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Pruning

Mid-season pruning in bear country

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June and July are prime pruning months in the landscape. As we hit mid-season, most trees and shrubs are happily outgrowing their spaces and they must be pruned back. If you missed the mid-season pruning start in your garden, you can still catch up. On large strata-multi-family-complexes, getting off to a slow start can be problematic.

This is why I was sent to do some pruning in bear country. The strata site I worked on gets frequent visits from a mother bear and her two cubs. Luckily, the noise we make with power shears keeps the hungry bears far away.

The pruning on this site was also slightly behind schedule. Take a look at the picture below and identify the problems.

 

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How many problems do you see?

 

This is a classic mid-season area full of targets.

  1. The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) isn’t completely visible which bothers the residents.
  2.  The roses are sending shoots right through the Viburnum davidii shrubsI had to cut the roses down by hand with snips which was slow but necessary.
  3. All shrubs in the background require pruning.
  4. There are weeds in the bed edges.
  5. Trees have low hanging branches.

 

So, let’s grab sharp power shears, goggles and ear protection; and let’s get to work.

 

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Better?

 

  • The Japanese maple is now visible and the debris at its base is now gone.
  • The Viburnum davidii also look better without rose spikes sticking out of them. Note that I don’t like to power shear Viburnum davidii because it inevitably shreds the stems. If you have time, hand snip out any obvious spikes without making holes in the shrubs. Rake out whatever leafy debris you can but don’t stress out. It’s hard to get everything from inside multi-stemmed shrubs.
  • The rounded snowberry shrubs (Symphoricarpos albus) in the background are now under control.
  • Weeds are now gone from the edges and the bed edges are cultivated. This makes a good impression on people walking by or parking their cars. Note that the main task for the day was pruning so we weeded only the worst areas. I think the split would be something like 85% pruning-15% weeding. This is where new landscape foremen can falter: it’s critical to get your mid-season pruning done. If the finesse work suffers for  few weeks, so be it.
  • My tree work was limited to obstruction: low branches covering shrubs or interfering with parked cars. Summer isn’t the best time to prune trees. Wait for the fall when the leaves are gone and the crown structure is nicely visible. But don’t be afraid to prune your trees if there are obstruction issues.

 

When you hit June on the West Coast you should be thinking about mid-season pruning. And if you aren’t, chances are your clients will remind you with their requests.

 

Why autopilot pruning is a bad idea

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June and early July is mid-season pruning time on the West Coast. As plants flush out people start panicking and out come hand snips and power shears. This is especially true on strata (multi-family) sites where there is limited space and nature must be harshly controlled.

Autopilot?

Successful pruning requires good knowledge of plants and an intimate knowledge of your clients’ sites. Autopilot pruning can lead to disaster. We can’t just take a run at the landscape. Why not? Because different plants have different flowering times and specific requirements. For example, I power shear Philadelphus x virginalis but not Rhododendrons.

 

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Power sheared Rhododendrons look ugly.

 

 

Owners also have their specific requirements which is why it’s important to keep detailed site notes and inform all new employees.

 

Weeping owner

 

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This weeping lilac is nicely pruned but the worker went a bit too far. You have to disconnect your autopilot and think about the plant’s growth habit. It’s OK to keep any weeping branches from touching the ground but it’s a mistake to eliminate the weeping habit.

When the owner came home, her lilac wasn’t weeping anymore but she was. And the worker learned a good lesson.

 

Mind the gap

 

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Last year I was sent to this site to help with pruning. How would you prune this area?

Incorrectly thinking the small Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken‘ in the middle had to be rescued, I expertly shaved both Prunus lusitanica hedges. Minutes later I got a lecture from the owner: he was hoping the two Portuguese laurels would become one. I had no idea. One year later they’re getting closer but I still think the small laurel in the middle is thinking….WTH?

 

Conclusion

Successful pruning requires good plant and site knowledge. When owners have weird habits and requests make note of them and inform any new staff. If you learn a good lesson the hard way then learn from it and move on. The shrubs will grow back.

 

 

Eliminating early summer obstructions in landscapes

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I love the early summer season. The weather is nice and the landscape is lush green. But with the new lush green growth come issues. People start panicking and assaulting their busy green workers with requests.

