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Pruning

Adventures in shrub pruning

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What’s your goal?

Why are you pruning? What are you trying to accomplish? It’s important to get this right with your client’s help before you start pruning. Inform your clients what the resulting shrub will look like after pruning.

This will help you avoid the following embarrassing situation. A landscaper in the United States was asked to prune shrubs next to a building. So he did it.

Before pruning.

If it was me I would use power shears to give the shrub some shape back by removing the new spiky growth.

Instead, this happened…..

After pruning.

This isn’t pruning, this is, technically speaking, renovation pruning. Like you’re starting over. I could see how the client would freak out. Although, I’m sure the shrub will flush out again with new growth. It’s not fatal, unless heat stress kills the shrub.

Rhododendron renovation

Renovation pruning.

On this project it was clear from the beginning that the client would see stumps with latent buds. Once the buds pop, the Rhododendron will green up. Period. No confusion.

Reduction pruning

Reduction pruning means the size of the shrub is significantly reduced but it still looks green. Like a normal shrub. Just smaller.

Here the goal was 50% reduction to allow for better visibility from vehicles.

Before
Reduced and still green.

It should be noted that on this project the clients were ecstatic. That’s what we want. Our goal was clear and mutually agreed upon before we started pruning.

Typical mid-season pruning

Let’s see an example of typical mid-season pruning. I think this is what the client above expected to see.

This dogwood (Cornus) just needs a trim.
All done.

This dogwood shrub still has its shape and the walkway is clear for pedestrians. If you require loppers, you’re doing more than mid-season pruning.

Conclusion

Mid-season, reduction and renovation pruning jobs accomplish different goals so make sure you know what your client wants from you. Then over-deliver.

Security through shrub pruning

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Start with why

Always start with why. Why are you pruning your shrubs? What’s the goal? In this blog post we cover pruning for increased security.

Left: new level; right: existing level.

The owners living behind this yew (Taxus) hedge were concerned about degenerates entering the gated complex, hidden by the hedge. And, while I don’t have any neighborhood crime statistics to share with you, the job was fairly easy.

Procedure

The new desired hedge level was marked with tape which made it easy. I used power shears and made a line along the front and then back. In step two, I used loppers to take out the biggest wood. You can try to use your power shear blades but it’s difficult and the wood gets chewed up. Use loppers.

The key is to lop out the middle stems slightly below the new top level so they aren’t visible when you drive by. The hedge will green up next year.

All done!

Sight lines

Now that we had made it harder for perverts to enter the site undetected, we turned to driving sight lines.

Before picture. Poor visibility from vehicles.

This Rhododendron hedge made it hard for people driving to and from the gate to see other vehicles so we were asked to lower it by a half.

If you immediately start to worry about Rhododendron flower buds, you are correct. Rhododendron buds are set in summer, after flowering. Therefore, any pruning in December would result in lost blooms. But, safety trumps horticulture, usually.

Procedure

Note that this pruning job was reduction pruning, not renovation pruning. Renovation pruning is much harsher and leaves lots of naked woody stems. Here we wanted a green Rhododendron hedge but lower.

So, any harsh stem cuts were made inside the hedge where they are hidden. This was much harder to achieve with the far left specimen. I had to leave two naked stems. It looks weird but remember that Rhododendrons have latent buds in their stems. These swell up and pop after pruning. This is a common response to pruning, especially with rough-barked Rhododendrons. If your Rhododendrons are smooth-barked, you’re pushing your luck.

All done. Reduced by half and thinned out.
Reduced by half and thinned out for improved visibility. The shrub will flower next year but not as furiously.

Gold star

Later that morning, the owner across the street opened up her garage and beamed at us. She loved our reduction pruning job. We reduced the shrub size roughly by half while still keeping it green and preserving some flowers. Gold stars!

On pruning abused plum trees

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Topped plum tree

Topped plum tree with suckers

Well, this happens all the time. To reclaim his view, the neighbor “pruned” my client’s plum tree without asking. You can see the previous harsh cuts because that’s where all of the suckers originate. It’s a normal response by the tree and now, instead of one branch, we have many new suckers.

Pro tip: don’t top trees!

Now, months later, there is a new owner next door and was she ever excited to see me! This will be our annual dance from now on.

Is it hopeless?

Are topped trees doomed? Not necessarily. I pruned above the previous cuts and took out most of the suckers. I left some higher as new leaders, and some just below as subordinates. That’s the procedure: establish new leaders, subordinates and eliminate the rest. This way the tree will regain it’s “natural” shape.

Option two is to eliminate all of the suckers every year, which resembles pollarding. You can save the branches and keep your family warm in winter; or learn basket-weaving.

