In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2006
Regional Report

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These desert spoons have been severely overpruned, eliminating their full, rosette shape.

Stop Bad Pruning!

I recently completed a survey from the City of Phoenix regarding their landscape maintenance practices along streets in the city. On my regular driving routes, only small sections are under the city's control, and they look pretty good. I wish some of my local HOAs and commercial developments would send me a similar survey. I'd develop writer's cramp detailing the many problems, such as irrigation that oversprays into the street, plants whose mature size is too large for the space, and my personal pet peeve -- so much bad and destructive pruning!

Botched Pruning
A month ago I was driving not far from my house and almost steered up on the sidewalk when I saw a half dozen workers busily destroying a cluster of beautiful ironwood trees. They were indiscriminately hacking the branches off, leaving stubs. In addition to being ugly, stub cuts don't allow a tree's natural healing mechanism to work. The tissue that is capable of sealing the wound is located where branches meet the trunk, not halfway out on the limb.

These ironwood trees were on a corner of HOA property and set back sufficiently from the street so that branches weren't creating a hazard for pedestrian or street traffic. Even if thinning was required, these guys hadn't heard about selective pruning. I called the HOA and left a voicemail message but didn't get a call back for hours. By then the workers -- and the tree branches -- were long gone. Perhaps I should have made a citizen's arrest: I think tree mutilation is criminal!

Just the other day, I was again greeted by dreadful pruning in a nearby shopping district. Desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) is a lovely succulent with a full rosette shape. A planting of a dozen or so had been severely pruned, leaving just a topknot sticking up. It looks like a silly little forest of pineapples. They are showing the stress of such drastic pruning (probably coupled with ineffective watering) with severe browning and dieback.

The local horticultural industry has been busy discussing these types of unfortunate pruning practices. What's the best way to educate the public and landscape crews that there's a better way? The first thing to figure out is why does anyone want a landscape full of whacked, hacked, cubed, and balled desert plants? Perhaps it is because we have such a continuing influx of new residents from regions where non-flowering sheared hedges and foundation plants, such as junipers, are the norm.

But shearing ruins the naturally graceful shape of desert plants and creates unnecessary maintenance. When asked what characteristics they are looking for in plants, most people say color and low-maintenance are important to them. Yet shearing plants eliminates blooms and requires regular upkeep! Once you start shearing, you have to do it regularly to maintain that unnatural shape. Constant trimming is expensive and creates green waste that requires disposal, yet another expense. I think that an opportunity to reduce costs should get the attention of HOA and property managers even if the aesthetics issue doesn't!

Selective pruning cuts aren't noticeable on a well-pruned tree or shrub. Unfortunately, many homeowners don't want to pay for regular maintenance service if plants don't look like "something was done." But don't pay for what you don't need. If you have desert plants that were chosen based upon their mature size, very little pruning is required. Annual pruning is usually sufficient, with perhaps some light trimming as needed. (If a plant requires regular pruning to keep it in bounds, you might want to consider replacing the plant.)

If you have a maintenance service, or are in the process of hiring one, explain specifically what you want your plants to look like. Talk with them about their pruning philosophy and how often they think your plants will need pruning. Ask if they have taken training sessions offered by Arizona Landscape Contractors' Association or Smartscape. Both emphasize appropriate pruning practices.

Equally important in our arid climate, heavily pruned plants use more water. They have to make up for lost photosynthesizing capability by pushing out new growth, which requires more water. Once established, desert plants are very water thrifty, so unnecessary pruning is a water-waster.

There are good reasons not to overprune desert plants!


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