And often the requests turn out to be minor issues, easily solved with a bit pruning. For any bigger requests, write them down and do them on your next visit.

Let’s take a look at some recent examples.

 

Mailbox crisis

Last week I was approached by an elderly gentleman who clearly wasn’t impressed by the mailbox Clematis. The vine interfered with the pick up of his junk mail so he asked me to take care of it. Sure. The whole operation, not counting clean-up blow, took me about ten minutes.

 

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To an elderly resident this is a crisis.

 

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This should do.

 

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Not a bad show for a mailbox kiosk.

 

Gate

 

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Again, this is hardly a disaster. Plus, the Hydrangea is blooming nicely. But to the lady living in this unit this is a major annoyance because she has to push the gate open. And as she does so the gate bounces off the plant and back into her body.

Luckily, I was on site helping out and took care of it right away. Always do this if it doesn’t interfere with your day plan. Of course, I did warn her that she would lose some of her flowers. No big deal. She didn’t care.

 

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All done! Problem solved.

 

Signs

 

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Signs are posted for a good reason; to warn or inform, not for fun. And again, this was a quick fix with my hand snips. The dogwood shrub (Cornus) can also be power sheared but I prefer nice precise cuts.

 

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This was an easy two-minute fix.

 

As plants push out new growth in early summer you can expect to get some interference. Usually it’s not the disaster people make it out to be. So take care of it right away if possible. All of the examples above were quick fixes and the residents appreciated it. Always make your clients happy!

 

Why I love hand-pruning

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I love hand-pruning! It’s quiet and usually it leads to soft-looking shapes unlike harsh and noisy power shearing. It also allows you to feel the foliage and think about other issues as you work. Below I discuss two winter hand pruning examples.

Privet shape

I was beaming inside and out when I was asked to hand prune potted privets (Ligustrum japonicum) by two residential tower entrances. All of a sudden, a routine maintenance day turned into joy!

I pulled out my Felco 2 hand pruners and went to work. Incidentally, always try to use good tools for pruning. Cheap hand pruners could produce cheap looking shrubs.

My job was to snip out the light green new growth and still leave the privets natural looking. It’s hard to achieve this with power shears which shred the foliage and make the plant look too tight. A more natural form is preferable in this case.

 

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Note the light green new growth.

 

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All done and still natural looking. This kind of work is like therapy.

 

Laurel fix

Another easy hand pruning job involves fixing laurels (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’) after power shearing. Because power shears can only work at one level there is always some shredding visible afterwards. Fixing this is another beautiful hand pruning job.

 

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Notice the inevitable shredding that goes along with power shearing.

 

Find the worst shredded parts and hand snip them out so the wood blends in more. Always try to cut just above a leaf node so the leaves cover up the cuts. The laurel will look better than it did post power shearing.

 

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Conclusion

Hand pruning can be relaxing and almost feel like therapy. I love the quiet snipping and the resulting soft shapes. Power shearing tends to be harsh and noisy. When you shred laurels with your power shears, take the time to snip out the ugliest looking stems.

It feels like fall when cedar pruning starts

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It always feels like fall when cedar pruning season starts. Cedar pruning is usually written into landscape maintenance contracts and it starts in fall; it can run into the New Year easily depending on site size and work load but normally the goal is to get everything sheared before Christmas.

 

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All you need: a ladder and good, sharp Stihl power shears.

 

First day

Last week I had my first full cedar pruning day of the season, cheered on by patches of Rudbeckias still holding on to summer. Just like me.

The line I was pruning covered enclosed patios and it was slower than usual because some owners have incredibly cluttered patios. And, of course, I didn’t have the right of way so I had to be careful not to damage anything.

 

The set-up

To properly top cedars a ladder is mandatory. I also used two sets of Stihl shears: one short model for tight spots and one extendable unit for topping. Remember to sharpen your blades before starting your cedar pruning season. Sharp blades glide through the foliage and give you a nice cut. Dull blades slow you down and leave little strands sticking out. Try to avoid this by sharpening your blades.

Unless your truck is nearby, always bring a jerry can with mixed gas to avoid unnecessary walking. It wastes valuable shearing time.

I also keep my water bottle handy.

No robots

Never approach cedar shearing like a robot. On this day I had to recall that patio owners value their privacy so I sheared the sides in a straight wall line, except where there were obvious deliberate undulations in the hedge.

