. It took several hours, and the hardest part was hauling all those heavy, long limbs to the brush pile. 

Rule four: It is good to have a helper to haul away the trimmings! Lou was gone most of the day, but I was glad to see him when he finally appeared! I was also dreaming of a chipper/shredder as I worked. That is a purchase we are considering.

Rule five: When you are finished, take regular walks to enjoy your garden. Appreciate the results of your labor!

Here are some views taken recently in and around the front garden. Literally, every plant you see has benefited from pruning, some every once in a while, others annually or biannually.The Confederate jasmine on the arch separating the patio from the front garden is in full bloom now. It has a wonderful fragrance! I will prune it after it finishes blooming.

This view is across the front garden, taken beside the patio.

another view across the front garden

A view of lawn and garden. The zoysia lawn, by the way, is fertilized in spring and fall with an all natural fertilizer. No artificial chemicals! All the little creatures love it, and it feels great to bare feet.

This view is taken from the parking court in front of the house.I wish you all a great week, and may you always have time to walk in a garden! Deborah

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Reader Comments (26)

I'd walk through a garden more than once daily if it was as lovely as yours. I envy you your lawn.

April 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBom

Wonderful post. I have a question, when is a good time to prune forsythia? My mother-in-law has two large bushes and they need to be shaped up. She lives in TN and they have already bloomed for the year. Thanks.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Wonderful post Deb! Very handy tips there, especially rule 1 and 5 which I totally agree! Timing tasks is one of the things you learn to master along the way when it comes to gardening. Due to time constraints I still miss the opportunity of two to do maintenance but I'm more relaxed now and more forgiving with myself. But the rewards of doing things at the right certainly is visible.

Garden's looking fantastic as always, really lovely :)

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

It's posts like this that make me feel less unhappy about having missed the tiume slot to plant apple and pear trees last autumn. I will get around to it, and will probably forget to prunt them as well!

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Idiot Gardener

I just mentioned on another post how I like articles with five things. Good post, Deb, and good tips too. The pruning advice about when is so important and one so often done incorrectly. I too prune in winter when the plant structure is evident and it is most beneficial to a dormant deciduous plant. But I do not enjoy it like you. In fact, I really prefer the guys from the nursery to do it for me. They are my best buds in Spring! Cutting is fine, mess, not so much.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Pruning seems to be one of the hardest things to master, at least it seems to be a task most gardeners fear. I enjoy it, so my young shrubs generally get some attention every year, which, as you point out, makes it so much easier. Your well pruned garden is beautiful!

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

Hi, everyone! Thanks so much for your comments! Your words are very kind, and your support means a lot to me. Chris, I think it would be fine to prune the forsythia now, but I would not wait much longer. In fact, I plan to prune one of my forsythias today if I can do it between the rain showers. Deborah

April 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterDeborah Elliott

What a useful post, Whenever I have neglected to prune a shrub, I then cut 1/3 down to the ground each year for 3 years and then try in future years to remember to do it at the correct time! Your garden looks so inviting, especially your sun lounger!

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

Excelent post Deborah! I enjoy pruning and agree with all your five points, I think good advice is 'not to be afraid' as yousay, you're not likely to kill most things. If space allows some plants are best not touched at all and perhaps my 6th point would be that the right tools are loppers and secaturs and NOT hedge trimmers!
The images of your garden had me gasping at how beautiful it is. Thank you for sharing. Christina

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I think fear is one reason a lot of people don't prune. I try to remember to prune at the right time, and in the right way, but I've learned: plants are usually very forgiving - thank goodness!

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolleyGarden

Good information on pruning. And the 'no chem' lawn is lovely. Thanks for sharing and enjoy your week. c

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia

The advantage of regular pruning is the clippings are smaller and lighter! I don't envy you pruning those large shrubs, I know how much work that can be. For the size of your garden, I expect you'd find a chipper shredder very useful. They are a little scary, in that you have to use them with an abundance of care and caution, but they do make yard cleanup much easier. I love that we can shred whole branches, and either use the chippings as mulch, or at least have them break down faster in compost. By the way, that is the most amazing Jasmine arch. I have never seen one like. It's absolutely gorgeous!

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

Good tip about pruning wider at the bottom to allow sunlight to get to the lower branches. It sounds obvious, but I've never done it that way.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterb-a-g

When I gaze on your manicured perfection, I start dreaming about a few topiary balls. One day.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElephant's Eye

Fabulous as always - and yet again I'm amazed at how far along your garden is compared to Seattle where leaves are just appearing on trees and shrubs. The patio cushions are still very much indoors!
I'd rather be planting than pruning but feel confident on pruning most things except Japanese maples. I'm terrified I'll condemn some beauty to the burn pile! I also dread pruning our (adopted, orphaned, rejected) espalier apple trees. Somehow their branches NEVER look like the pictures!

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Chapman

I enjoy pruning too, but like you, not the dealing with the prunings part. I have a small shredder, but it only takes branches up to 1 inch, and I am a bit scared of it anyway. so piles of prunings tend to, well, pile up. I'm going to look up zoysia as I've never heard of it and your lawn intrigues me.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLyn

I try to prune in the recommended manner however the secateurs often have a mind of their own. I love your garden and enjoyed your pruning tips. Dont forget there are several deciduous trees, like the Cherry for instance which has to be pruned in early Summer after the leaves have developed.

April 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

Debra... I actually paused the netflix on TV to read this post. I feel confident with roses, but not with other bushes. Having just planted new hedges out in front of my house I have to get over this fear of pruning them!

That third picture is stunning. wow.

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Excellent advice. I'm going to print this out and keep it handy because I do have some shrubs that are looking a little unruly. Does Lou come with the instructions, or do you rent him out? Just thought I'd ask. :)

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNitty Gritty Dirt Man

Very informative. I would also add that pruning when you're angry is usually a very bad idea unless you actually meant to butcher the shrub. It rarely ends well.

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

I don't get to pruning because I never have time during the ideal early spring pruning period then I am afraid to prune later. It would be good if your burning bush doesn't have berries because it is so highly invasive.

Hi Deb, Great post with wise, clearly laid-out rules. My forsythia at the back of the garden failed to bloom for a couple of years, then I gave it a really good pruning. Result: Flowers in abundance! Now I need to tackle the monster forsythia at the front of the house! Love the beautiful vistas in this post. Your garden always amazes me!

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Oh those views are stunning Deborah! I've just written about pruning aswell though the 'french way of pruning' and was thinking of your gardens. I've a few spring flowering shrubs that will need pruning once they finish flowering in about a months time.

You're right about getting the help - the worst part of pruning is always the clearing up.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRosie leavesnbloom

Really excellent advice and was so taken with reading and remembering (!) that I nearly missed your wonderful garden views.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura@PatioPatch

Great tips, and your yard looks so beautiful! For most things I have no fear and prune away with reckless abandon - except for roses. For some reason I'm still pretty timid around my new roses and am scared to make the first cuts!

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

I have garden envy! Your garden is beautiful. Love the arch of jasmine. I have a few different types of jasmine and they are one of my favorite scents, the other being lavender. Great post. Jeannine

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeannine
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