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  • Writer's pictureMartin Ford

Pruning The Traditional Way

The present day ‘art’ of pruning evolved from fruit production skills which has managing size and maximizing production as its focus. For fruit trees and shrubs such as raspberries, most of the cutting of the plant was performed during winter dormancy when the traditional workload of spring and harvest was over.

And then when we had the luxury of being able to create gardens, we tended to want our desired plants to be a defined shape that required continual pruning to maintain the impression of formality and a sense of ‘tidy’ – a word which frequently dominates home garden visual expectations.

Consequently, traditional pruning skills were transferred to garden pruning to create aesthetic plant shapes such as hedges and to keep our garden plants smaller than is their natural desire. These traditions of when and how to prune led to the idea that pruning was best done late in the growing season or when the plant was dormant. Thus, it seemed ‘normal’ to remove a lot of the last season growth to maintain the existing shape.

As a result, the plant would naturally replace that lost growth the following year in its attempt to maximize its shape and size, a cycle that was wasteful of the plant's resources. The plant's response was to focus new growth on the outer edges of the plant.

This has had the serious consequence that, over time, continual cutting at the same place means that only smaller, lateral buds remain with which to initiate the replacement shoots each year. These smaller buds have less resistance to disease and minimal vigor – they are genetically inferior. Eventually the plant shows bare patches, sparse leaf cover and smaller flower production – all visually undesirable for a healthy garden.

So, pruning, as we learnt from others (and from books) was not only frustrating but confusing, as there seemed to be no alternative! Most woody plants would eventually go into decline due to over-pruning, except for a few species such a privet or boxwood which could withstand ‘shaping’ and so became typically used species for hedges and topiary garden features.

Perennials became popular as they ‘self-prune’ annually and so became a foundation planting because of the dieback ('pruning') that occurs naturally. And yet we still have emerging new growth to enjoy and perhaps flower to look forward to – with no concern about what to prune and with no concern about damaging the plant since the plant made the decision for us.

Shrubs and trees have large forms and live long lifetimes, all of which works well when we want a naturalized garden. The word naturalized suggests minimal pruning as we want the plants to grow tall and show off their size, but this usually requires a larger space which, in urban gardens, is not generally available.

Pruning of shrubs and trees requires planning about how we balance their limb structure. So we have to have a picture of what size and shape they will eventually be. This is easier with shrubs, as their size is accessible, and their nature is to regenerate when browsed by animals and insects in nature.

Trees require specialized pruning – the primary and most straight forward way to envisage your tree is through ‘raising the crown’. In nature, the tree knows it will have to compete for light and will therefore grow tall, and so its lower branches will become shaded and unproductive. We can anticipate this by removing lower branches and know that the plant is fine with that.

Pruning is adaptable to each plant and each scenario which asks us to learn each time. However, pruning by picking out the new shoots' growing tips is friendly and easily understood. Have a look at the blog "Pruning Without Fear" and prune by sight, using your fingertips, and see how the plants respond to this gentle persuasion and ‘conversation’ over seasons.


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