The tops are usually hit much tighter for a nice tight laser line.

Just remember NOT to prune between the gaps because the owners want the cedars to grow into the gaps and thereby give them the privacy they crave so much.

Once in a while step back and check on your top line to make sure your laser isn’t off.

 

Clean-ups

Don’t go cheap on clean-ups. You can expect to do some hand cleaning off the tops of plants and outdoor patio furniture because cedar debris is fine. But don’t stress about the small stuff; use a blower for the final round and put all pots and furniture back.

Yes, shearing all day can be hard on your muscles but you get the satisfaction of seeing great looking cedar hedges.

Have some fun with it.

 

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All done: there’s a decent top line and the sides are still green. No pruning happened between individual plants because only solid hedges provide solid privacy.

 

How to please Block Watch with your pruning

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It’s always a good idea to ask yourself why you are pruning. In this blog post we’ll examine pruning ordered by Block Watch.

I’m not completely familiar with Block Watch but I know that volunteers keep their eyes open in their neighbourhood for any suspicious activities. And that includes overgrown trees and shrubs where they cause obstruction issues, block lights at night and could potentially provide cover for criminals and perverts.

So that’s how I ended up pruning two frequently used staircase areas.

 

Dogwoods

 

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Before.

 

This isn’t anything shocking at mid-season. The shrubby dogwood (Cornus) is encroaching into the walkway so I simply power-sheared it back into submission. Now all passersby can get through unmolested by vegetation and any criminals lurking in the shrubbery should be easy to spot. There are also several daylilies (Hemerocallis) that now have some room like the one visible in the bottom left corner.

Since it’s a bad idea to put power-shears in the ground, use hand snips to fix any missed and protruding branches. The same goes for any ugly, shredded stems. Proper raking and weeding should be done before a courtesy blow.

 

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After shot before clean-up blow.

 

Sumac

 

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Before.

 

Again, this doesn’t look so bad unless you use this staircase at night. The sumac tree (Rhus typhina) blocks light from reaching the stairs.

So I pruned branches away from the light pole and from above the stairs. But there was a lot more to do here.

Sumac likes to send suckers up so I had to hunt them down and remove them because the last thing we need here is more mature sumac trees. I also removed dead branches.

Then I snipped roses and Rhododendrons, plus I pinched off the old spent flowers for a cleaner look. It’s a time consuming activity but it can be done on smaller specimens to achieve a cleaner look. Just make sure you don’t pinch off the new buds.

Weeds and cultivation were the last things on my list before end of the day clean-up blow.

 

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After shot. The lamp is clearly visible.

 

 

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Rhus typhina distinctive flower spike.

 

Always ask yourself WHY you are pruning. This blog post shows the importance of clear high-profile staircases and night time light penetration.

Hydrangea horror shows to avoid

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Hydrangeas are beautiful workhorses in our West Coast landscapes. Healthy Hydrangeas reward us with lots of beautiful flowers, many of them in big mop heads. I’m so used to seeing them I don’t even take pictures of them every season.

Lately, I’ve been running into Hydrangea horror shows and so I thought this whole thing begged for its own blog post.

 

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Hydrangeas come in all sorts of colours and we love them all.

 

Pruning

 

When it comes to pruning, we can follow the same general rule: prune after flowering. Some people leave the spent flower heads on all winter so they have something to look at. Add a bit of frost and you have a nice show in your winter garden.

Alas, strata landscape bosses like everything tidy so the flowers are deadheaded and the overall size of each shrub is reduced. The key is not removing the old second year canes on which the current year flowers emerge. There are some varieties that flower on all canes but most follow this rule.

If you remove too much of the old second year cane, all you will get next season is greenery. Flowers won’t come until the second season.

This is where problems arise. Homeowners torch their Hydrangeas almost to the ground and when the shrubs fail to flower in the following season, the frustrated owners hack them back. And so it goes until I correct them.

 

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The owner hacked back his Hydrangea and most of the old canes went missing.

 

Landscapers are also guilty of taking too much old wood in their struggle to manage shrub sizes inside strata complexes. Strata unit owners notice when their favourite Hydrangeas fail to flower. I made this mistake early in my landscaping career and I still remember the old lady complaining to my manager about her missing flowers. And I never forgot that lesson.

