Saturday 28 September 2013

Don’t be afraid to remove large branches when you prune

I prune Betula jacquemontii, magnolia and a variegated tulip tree.

I squirm when I hear gardening commentators advise “give it a haircut”. This implies to me pruning out tiny pieces at the edges. Invariably wrong, unless you are cutting a hedge! I know less confident pruners than me will want to go carefully when they prune a large shrub or small tree - you cannot put a severed branch back - but as you gain confidence a few judicious surgical removals is often all you need. It may be that a nervous pruner needs someone to stand back from the tree and advice “cut that branch there”. Pruning after all is an artistic activity and one person’s artistic triumph may be another’s horrible mess. The pruning I show you today might in your opinion, be in the latter category! The biggest compliment I wish to receive when I prune Is that no one notices I have chopped out half a tree! When the arduous task of removing the severed limbs from the site  is completed I am delighted if the casual observer does not detect any pruning at all!

When pruning a shrub or tree there are many considerations apart from the individual plant. Of course the plant should look natural, open and airy, healthy, disease free and in many cases smaller. Pruning should also accommodate the needs of other plants and overall garden design. You do not want adjacent plants to compete with each other or suffocate and hide underplanting nor cut out a lovely view. Compromises need to be made for the sake of the overall beauty of the complete garden. You do not prune a plant in isolation.

Pruning Betula jacquemontii

As a result of several veiled hints from management (Brenda) that our  ‘small grove’ of ‘jacquemontii’ were getting somewhat out of hand, last month I got out my triangular saw with it’s recently replaced sharp blade, my ratcheted loppers, my ordinary loppers (I hate the telescopic type that always seem to come loose!) and my felco secateurs. I made a few quick cuts. There were a few larger branches that were growing in the wrong direction and a few wispy growths that would eventually make crowded branches. It took thirty minutes to prune and an hour to clear all the debris.

Too many crowded small branches here.

Same tree five minutes later. Perhaps I have been a little severe 
This tree has made a strong leader that is getting too high and making it look top heavy
Note the red line where I am about to make a cut 
Just one near horizontal cut to prune the whole tree. That large cut will soon heal over. I might rub a bit of soil on the wound so Brenda does not notice! I won’t worry the cut is rather horizontal, it has sufficient slope not to collect water 

Pruning my magnolia 

My acid border was getting out of hand and the magnolia, liriodendron and cut leaf maple are fighting. I anticipate lovely autumn colour on my blueberries below but they are  overgrown, hidden and shaded .

It looks a bit crowded 

Magnolia prunings. 50% of the tree gone. The loppers and saw was all I needed.

Pruned magnolia
You can do this pruning at any time. Note the fat autumn flower buds. Only the ‘hair cutting brigade’ who remove all the flower buds each time they prune need worry that there will be no spring flowers 

Pruning my variegated liriodendron (tulip tree)

Liriodendron is very crowded and has two competing vertical leaders 

Note the horizontal cut where I have removed a rival leader. I have crown-lifted by completely removing some low branches. The liriodendron and magnolia no longer crowd each other

Pruned liriodendron. Examine the leaves and see why it is called a tulip tree

Pruning a cut-leaf alder 

The cut leaf alder at the bottom of my garden is getting very heavy and is causing dense shade. Many branches threaten to make large limbs in unsuitable directions

I have cut a lot of wood away but have retained the height of the alder
And one more clip
Just a little job. Call myself a gardener to let this vertical sucker on my small contorted hazel get so long. It needs just one snip.

I have enjoyed all that work pruning and when I burn all that wood in the farm field at the bottom of my garden I will have another barrowload  of ‘charcoal’ for my terra-preta bed!

Search my blog for pruning
I now seem to have a small collection of pruning posts. To find them all you need do is insert ‘pruning’  in my search box and see what you find. I found these.

When I finished pruning I was a little concerned that on the tulip tree and the alder I had two high exposed leaders which now lacked the protection of surrounding branches. I hoped there would be a few weeks of kind weather for them thicken in response to wind stresses. The following weekend we had sixty mph gales. I need not have worried my trees are fine.


  1. Sounds like the sort of (hatchet job) pruning task that Martyn indulges i.n

  2. My grandmother was an wonderful gardener and went to stay with my aunt when my uncle was away. Upon returning home, he called out for "his 2 favourite women", they asked him how he knew his mother was there.. his response was.. "the roses told me that the severe pruning company was here".. It is now my nickname 50 years later.

    1. Nice story GG. I am sure your aunt's garden would be much better for the roses being pruned hard. When old roses get overgrown they are miraculously transformed by severe pruning! i have pondered overnight about your nickname but I am afraid I don't get it!

  3. Living in an urban environment as I do always gives you an extra problem when you carry out pruning like you have described - how to get rid of the branches you have cut off. For this reason I normally pay someone to prune my trees, and the price includes disposal.

    1. I know this can be very expensive Mark and I sympathise. Especially as pruning is so much fun!
      Unfortunately our local authority has sanctified a waste disposal unit at a farm up the road and in addition to taking green waste from the bins there are always lorries charging past at breakneck speed carrying landscaper's prunings . I believe it costs an arm and a leg!
      The farmer makes a compost which is disposed of on farm fields and I think in landscaping. He has offered me a lorryload as a gift. I think I might have a couple of projects I could do with it which will be bloggable! Brenda and Cathi are cross with me and say I am supping with the devil!

  4. I was always taught that pruning stimulates growth, so on that basis hard pruning should hold no fears but you were a brave man with the magnolia. I have done the same myself, but as it was for someone else held my breath for a while. It seems that the 'mow and blow' brigade of maintenance gardeners tend to give haircuts after they have reduced the tree or shrub to some form of geometric shape leaving the poor customer to wonder why their plants no longer or rarely flower.

    1. Thanks Rick for your perceptive comments. I used to be hired for a day's pruning and became quite blasé about other people's shrubs. I would produce about twenty times the prunings shown in my picture - but disposal was my client's responsibility!

    2. Just a further thought Rick. You mention the mow and blow brigade. I call them the lollipop pruners. I think it a dreadful shame that many gardeners regard pruning as a mysterious art and are too scared to prune themselves and pay these butchers to mutilate their plants!

  5. Hard pruning can be beneficial, but I always have my friend the tree nursery owner and grower do my trimming. I just manage the little boxwood hedges.

    1. Shame on you Donna! But you are lucky to have a nurseryman to do it properly. I know you are a USA master gardener yourself and knowing how fantastic with a camera you are you must have the artistic ability to be a good pruner.
      Don't like the word 'trimming', sounds too much like 'hair cutting to me!
      (although 'trimming' does describe the topiary on your boxwood which can look so nice)

  6. Great post, Roger! Let's hope all this hard pruning doesn't stimulate too much growth, or the management will be hinting again. Your garden looks great, by the way.

    1. Management has a lot to answer for. As to plants' ability to make strong new growth when they already have a large root system, enough to sustain a large plant, this does give the pruner wonderful opportunities to rejuvenate moribund old shrubs!

  7. I like your no nonsense approach to pruning! I must admit every year I worry about pruning my apple and pear trees but I've not killed them off yet so I just lop as and where I think the tree needs it. I've already had to lop a bit off the apple tree because I couldn't get past it! Still looks healthy to me. Clematis is another one that fills me with fear and many a time I've thought I've lopped it too near to the ground for it to come back but actually that's when I get the best results! I guess nature will find a way (usually!)

    1. I like your caveat, 'usually' Anna. When for a client I rejuvenate a very old overgrown clematis or rose by cutting back really hard - almost completely to the ground - I warn them that the chance of success is only 90% and not to blame me!


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