Next winter, I will do more corrective pruning on this tree.

Better, but I will do more on this tree in 12 months.

Bonus!

As soon as I started pruning this plum tree, the new neighbor came out in homely sweat pants, smiling. Then, across the street came a nicely dressed lady, still holding the keys to her Land Rover; and very new to the neighborhood. Clearly, her family up-sized to a nice corner lot house.

As we walked around her garden, two workers moved what appeared to be an extremely heavy safe over the lawn to the back of the house. Right there I knew it, they could afford me!

Two days later I was hired to prune their maples and cedar hedges. Bonus!

Conclusion

Don’t top trees! Trespassing on your neighbor’s property to top trees is even worse. If you google tree topping, you will see a long list of negative consequences.

If you want to improve previously topped trees, keep some of the new suckers as new leaders, cut others shorter as subordinates, and eliminate the rest.

Winter tree pruning 101

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Why are you pruning?

Before you start hacking your prized trees, ask yourself why you are pruning. Then, once you’re clear on your pruning goals, go for it. And always use sharp tools.

The winter is great for tree pruning because the trees are dormant and, with the leaves gone, we can nicely see the full tree crown.

Remember the 3-point cut

Just to review, all decent-sized branches should be pruned out using the three point cut. The first cut is an undercut; the second cut is a few inches above your first cut; this is where most of the wood will drop to the ground. The third cut completes the procedure without leaving a nasty stub that would die and potentially invite disease into the tree.

Why not just make one cut and save time? Because you risk damaging the bark as the branch shears off before you complete your cut.

1. undercut
2. second cut just a few inches over the first cut; get ready for the branch to drop!
3. final cut to clean things up; don’t leave stubs.

Branches to eliminate

Let’s take a look at some examples of branches I couldn’t tolerate and had to eliminate. When tools are available, I stop what I’m doing and take care of these offending branches right away. Otherwise, people forget and things get worse. Let’s not do that.

Broken branches are an obvious example and should be pruned out immediately. They look awful and there is always the possibility of diseases entering the tree.

I know, it’s not a huge branch but it looks awful. When I walk by and see this, I’m close to breaking out in a rash. I don’t tolerate broken branches on my trees and neither should you.

I used a pole pruner to remove this branch.

Take a minute to study this picture and find the offending branch. Found it? It’s the branch growing from the middle left down over the garage. Downward pointing branches affect the crown structure so remove them to get a nice looking tree.

This sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) branch had to go since I couldn’t properly access the cedar hedge (Thuja occidentalis) with my power shears. It also runs through the hedge which is a no no, plus it will shade out the hedge. Any branch touching a building gets insurance agents excited. Branches like this have to go.

Rubbing branches should also be removed. Here I removed the lower branch because it was growing at a huge angle.

Conclusion

This winter, check over your trees and see if they require any corrective pruning. Eliminate any broken, dead, rubbing, crossing or interfering branches with proper cuts. Unless your branches are very small, always use the three-point cut to prevent bark damage.

Make a few cuts every year for great looking, healthy trees. Call, if you need help!

Hydrangea massacre

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Slow down

Power shears have their place in landscape maintenance work, especially now in winter when we have miles of cedar hedges to shear. But in this blog I will build a case for slowing down and considering your targets.

Now, I know that home gardeners have tons of time for their gardens and some even prefer not to prune their Hydrangeas until spring. When frost hits the spent Hydrangea flowers the result can be stunning. Definitely worth a picture.

Things are different in commercial landscape maintenance where there is pressure to get lots done in a day. That’s why some landscapers aren’t shy about massacring their Hydrangeas with power shears. But are they really saving time? I think not.

Massacre post-mortem

Power shearing Hydrangeas shreds the woody tops, leaving them looking rough. And there are other problems. For example, the sheared bits are launched all over the place; and the beheaded flowers gets lodged inside the shrubs. The clean-ups are annoying and time-consuming.

Shredded bits get launched all around the shrub.

Now, consider hand pruning. Here you hold on to each cane before snipping at the correct height and just above a pair of buds. The snipped top stays in your hand so you eliminate time-consuming clean-ups. Simply put the eliminated cane top into your green waste bin or tarp and move on.

Power shearing isn’t targeted so it can damage existing buds or leave long stubs. This isn’t how we achieve a good-looking flowering shrub.

Power sheared Hydrangea. Note the flowers lodged inside the shrub.

Shredded plant tissues look awful

A major limitation

One major drawback of using power shears on Hydrangeas is that you can’t take out the biggest canes; or at least not easily. It’s always a good idea to take out 1-3 of the biggest canes every year. This keeps the shrub looking good with mostly younger straight canes. Power shearing can’t accomplish this step.