 

 

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Not much of a show, is it? I’m almost certain these shrubs were cut back too much last year. You can expect flowers next season.

 

I saved the worst example for last. This is a high-profile walkway and the strata complex’s Facebook group lit up with negative comments soon after this pruning job. And for good reason.

The timing is all wrong because these Hydrangeas are flowering nicely. Why remove flowers at their peak?

The other problem is the severity of the pruning job. I would have at least left some green or alternatively, removed entire canes. Looking at severed canes while the rest of the shrub is still intact and flowering is a bit weird.

 

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It would be best to wait until the flowers fade and then remove maybe the top third of each cane, roughly 2-3 buds down. When you do this, you can also select the 1-3 biggest canes and prune them right down at ground level. Otherwise the old wood accumulates; what we want is nice straight canes growing out of last year’s wood.

 

Conclusion

So please remember that Hydrangeas flower from canes growing on second year wood. If you cut back the older canes too hard you will only get green foliage the following season and your clients will wonder what happened to their annual flower show.

Prune your Hydrangeas after flowering and cut back your canes down by 2-3 buds. That should guarantee another flower show next year and that’s why we plant Hydrangeas in our landscapes.

If your Hydrangeas aren’t producing flowers this season then I would be willing to bet that your pruning last year was too harsh.

Pruning 101: consider shrub peak flowering before pruning

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Today I found out about an interesting pruning “mishap” from which we can learn several lessons. It starts out like many other mid-season pruning jobs with extendable power shears and fully flushed out shrubs. The foreman went in and pruned everything, especially off the tops.

But there is a glitch. You can’t treat all of your shrubs the same way because different species grow and flower differently. This is another clear illustration of the importance of plant identification. It’s crucial knowing a little bit about all of your shrubs on site.

And keep in mind the rule: it’s normally best to prune after flowering.

Home gardeners

Home gardeners look out at their gardens all year, season after season and they enjoy their flowering shrubs. When you come in and eliminate their one annual flower show, they get angry. Beware of home gardeners!

So, this blog post covers three shrub species: Callicarpa bodinieri, Philadelphus and Buddleja davidii. Only the Philadelphus was past its flower peak which normally runs from June to July on the West Coast. In this landscape example the shrub was clearly past its flowering peak and therefore a reasonable target for pruning.

 

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Power-sheared Philadelphus

 

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Philadelphus flower example

 

Unfortunately, the other two shrubs were poor pruning targets for July. Buddleja davidii flowers from June to September and clearly the few remaining flowers after pruning are still immature.

 

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Look closely and you will see a few developing flower spikes.

 

So the gardeners know they will miss out on their usual flower show which would have looked something like this.

 

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Buddleja davidii flower spike.

 

The third shrub, Callicarpa bodinieri, was by far the worst choice for July pruning because it reaches its flowering peak from June to August AND the flowers turn into showy purple fruits from September to October. I personally find the fruits much nicer than the flowers but we have to keep the flowers on to get fruit.

Luckily, the Callicarpas aren’t as imposing as the other two shrubs so only their tops went missing. But of course for veteran home gardeners any dimished flower show is apocalypse.

 

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Callicarpa bodinieri flower

 

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Callicarpa bodinieri fall fruits.

 

Clean-up

To make matters worse, the clean-ups were rough and many other plants got trampled during the procedure. We’ve already covered pruning debris clean-up in an earlier blog. Clean-ups must be perfect to match perfect pruning.

 

Conclusion

This was an extremely useful lesson showing how:

a) pruning must be timed for after peak flowering times

b) all shrubs can’t be pruned at the same time as if they were the same species

c) pruning debris clean-up must be perfect just like the pruning work and care must be taken not to destroy other garden plants during clean-up

d) plant identification skills are extremely important, don’t stop learning

The one key for mid-season pruning success

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Late June on the West Coast means mid-season pruning and, depending on site size, there can be a lot of pruning to do. Especially woody shrub pruning. And while landscapers do a great job with pruning, I am finding that the clean-ups often don’t match the beautiful precise pruning work. If you want mid-season pruning success then the key is great clean-up.

 

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Pruned and cleaned-up Japanese holly (Ilex crenata).

