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Cut It Out

Updated: Mar 10, 2021


Any gardener or homeowner has an aha moment when enjoying a drink in the backyard while also drinking in the surroundings. Chirping birds will draw your attention to a tree in the distance. Glancing up, the view shifts not to the bird up on the oak branch, but instead stops on the burning bushes that have taken on a massive form.

In fact, the three plants purposely planted as separate specimen, have grown so tightly together as to lose where one plant starts and another begins. Perhaps this was the intent to hide a far off eyesore, but the burning bush wasn’t meant to reach into the lowest branches of the neighboring deciduous trees. The bird has brought you to this burning bush and this burning question:“When did that burning bush get so big?”

Then there are the hurried times, the quick glimpses that bring fresh perspectives, like when returning home from walking the dog. Struggling to contain the energy of the nine-month-old 40 pound dog, that overgrown crabapple tree is hiding the architectural detail that once commanded the eye’s attention. Wayward branches, suckers, and water sprouts seemed at one time to be evidence of magnificent growth but now detract from the overall appearance of not just that window, but really the garden as a whole. As hard as cutting away living material can be, the gardener needs to embrace pruning both for the plant’s and the garden’s health.

These fresh perspectives of your house and appreciation of its curb appeal—or lack thereof— point to the crabapple tree, though beautiful when loaded with blossoms, overtaking the roofline.

Take heed of these moments and turn to pruning.

Plants need air to breathe. Stifling branches block out the sunlight. This prohibits plant growth on the inside of the plant, and can instead encourage disease to set in. A common rule of thumb, and a guiding principle I use in my own garden, is to stand back and observe a shrub and ask, “Self, would a bird be able to fly through this shrub?” Posing the question helps identify the branches that, when removed, will allow for pathways to open within the plant. Work to take out large branches first; doing so will take the smaller outside growth with it and allow for fewer cuts (and less work for the gardener).

Branches will often grow with a mind of their own, leading to crossed branches. The rubbing of the branches, though a small disturbance at first, can lead to disease introduction. One of these branches must be cut out. Identifying the points of rubbing will help inform where cuts can, and should be made. Work with quality equipment to ensure the cut is clean so the plant can heal itself. Additionally, work on dry days. This allows the plant to basically scab over before water—and all of the icky stuff dampness brings—can introduce itself into the fresh wound.

Summer seems like a good time to thin branches, but it’s not always the case. Small pruning—say 1/3 of the plant—might be wise if that plant is in my way. Really, though, it’s in the gray of winter during dormancy most plants can really take a thorough cut back. These are the gray days in which to review the previous growth and edit where necessary.

Once these reminders are in place, I can take a breath and begin trimming out the weak branches. As I thin the growth, more of the plant will be become visible. This clarity may lead to further reckoning of the work that lies ahead. Does disease lurk in the plant’s center? Will my next cut lead to positive outward growth? Will sunlight once again come to the center of the plant?

Slowly, but decisively, I can clip back to those growth points and free the plant to burst forth come spring.

Pruning is cathartic.

Pruning is addictive.

And yet, pruning can be intimidating, even to a gardener who knows what she’s facing. When faced with a plant that I know needs thinning, I need to prepare myself, to remind myself of some important facts. These rules help to guide experienced and novice gardeners alike so that the act of cutting out growth is manageable. No one savors those first attempts at cutting back a plant to nudity or pinching back a seedling so it’ll grow hardier. Understanding how the process works helps the gardener—me or you—get over the initial hesitation of a permanent cut. As Janet Macunovich, the revered and practical Michigan gardener, points out:

“If you cut a shrub back because it's just too big, and it dies,

you haven't lost anything but a plant that couldn't live by your rules.”

Once the pruning is complete, and the removed material set aside—perhaps in a tucked away corner as a brush pile small critters can enjoy—another opportunity for contemplation arises.

The gardener can see the shape of the bed and feel out the flow of the space’s design. This more open perspective can lead to further gardening questions: what is the health of the exposed soil? Is there enough mulch present? Is the mulch crowding in on the plant’s roots? Mulch volcanoes, a commonality in the suburban landscape, might become visible now that the pruning has revealed the inner root parts. Just as with a real volcano, these mulch volcanoes can damage your shrubs and trees. Give your plants’ and trees’ root flares a chance to show so they can thrive.

Funnily enough, this type of gardening, the type that draws my attention to the details and to the questions that subsequently arise also has the effect of bringing certain parts of my life into focus. Removing branches from overgrown trees gives me fresh air and energizes me to cut out the diseased branches in my own life. My life’s branches may have also grown into places that no longer feed the soul. Sometimes, the two life branches rub against one another revealing the need to appreciate what once was and bid that commitment or relationship adieu.

It is no less daunting than tackling the overgrown burning bush, but I am just as worthy of the attention.


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