Project Green Thumbs: Prune shaming

One of the “heavenly bamboo” nandina plants which recently took up residence in our yard and will need some pruning at some point. (Check out photos of the Back 40 revamp.)

“Oh that lavender looks terrible,” our landscaper Gene lamented, not really realizing he was talking to the chief lavender abuser.

He wasn’t lying. The poor overgrown shrub looked bushy and out of control, a result of busy-ness and lazy pruning. As I promised to prune our new plants and shrubs appropriately, I considered what has been the most counter-intuitive element of gardening I’ve learned in the last six years: Hacking away perfectly good foliage will make lots of plants, shrubs and trees thrive. If you do it right, anyway.

Illustration by Susan Carlson.
Photo from This Old House.

Although I’ve got the basic theory–something to do with hormones and trimming sending signals to the plant that make it increase its growth–the idea of “cutting back” and “dead heading” and pruning has confounded me over the years.

Part of the trouble is that proper pruning depends on the plant, shrub or tree, your goals, and the time of year. For old shrubs like my gardenias, it’s best to wait until the winter when they’re dormant and then remove a selection of the largest branches. Then again plants like tomatoes and basil require constant care for maximum growth, but don’t whack back too much or you’ll likely kill the plant. And you must be careful where you cut, too. Imprecise snips can result in branches emerging at funky angles or flowerless shrubs if you accidentally go shears-happy on the buds before they bloom.

With 60-something new green things recently planted in our yard, I’m looking on our now-beautiful Back 40 with slight trepidation. But luckily, there are lots of resources available to help me prune like a pro, and you, too!


Other Green Thumbs insights:
Tips, tricks and warnings for growing tomatoes
Front yard veggie gardening
The number one rule of gardening
The pursuit of perennial curb appeal
Domestic bliss
Aerobic gardening dos and don’ts
Garden pests and problems

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