 

Mid-season pruning 101

Most of the mid-season pruning involves shrubs which tend to push out new growth and make people panic. They also tolerate power shearing fairly well. One example is pictured below. Cornus (dogwood), Symphoricarpos albus (Common snowberry) and Ribes. All three are shrubs and tolerate shaping with power shears. Give them a few weeks and they will start to look like they were never pruned.

 

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Left to right: dogwood, snowberry and currant

 

For best results, always use good quality power shears with sharp blades. If you have lots to do, always bring a jerry can with you and keep it close by so there isn’t any unnecessary walking. Ear and eye protection is mandatory and I’m assuming everyone is always protected.

 

Exceptions

If you know your site well then this won’t be a problem. But when I prune on a new site for the first time I always ask about exceptions because they do exist. For example, some clients prefer more natural looking shrubs so you have to prune gently. Other exceptions are laurel hedge tops to be left almost untouched because they block parking stall car light beams.

 

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The KEY

I can not overemphasize this: great clean-up work that matches the pruning job is a must. I often have to go behind our crews and double-check because inevitably two big problems arise.

One problem is debris left on top. It looks fine on your pruning day but one week later you start noticing brown branches on top of green shrubs and hedges. And your clients notice, too. So always train your crews to pick debris off the tops.

 

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Note the debris left on top of the shrub. It will look way worse once it dries out and turns brown. Always check the tops after pruning.

 

Another problem is clean-up raking. This is where many workers struggle because they have to clean-up really well without removing too much soil; and they have to reach into tight spots which often gets very old. And quickly.

Again, it’s the foreman’s job to double-check before workers move on.

The ultimate sin is skipping clean-up altogether, say, in tight spaces between shrubs. There is no easy way to do the clean-up. It must match the pruning job.

Below are some examples of finished clean-up jobs. Yes, finished. It’s obvious the workers skipped the clean-up and the foreman didn’t check. The effect is horrific; it’s not even close to average when what we need is world class.

 

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Judging from the piles on the ground, this section was completely skipped.

 

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I have no idea how this pile got missed.

 

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Another “finished” section. Yes, it’s tedious but it must be done.

 

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Corrected.

 

 

Conclusion

Mid-season pruning can be extremely demanding, especially when sites are huge. The key to mid-season pruning success is perfect clean-ups. Nothing can be skipped and the aim should always be to match the clean-up with your pruning job quality. Aim for world class!

Can you really machine gun your rhododendrons?

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June on the West Coast means mid-season pruning and on large strata (multi-family) sites there can be a lot of it. So we’re busy power shearing shrubs and making sure the clean-ups are as good as the pruning.

Shrubs like dogwoods, snowberries and currants are easy to power shear into shapes because they’re fairly soft and they grow back very quickly. Almost too quickly.

 

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Left to right: Cornus, Symphoricarpos and Ribes, all are easy to power prune.

 

 

But what about rhododendrons? Can you really power shear rhodos like the other shrubs? I witnessed this recently and I don’t think it’s a good practice. I know, there is often very little time for mid-season pruning on large sites. It’s almost stressful to get everything under control and looking decent. But still, compared to the other shrubs rhodos are like the one-percenters. They give us a great show when they’re in bloom, they’re woodier and they deserve better treatment. I say spend the extra time on them.

 

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Not a bad show.

 

Also, unlike the shrubs mentioned above, they don’t grow as quickly. There is no need to rush rhodo pruning. I’m convinced that if you want a good-looking rhodo in your garden you must hand-prune it. Keep your power shears for softer shrubs.

Take a good look at the rhodo below. This is the finished product before clean-up and I can’t say I would recommend this approach to anyone.

 

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I hate the look of this because there are too many “sticks” and shredded woody branches poking out.

 

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This specimen was power-sheared along with the other shrubs which I believe was a mistake. Note the shredded wood and branch ends poking out. It’s not pretty.

If you take a bit more time you can prune it properly. First, remove any dead wood. Then, check for any nasty crossing and rubbing branches. After that, remove any branches that are touching the ground.

If you’re worried about height then clip off the newest growth with your snips. And if you have even more time, hand pick the spent flowers carefully without damaging the new buds. By taking extra time for rhodo pruning you can shape it nicely without creating unsightly wood forks.