Fixing a Pruning Nightmare

Fixing a Pruning Nightmare

Part of Ep. 1901 Misteaks We Have Maid

UW-Extension Horticultural Educator Mike Maddox takes pity on a Madison homeowner and saves his backyard landscape by repairing a pruning job gone bad. Learn how NOT to prune shrubs and how to fix the problem if it’s already too late.

Premiere date: Mar 05, 2011

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:
We are focusing on common pruning mistakes.  These are mistakes we’ve all made.  We are in the backyard of a co-worker, who actually came to me and asked for some advice about his shrubs.  When I heard what he had done, I knew we had the perfect example of “Misteaks We Have Maid.”  I am with UW-Extension horticultural educator Mike Maddox.  Mike, these are classic examples of something really wrong. 

Mike Maddox:
Yeah, this is an example of someone going crazy with the pruning shears.  This poor shrub has been cut, cut, cut, at the same spot, for a number of years.  Then I think the homeowner was starting to realize there as a problem, so then he came in to try to do a correction.  Now, we’ve wound up with this. 

Shelley Ryan:
This bad haircut. 

Mike Maddox:
It’s a very bad haircut.  I think a haircut analogy is good for this, because you know, we’ve all had the bad haircut before.  We thought it was a good idea at the time, but then we looked back, going, “What were we thinking?” 

Shelley Ryan:
Exactly. 

Mike Maddox:
And, “I’m so glad it grew out.” 

Shelley Ryan:
That’s a good point.  It’s nothing to shoot ourselves about.  We didn’t kill it.  We can fix this. 

Mike Maddox:
We just want to hide the pictures from this era. 

Shelley Ryan:
Kind of like the high school yearbook.  Okay.  One of the other mistakes that we noticed right away, is we thought we came in to prune a viburnum. 

Mike Maddox:
Yeah, you told me it was a viburnum we were pruning.  And when I walked out here, I’m thinking, no.  It’s some sort of honeysuckle.  But regardless of what species it is, it’s a mess. 

Shelley Ryan:
We can fix it. 

Mike Maddox:
Yes. 

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, where would you start? 

Mike Maddox:
Well, with this particular shrub, it has this shelf of growth at the top from all these years of shearing.  What it has done is create this blockage of light from getting down underneath, so we now have this spindly growth that is long and leggy, and not that aesthetically appealing. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, no sunlight is getting down here, because all of this is so dense, and so twiggy, because every time he cut, it created more little side shoots. 

Mike Maddox:
It’s like a big umbrella on the plant right now.  Our first goal is to head this back, to start to open this up, to allow light to get through. 

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, try to get some light down there, trying to get rid of this shelf.  Let’s pull this out.  Show me where you’d cut. 

Mike Maddox:
With a heading back cut, you want to take-- Go all the way back to a lateral branch or bud, and then just make a clip to remove it.  That is a heading back cut.  This is the opposite of shearing, where they just came in and indiscriminantly flattopped this.  We’re making some very precise cuts to prevent that shelf from forming again. 

Shelley Ryan:
Let’s grab another one and do it.  Show me where you would do that. 

Mike Maddox:
I’m trying to focus on some of the dead here.  Another heading back cut could be made about there.  Again, just to start to open this up. 

Shelley Ryan:
When you’re done with this, this whole thing is going to be more open, like here.  The whole thing, you’re going to have sunlight coming through, air coming through, too, for disease purposes. 

Mike Maddox:
Yes. 

Shelley Ryan:
And sunlight coming down there. 

Mike Maddox:
Overall, the size of the shrub may not be reduced all that much.  But it will be more open to allow better ventilation and light to get through. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, the flowers will be more evenly spread out, too, instead of all just all stuck up on top here. 

Mike Maddox:
It’s a subtle change, and it might be appropriate for most of the work you’re doing. 

Shelley Ryan:
And you said there are other options. 

Mike Maddox:
Yes, and they start to get a little more harsh.  In this particular case, same type of shrub, same issues.  We’re going to demonstrate another type of pruning called thinning.  This is, instead of thinning up at the top with heading back cuts, we’re coming to the base.  We’re going to start removing a third of the largest, oldest stems, right at the ground level.  As you can see, he tried it already. 

Shelley Ryan:
Right, but maybe a little too tall. 

Mike Maddox:
They should’ve been taken down a little further.  We can come in and remove some of the remaining branches, but we see how it’s forcing new growth to come up from the base. 

Shelley Ryan:
Right, you can already see some of the babies starting to come up, because they’re getting sunlight here now. 

Mike Maddox:
That’s what we want, because now we can train these to be the type and size shrub that we want them to be. 

Shelley Ryan:
With a plant like this, that hasn’t had a lot of work done, how much would you do every year? 

Mike Maddox:
A good estimate or rule of thumb is about a third of the largest branches. 

Shelley Ryan:
This one is pretty set right now. 

Mike Maddox:
There’s a couple more that I’d consider taking out.  But otherwise, I think he’s got a good start to this one. 

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, it’s just not going to look great for a couple years. 

Mike Maddox:
No, and I think I would come in and do some heading back on here, just so it looks better. 

Shelley Ryan:
Then be patient, it’ll start to get its own natural growth, kind of more of a base shape.  A couple years from now, it’s going to look like it should. 

Mike Maddox:
Patience is key.  Now, if you’re really patient, we can use this next method. 

Shelley Ryan:
Okay. 

Mike Maddox:
It is going to be called a renewal pruning.  And that is where we’re going to come in with our saw or another tool, and we’re going to take the whole thing down to the ground, all at once. 

Shelley Ryan:
That’s the brave one? 

Mike Maddox:
It’s the brave one.  It’s not appropriate for all shrubs.  But in this particular case, I actually think it’ll benefit the best by taking it all down, removing all the old growth that has been left.  We’ll start to train all these new branches to come up, and they’ll be nice and healthy and vigorous growing. 

Shelley Ryan:
Then they’ll have sunlight.  It leads to another mistake that the homeowner admitted to, that these have been too tall for this spot since the day he put them in. 

Mike Maddox:
If that’s the case, we now have a fourth option.  That’s to pull the whole thing out and replace it with something that’s going to stay a lot shorter for them. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, another common mistake all gardeners make, is try to plant the right plant, the right size, in the right spot.  We’re all guilty of that. 

Mike Maddox:
Yes. 

Shelley Ryan:
I want this, and I want it here.  Wrong.  Now, do you see any other mistakes this gardener made? 

Mike Maddox:
I’d give this homeowner some extra advice by removing these rocks.  I’m not a fan of using a rock mulch.  He has about two to four inches of heavy rocks on top of landscape fabric.  This is causing some rooting issues with these plants.  There’s soil compaction.  They could grow a lot more vigously if these rocks were removed and replaced with some sort of bark mulch.  That’s going to re-create the way mother nature intended these to grow, in that kind of debris. 

Shelley Ryan:
Rocks are a great low-maintenance for the gardener, but not for the plants. 

Mike Maddox:
They’re aesthetically appealing.  They appeal to humans, but the plants, probably not liking it as much. 

Shelley Ryan:
They hate it.  Okay, some really good advice.  Thanks, Mike.

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