Every year eliminate 1-3 of the biggest canes.

Peace, not massacres

Power shearing Hydrangeas in a rush means you miss out on quiet gardening work. I love hand snipping because it’s quiet and allows me to touch the shrub. It’s almost peaceful and it doesn’t generate any air or noise pollution. Turn off your power shears and prune your Hydrangeas by hand.

What landscapers do in winter

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Winter work

Every year I get asked one question: what do you do in winter? And the answer is cedar shearing. Miles of cedar hedging. In all kinds of weather.

Classic winter shot.

Always start with sharp shears. I detest shearing with dull shears so much, I carry my own set with me every day. Using dull shears is extremely frustrating: it’s slow and the tops get all shredded. Sharp shears fly through the cedar and leave the top looking razor sharp. Trust me.

Bonus: Thuja plicata hedges give off an extremely pleasant odor when cut!

When you take lunch, bring your shears with you and put the cover back on. Keep it on when the shears are in the truck to eliminate accidental cuts.

Try to lubricate your shears after every use.

Keeping a full jerry can close by is also mandatory. Walking back to your truck to re-fuel is extremely inefficient. Bring your fuel with you and move it along.

If you’re lucky, your company uses Aspen fuel which is much cleaner than regular gas.

Morning coffee is optional, of course, but I like to warm up in the morning. Your water bottle, however, is a must. Keep it close by and re-hydrate as you prune. If you do it right, you will sweat and your cheeks will be rosy.

Procedure

Always prune bottom to top, not the other way. This way you minimize the chances of putting a hole in your hedge. And remember not to go too hard on the sides: the hedge should still be green when you’re done.

The tops should be pruned harder so we have a nice laser line on top.

The sides are still green and the top is sharp!

Before you start a new hedge, consider how much time you’ll need for pruning and clean-ups. Don’t rush this work. I prefer to start a new hedge fresh on a new day.

Great cedar pruning is an acquired skill over several seasons. Start on lower-profile hedges and watch more experienced landscapers. Eventually you’ll get to do high-profile hedging at entrances and club houses.

And the best news? There is no shortage of work! And that is great news during a nasty pandemic.

Obstruction pruning

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Favor for friends

It’s always nice to get a call from your friends during a pandemic. It allows you to catch up and feel some sort of connection. It’s even nicer when you know your buddy has extra work for you.

Now, normally this would be a headache because my buddy, let’s call him Sam, lives deep in Vancouver. And driving for forty-five minutes to do a small job isn’t appealing. Sam knows this so he pays me well.

So, I solve his problem and I earn some extra money during a sketchy pandemic time. With COVID-19 raging on, it would be insane to turn down extra work on a Saturday. Take the work while you can because it’s not very clear what 2021 will bring.

The problem

Sam’s bamboo badly encroached into the sidewalk and it was only a matter of time before a neighborhood Karen complained about it. So I drove in on a sunny Saturday morning to take care of it.

Incidentally, I waited until ten o’clock to start. Municipalities have different by-laws but ten o’clock is a standard start time for Saturdays. Always be careful in mature, well-to-do neighborhoods.

The shearing and clean-up took me exactly fifteen minutes. I used sharp shears and the green waste filled up one tarp. Then there was some touch up work with my hand snips where the bamboo encroached onto the sidewalk.

I did my clean-up blow quickly with the smallest gas-powered backpack blower, designed for noise-sensitive environments. By ten thirty the street was full of landscapers with heavyweight Stihl blowers on their backs. Of course!

Later, Sam stopped by the house to check things out and we had enough time to catch up, with masks on. Then I casually confirmed that he would be taking care of my invoice.

Pro tip:

Do side-gigs on project basis, not by the hour. For this job I quoted a price based on pictures. The actual length of the job is my problem. Sell your service, not man-hours!

Much better.

Obstruction in the landscape is a problem that shouldn’t be ignored. Eliminate the obstruction as soon as you can.

Summer pruning fun

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Why prune?

Before you take out your shears and hand snips, ask yourself: why am I pruning in late summer? Usually, obstruction issues are the worst and should be done as soon as possible.

For example, I was asked to prune a dogwood that was encroaching into a walkway. That’s a problem and it’s easy to solve.

Other pruning like perennial and shrub cutback isn’t as critical and could be delayed if time is short.

Let’s take a look at some examples of my work.

Obstruction

Shrubs encroaching onto walkways get residents excited so it’s best to do this kind of pruning as soon as possible. In this case it was a dogwood shrub. Don’t forget to hand pick the branches off the top; they will be noticeable once they dry up and turn brown.

