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    Pruning Tips: If You Haven’t Gone Deep with a Lopper, You Don’t Know What You’re Missing

    The author's first foray into cutting back leads to meaningful gains

    I’d never come across a scene like this before.

    Limbs everywhere. The main part of the body—what was left of it—was barely recognizable.

    I knew the victim, too. Lately it had been a shadow of its former self. But you could say that about a lot of people I knew. They didn’t deserve to be handled like this.

    What really got me was the woman. The way she knelt there in her overalls, shoving the limbs into a garbage bag, pausing only to wipe sweat from her brow.

    “Why’d ya do it?” I said.

    “It’s better this way,” she answered. “Trust me.”

    The last time I trusted someone I was eight years old and a big kid asked me if he could “borrow” my skateboard.

    A woman who could execute this kind of dismemberment and treat it like a Sunday chore—yeah, she was the last person I would trust. No matter how beautiful her garden looked.


    An aggressive prune can look like an act of violence, leaving the plant resembling a victim more than a patient, either radically thinned out or cut down to stubs.

    It’s true of gardening, and of most facets of life: People struggle to understand the value of elimination. This is a failing of human psychology. If you don’t believe it, read the April 2, 2021, edition of the esteemed journal Nature. A study in that issue concluded that people will naturally try to solve a problem by making an addition, rather than looking for a subtractive solution. 

    The study’s authors paintIn their view, this ais a fundamental problem of modern existence. This impulse to add means that humans “struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.”

    You probably didn’t need a cadre of academics to tell you that. Consumer culture convinces people they’ll be happier if only they buy that new rug, add another streaming service—or how about that yacht you’ve always wanted?

    The only people who seem to get the value of elimination are TV gangsters looking to “tie up loose ends.” And Marie Kondo. But mostly criminals.

    In the garden you don’t need to come at your problems with a gun and a grudge, only some brains and a blade. And a touch of that criminal ruthlessness.


    The wife and I are relatively new to gardening, and much of our backyard greenery is inherited. We are learning as we go. In March, looking at our shrubs and their plethora of bare branches, she turned to me with one of those hybrid statement-questions: “I think we should be pruning?”

    Embarrassing confession: My very first run at pruning was dumb and brutish, to the point where I shouldn’t even call it pruning. I snapped off dead branches with my bare hands, like some sort of Palaeolithic thug.

    The good news: I didn’t do any damage. The better news: I soon remembered that our forebears long ago engineered efficient cutting tools, and, more recently, the Internet. So I acquired some pruning shears and did some research.

    Some things I learned:

    —Dead wood is in fact a great metaphor for uselessness.

    —Discussion-board arguments over pruning can get weirdly pitched. Aggressive pruning vs. no pruning debates take on an intensity usually reserved for politics or college football. On one board some cherry tomato folks really got into it about whether pruning improves yield rates. 

    —Don’t be afraid to cut. My favorite commenter offered this encouraging advice to a timid pruner: ‘You won’t hurt them…their automatic response is to GROW!”

    That last point comes with a caveat—only certain kinds of shrubs respond well to the most severe pruning (the kind where you cut down to stubs). In fact, the whole pruning world is full of caveats. Before pursuing an aggressive strategy, you should absolutely find out what is right for your situation, with factors including time of year, the type of plant and its health. (See sidebar below.)

    Personally, as something of a minimalist, I anticipate that pruning will become one of my favorite parts of gardening. I fully embrace the idea that you can get more by cutting back.

    But I can also be a timid—when I’m making dinner for the family, the shrieks in my head seamlessly transition from, “It hasn’t cooked through and they’ll get sick” to “Now it’s overcooked and will taste horrible.” So my first pruning adventures were inevitably tentative, beginning with the removal of the branches that were dead or nearly dead, and thus a drain on the plant.

    But then I got into the thick of it. I liked making those pleasingly angled cuts a little above the bud, trusting that the plant’s natural response will not be to die, but rather to grow. I found the process to be weirdly addictive. 

    A general rule of thumb for a standard prune is that you should remove about one-third of the good wood. I found it hard to go the full one-third, because taking a healthy branch off at the bud felt wrong, even as I trusted the advice. But I continued at it, thinking back to that Nature study about underestimating the value of subtraction. It’s something to consider as you squeeze those shears: Learn to make the hard cuts, and maybe you can learn to grow.


    Bill Syken is a contributing editor for Sports Illustrated and Life.com and the author of the mystery novel Hangman’s Game.


    9 Essential Shrub and Small Tree Pruning Tips

    It feels wrong to ravish rosebuds from a mature plant, but pruning won’t ruin them. It’s actually an important step in keeping shrubs and small trees beaming, healthy and blossoming for years to come. Follow these 9 tips for trimming those tips.   —Ronen Gamil 

    1. Tool School: At the very least, you should have a quality pair of hand pruners and a seven-inch folding pruning saw. If you can spend more, add loppers and a 13-inch curved pruning saw to your toolkit.
    2. What to Prune: Think 3-Ds: dead, diseased, or damaged. Reserve your next pruning moves until after you 3-D-ed your leafy friends. 
    3. Timing is Everything: Prune spring-flowering woodies soon after their blooms fade; wait with summer bloomers until late autumn. 
    4. Get Specific: Determine the growth rate per species from a reputable source—like this bible of landscape shrubs and trees, or horticulture dot edus and orgs—to find out how long it’ll take your verdant friend to fill out after a major chop.
    5. Where to Clip: Prune about a quarter-inch above the node, which is both the intersection where two branches diverge from each other and a small bulbous knot in the branch that hasn’t sprouted new growth.  
    6. Leave Room to Grow: Woody plants are adapted to heal from pruning cuts just above their nodes. But pruning too close to, or through the nodes, overly injures the conductive tissue, while cutting further above interferes with the recovery process and leaves an unsightly stub.
    7. Don’t Be Stingy: Remove as much as a third of the biomass in one annual pruning. 
    8. What’s Up, Wood Lookin’? For small trees, cut between the branch bark ridge (line of rough bark) and the branch collar (bulby base of the branch)—basically a node but tree-size—and draw an imaginary line that will help you shape your tree’s hairdo. 
    9. Thin to Win: Aim for thinning entire stems and lateral branches to improve air circulation and sunlight filtration within. Pruning just the treetops or branch tips stimulates thin shoots that look like an inverted mop head with awkward clusters, many of which will develop weak joints.

    And as the pruning adage goes: When in doubt, cut it out!

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