In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2011
Regional Report

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It's almost painful to see a pruning job as bad as this one.

The Art of Pruning Evergreens

Alas, my dear friend Jean is a wonderful gardener, but a terrible pruner. She doesn't have the eye for thinning an overgrown shrub or for shaping one that has grown too large for its location. Admittedly, pruning is an art, but even a blind man could see that this particular pruning job is a disaster!

Jean was very successful last year when she pruned a large escalonia back to the bone. Escallonia is a woody shrub that grows vigorously from bare wood. Since her success with that particular job, Jean has gone on to other, less forgiving plants such as the leptospermum (New Zealand tea tree) and the coleonema (Breath of Heaven). Both of these shrubs were blooming and in good shape before Jean went nutty with her clippers. I don't think they will survive the encounter and at the very least, will be maimed for the rest of their lives.

The Basics
The basic principal of pruning is to remove dead, diseased, or injured wood and finally, to prune for shape. One should always begin any kind of pruning job with sharp, clean shears.

If a shrub is overgrown, begin the pruning by taking a small portion of the plant down to the desired height, by cutting back to a lower branch junction within the interior of the plant. Cutting individual branches to the desired height is always preferable to "hedging," or clipping all the branches to a uniform length. Proper pruning cuts will be invisible and the plant will appear as if nothing has interfered with its natural growth habit. Bad pruning, on the other hand, can turn a lovely garden into a brutal war zone.

Recovery is Possible
Some plants can recover from an ugly cut, just like a person who gets a bad hair cut. However, plants need a certain amount of foliage to support the roots. If too much is cut away, the plant cannot manufacture the food it requires to survive. An evergreen plant will survive if you remove no more that 25 percent of the total foliage. Take away any more than that and you risk losing it.

We all have seen trees in nature that have been stressed by wind or fire and have survived in a diminished form. Sometimes that form is unique and beautiful. However, in the garden it's not usually what we want to achieve.

How to Start
When you prune an evergreen shrub, look at the complete shape of the plant before you begin. Decide what you want to accomplish -- do you want the shrub lower or thinner or more narrow? Next, make your first cut at the desired finished size. Once you make that first cut, look closely and examine the area. Is there any foliage left below the cut? Is the branch sturdy enough to support new growth? Try to imagine what the finished pruning job will look like.

Deciduous pruning is different and I'll discuss that in an upcoming column. And remember, no fertilizer until you begin to see new growth. You wouldn't want a large meal after surgery and neither will your "victim."

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