Before
After

Another pressing case involved Rhododendrons encroaching onto a patio. This patio is well-used by the family and their friends and the rhodos become annoying in late summer.

Always snip rhodos by hand because power shears just shred the plant tissues and corrections have to be made by hand anyway. This job didn’t take very long; it’s like therapy for me, hand-snipping on a sunny day.

Before
After

One serious safety issue is plant obstruction around lights. Here I used pole pruners to eliminate Red maple (Acer rubrum) branches covering a lamp along a high-profile walkway.

Before
After

Less critical pruning

It’s nice to clean-up perennials in your garden like Hostas or shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleja) and lilacs (Syringa sp). But it’s not as critical as obstruction pruning.

Spent Hosta flower spikes can be snipped out.

Lilacs (Syringa sp) flower early in the season and once the flowers fade, it’s nice to snip them out. I did this shrub last week because I don’t normally work on this site. But again, it’s not super critical.

Before

Buddleja is a borderline invasive species but it sports beautiful flowers. This specimen was growing wild making mower access a bit challenging so I took it down by half. But don’t worry. It will make a comeback soon enough.

Buddleja reduced by half.
Buddleja flowers.

Conclusion

Have some fun with late summer pruning; and pay attention to obstruction and safety issues. Always know why you are pruning and get to know your target plants. Plants are fascinating so treat them well.

Fall in love with your hand snips!

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This is a great day for posting a new blog because it’s sunny outside and it’s a great day to believe in spring on this rare February 29th. So, let’s do an easy one about hand-pruning.

Euonymus

The request

The shrub above looks perfectly fine but the strata garden representative wanted a more formal mounded shape. Of course she did! It’s a common thing on strata properties, where there isn’t always sufficient space for plants to grow, to control everything with super-tight pruning.

Time-stressed landscapers often rush in with power shears, fire them up and shred the shrub into a ball. But, there is no need, especially if you have time; and in this case I did. (The boss was safely tucked away at a meeting.)

So, instead of creating air and noise pollution, I reached for my new Felco 4s hand snips and went to work for a few minutes.

Pro tip: always carry hand snips with you on your hip safely in a sheath. There is always something to correct and improve in your garden.

First, a huge advantage of hand snipping is that your cuts are precise and the plant tissues don’t get shredded. Your sharp snips make clean, precise cuts. Power shear have a tendency to shear plant tissues.

Second, another huge advantage is that hand snipping allows you to gently stagger your cuts. This way you still achieve your mounded shrub objective but with a softer look. In addition, it’s a quiet, relaxing job. I had fun doing it and it didn’t take me very long.

Pro tip: take care of small requests right away to impress your clients.

All done!

This is the after shot: we have a mounded shrub, as requested, made with precise hand snip cuts. It was a quick, relaxing task and it didn’t create any air or noise pollution. And the boss will never know!

Pro tip: always make sure your clean-up matches your pruning. Do it well.

I hope that this blog post will inspire you to fall in love with your hand snips. Not everything has to be power-sheared. Reach for your snips and enjoy!

Hydrangea deadheading

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Do you cut off dead flowers from Hydrangeas? This is another burning question online so let’s examine it.

Bad habit

In commercial landscape maintenance workers tend to rush deadheading Hydrangeas and it’s a hard habit to break. There is absolutely no need to rush this task. Why?

The spent flowers can protect the new buds below from low temperatures and, when frost hits, the old flowers look brilliant. Once you cut them off, the show is over until summer. All you get to see is canes.

Recently, I had a client tell me to leave her spent Hydrangea flowers alone because birds like to hide in them. Ok. Done!

I think landscapers enjoy this deadheading task because it’s easy. It’s much easier than weeding and cultivating beds or worse, re-establishing deep-edges. I prefer to have something to look at in winter.

Careful!

If you must deadhead your Hydrangeas, do it carefully. Don’t cut lower than 2 to 3 buds. Since most Hydrangea plants flower on old wood, cutting too low risks removing flowers for next season.

This is where training comes in. It’s important to train all workers on proper pruning techniques. It happens every year. One unhappy client asks me to remove her Hydrangea because it never flowers. It just produces green canes. What a disappointment.

So, yet again, I have to beg her to stop pruning it. Green canes without flowers means that the pruning was too severe. Now all we can do is wait for next year because the flowers appear on last season’s wood.

I used to deadhead everything on my patio and in the landscape but not this past winter. I let the birds enjoy my perennials and I made some of my co-workers angry by insisting that we leave ornamental grasses standing. And the world didn’t end. So try it. Maybe you’ll form a new habit that will help birds in winter.