Pruning shrubs ranks as one of the gardener’s most creative acts.
That might surprise those who avoid pruning as a burdensome or anxiety-ridden task, but it’s true.
At this time of the year, we prune roses and many other shrubs for just a few reasons.
The goal mentioned first, usually, is to remove dead, broken or diseased branches. That might not seem very creative, but it improves the plant’s appearance and its health.
Another important goal is to control the shape of the plant. For some observers, all plants look their best when they are left to grow naturally, but that reflects individual preferences. Some gardeners enjoy hedges around their garden’s edges; others are tickled by topiary or balmy over bonsai.
The naturalist might take an absolutist approach. Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz, a public park, is noted for its upright and fallen dead trees, the result of a debate between advocates of wildlife habitats and lawnmower-driving stewards of traditional parks.
In between the Clippers and the Defenders, are those who own a shrub that is simply too large for its space and want to prune it to allow people to pass and other plants to grow.
(Recently, I removed two enormous salvias from my garden. One had found support from a small tree, and ranged up to about twenty feet. Fortunately, a friend who maintains a multi-acre estate garden welcomed the gift of these monsters’ root balls.
I value salvias, and these were excellent specimens for a spacious site. I was glad they could be adopted rather than composted.
The pruning-to-shape goal certainly can be a creative exercise. The pruner must find a balance between the plant’s natural aesthetic and the urge to manipulate nature.
A third important goal of pruning is to stimulate growth. By examining the positions of buds and imagining what they will produce, given extra nutrition, the pruner can refine a shrubs’ shape through judicious cuts, and perhaps encourage symmetry.
Most people, deep down, welcome symmetry.
Many shrubs generate new growth from their base. Examples include salvias, hellebores (mentioned here last week) and lilacs. With such shrubs, pruning off the old growth in late winter will promote the spring growth. In this regard, the pruner is aiding the plant’s creativity.
You need just three resources to be a successful pruner. The first, as always, is a well-made, well-maintained tool. Don’t skimp!
The second is a tie between a good pruning book and practical experience, both of which help to know how to proceed.
Finally and importantly, the pruner needs the confidence to avoid timid snipping and proceed decisively.
This is the time for seasonal pruning. Dress warmly and do it now.