Bonnie Lee Appleton was a Professor of Horticulture for Virginia Tech University. She also authored The New York Mid-Atlantic Gardener’s Book of Lists.

In memoriam: Bonnie Lee Appleton

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Let’s Stop Pruning with “Shear” Ignorance
by Bonnie Lee Appleton    

This hedge of yews will never fill in again.

What’s one of the most obvious and common mistakes made in landscapes anywhere in the southern U.S.? Improper pruning or excessive shearing (though it’s stretching the definition of pruning) of shrubs. Nothing jumps out of a landscape faster than a once graceful, natural-form shrub that has been sheared into a mathematician’s delight – be it round, square, pyramidal or rectangular. From a horticultural standpoint, unnecessary, form-damaging shearing of shrubs is almost as criminal as the topping of trees.

American landscapes are being decimated by this “SSS” – Sheared Shrub Syndrome. It’s time that “SSS” be replaced by “NSP” – Natural Shape Pruning. Despite what we’ve learned from pruning research done by such notables as Drs. Alex Shigo and Frank Santamour, and the countless articles many have written about naturalistic pruning, landscapers and the public alike keep following the example set by ground maintenance people who continue, regardless of the size of the job or species of shrub, to mutilate plants.

It’s time to stop shearing plants into unnatural shapes. These are pyracantha that no longer have flowers or fruit due to this rigid shearing.

This Japanese holly has been naturalistically pruned – note the pile of clippings in front of it – and yet it still has its normal shape.

Most of us resent excessive outside or governmental regulation in our lives. However, maybe we should propose that anyone who is going to have the responsibility – no, the privilege – of pruning a tree or shrub, commercial or private, must take a lengthy course, pass an “in-the-field” exam, and be required to sign a contract with Mother Nature stating that if they don’t prune naturalistically they can be immediately converted into a juniper, Japanese holly or redtip photinia!

Considerable press has been given to why trees shouldn’t be topped, unfortunately with limited results. On the one extreme, some “arborists” (though they usually call themselves “tree surgeons” and definitely shouldn’t call themselves arborists) still practice topping, even advertising this “service” in their Yellow Page ads. On the other extreme, some cities have legally banned tree topping, and impose fines on those who continue the practice. Just as commendable, some arborists walk away from jobs if the client requests that their trees be topped.

Why has shrub shearing not raised an equal furor? Sure, certain plants “need” to be sheared – Christmas trees, topiaries, Colonial Williamsburg-style plantings and long hedges. But how many long hedges do you see in front of the average house or building?

It’s time we realize that excessive shearing is as an unhealthy practice that subjects plants to stresses above and beyond those found in the manmade landscapes into which they are planted. Continual shearing results in plants with barren centers surrounded by thin, dense layers of old leaves.

In addition, shearing is costly because it becomes a self-perpetuating chore from the day it’s started. Old growth is preserved at the expense of new, more vigorous growth. Within a month or so of each shearing another “haircut” is needed to keep new growth flushes from ruining the formal form. These restricted forms even look higher maintenance, something that certainly is not in vogue.

These junipers have been sheared into unnatural round balls that are beginning to die back at the bottom because the shearing cuts into branches that no longer have living leaves attached.

Naturalistic pruning, on the other hand, is generally only needed once, or perhaps twice per year, to give desired size reduction. Pruning once naturalistically may take longer than once shearing, but with far more shearings needed per year than prunings, naturalistic pruning is the overall economic as well as shrub saver.

Starting while shrubs are small, old stems should be selectively pruned out (to the ground or a main stem) to open the shrubs up. This thinning facilitates air circulation that helps decrease insect and disease problems. It also increases sun penetration to the shrub’s interior for added foliage production.

Almost all deciduous shrubs, and many broadleaf evergreens, can tolerate shearing into old wood devoid of leaves. Most needled evergreens such as junipers, however, will not produce new foliage on leafless old wood. As a result these sheared shrubs become eyesores composed of old sticks, stubs and dead leaves. Finally they become aesthetically worthless and end up being removed.

Occasionally shearing is necessary – as with this very long hedge.



There is a good guide to use in learning how to prune shrubs naturalistically. Photograph shrubs when they have almost reached their maximum desired sizes, then use those pictures as guides of how to prune the shrubs to the size and natural form you wish to preserve.

Perhaps if we would think, write and talk about “naturalistic pruning” as akin to “organic gardening” during this age of chemo-phobia, naturalistic pruning would become the “in thing” to do. We’d all be looked at as saints for saving the multitudes from whacking their shrubs into geometrical maintenance monsters.

If you really stop to think about shearing shrubs, it usually doesn’t make sense. Why pay nurserymen to grow particular species and cultivars of shrubs for their unique shapes and floral or fruit displays, specify them in our designs because of these characteristics, only to destroy what was originally desired? A $20 pair of shears and an hour of labor can quickly ruin a multi-thousand dollar landscape!

Stop to think about it the next time you contemplate shearing a shrub. Might it not make more aesthetic, economic and maintenance sense to leave Mother Nature’s beautiful designs alone?



These burning bushes (or winged euonymus) needed to be lowered in height and thinned out.

By naturalistic pruning, the form of the burning bushes hasn’t changed.


(From State-by-State Gardening October 2003. Photography by Bonnie Lee Appleton.)



Posted: 09/14/11   RSS | Print


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