Friday, March 25, 2011

No More Bad Haircuts -- How to Trim Shrubs


The hiatus is over. The snow's melted, and early spring is crunch time for the gardener. Toss those seed catalogues into the recycle bin and get out the pruners and shears. The ones you were supposed to be oiling and sharpening all winter?  Yeah right. 

This may be unpopular, but lose the electric hedge trimmers.  They are to shrubs what that Sears and Roebuck electric clipper was to my younger brother's thick crop of hair. Nothing offends the gardener's design sensibility more than a shrub with a bad haircut.

Well, maybe red mulch, but that's for another day.  Unlike human locks, repeated shearing will eventually create a topheavy, unattractive mess of a plant.  Proper pruning will extend the life of a bush and produce a far more aesthetically pleasing plant. 

Everyone's had a memorable experience with an overzealous barber.  A couple weeks of baseball caps and hair gel usually get the victim through, but with shrubs, there's no quick relief. 

My big sister has always had a forward sense of style, and at seventeen, was the first on our block to sport a "shag" haircut.  Her wavy strawberry blonde hair hung in loopy layers to her shoulders.  She looked fabulous, and I begged my mother to let me copy her look.  Mom was reluctant to let her middle child cut waist  length locks but she finally relented provided I paid for the haircut myself,  out of babysitting earnings. My big sister had more resources from her job at "Albert's" a local clothing store. She went to a hip salon.






On my budget, I went to the local beauty school.  Unfortunately, the poor student who practiced on me was used to a more mature clientele.  The gal transformed my long locks into a poofy version of  Aunt Bebe's signature style.  It worked for my aunt, but was a little sophisticated for the eighth grade.   My poor mother almost fainted when I came home. She quickly recovered, fussed profusely, and insisted I pose for a picture.  My mother was so convincing that my smile in the photo is quite real.  It was only later, when my sister arrived home from work, that I received a harsh reality check as she doubled over in laughter.

At our first home, a beautiful, but vigorous juniper hedge grew along the back fence.  It provided privacy from the neighbor, but looked unruly. Envisioning a clipped English formal hedge and excited about our brand new hedge trimmer, my husband cut straight across the top and skimmed the sides.  Trouble was that the previous owners had used the same practice. When we were done, all the green was gone, and so was our privacy.  When we sold the house four years later, the view from the family room still consisted of several stick-like shrubs and that neighbor's clutter.

When shrubs are trimmed in a line horizontal to the ground, each branch end doubles, growing a second branch out of the cut.  With each subsequent swipe, the branch continues to divide, thickening the top and side layers, blocking the sun and choking back growth except at the outermost layer.  Eventually the shrub will consist of a heavy stemmed base with sporadic side growth and a "haircut" of leaves or needles at the top.  There is no design value in a scalped shrub, and it can take years to mitigate the damage.  As shrubs are a prominent part of the classic residential landscape design, either the plant has to be replaced, which is costly, or the homeowner must endure many remedial seasons which may or not be successful.  In the meantime, the curb appeal of the home is diminished.

The classic suburban "foundation" planting popular in the fifties and sixties utilized shrubbery to line the front of a home in order to cover up the lower portion, which might be concrete or a less attractive material than the upper section of the home.  Most homes have evolved away from this landscape design concept in favor of a layered or curved approach, but bushes are still a substantial part of the overall look as they add structure and volume.  If properly maintained, shrubbery can be a low cost, but attractive accent. 

The best time to shape and prune nonevergreen bushes is right after the thaw, but not when the ground is too spongy.  In the early spring, branches are not obscured by leaves and it is easy to see where the proper cuts should occur.  The important exception equals spring flowering plants like rhododendrons and azaeleas.  Leave them be until after the bloom, then trim sparingly.  It takes an entire season to set the buds and cutting back right before the bloom will prevent flowering for at least a year.  The recovery period cannot be accelerated.

With fall bloomers or nonflowering shrubs like burning bush, ninebark or spirea, spring is the time to trim.  Remember the "opposite" rule in gardening.  Always do anything significant to a plant in the season opposite  its peak blooming time.  Fall bulbs like gladiolia are planted in the Spring.  Spring bloomers like tulips and daffodils are planted in the Fall.  Same for shrubs. 

Trim hydrangea to just above the tiny new buds which have just appeared.  Cut off the dried moppy heads.  They make beautiful dried flowers for arrangements. 


Roses should be pruned back to just above the third new bud on each branch, removing the large seed pods, branches burnt by winter and sucker branches sprouting from the base.   No need to cut the whole plant back hard. 

Shrubs need shags, not flat-tops.  Cut back the plant at varied "Y-junctions"  throughout.  Make sure sunlight can get to the midsection of the plant so that the entire body will sprout growth.  Heavy overhanging branches should be cut out.  Evergreens should be thinned throughout.  The sides should be tapered inward at the top to allow sunlight to reach the bottom branches. 

No sunlight, no growth.  It's simple. 


The exception is spirea which should be "stooled" or cut back in early spring.  At least one third of the plant should be cut back shortly after the thaw.  Brave souls can go deeper.  These hardy plants are tough to injure and they sprout beautiful flowers in late spring adding significant depth to the garden.  Some varieties give a second show in the fall if deadheaded (trimming back spent blooms) soon after the show.

For dogwoods the approach is different.  Cut out one third of the branches to the base clipping out those with the largest circumference, which is the oldest wood.  Those limbs will be replaced with fresh growth, rejuvenating the plant on an annual basis.  The tips, burnt out by winter can also be trimmed.  The repetitive use of hand shears is great exercise for the arms and shoulders and far quieter and safer than a gas or electric hedge trimmer. 


The worst part of trimming is the clean-up.  It's much easier to toss a hand trimmed branch onto the tarp or into the cart than it is to get a thousand small trimmed edges out of the center of a shrub.  In the end a well trimmed shrub will last longer, look far better all year round, and bloom profusely during the season. 

We all know how good it is to experience a "good hair" day.  Folks are far more confident and carry themselves better when they feel their appearance is at its best.  Why should the garden, which is the frame for the home differ?

As for bad haircuts, even poor Ralph is not exempt.



And my darling brother now wishes he still had that crop of hair--no matter the cut!

 More Articles of Interest: 
 
Shrubbery Flubbery -- The Effect of Snow and Ice on Hedges