Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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Gardening With Allen: Restore shrubs to natural shape

Allen Wilson


We recently purchased a home that fits us very well, but the landscape does not fit us. Shrubs have been sheared into thick, artificial-looking boxes and balls rather than the natural look that we like. Some shrubs have lower branches that are bare of leaves. Is there any hope for us to save some of these shrubs by proper pruning? Or should we just take them all out and replant?

It sounds like you may be able to restore some of your shrubs to a more natural look by proper pruning over a period of time. Others may be better off replaced.

Needle evergreen shrubs with bare lower branches never recover their green growth and probably should be replaced.

One approach for broadleaf shrubs with bare branches is to cut them down to within a foot of the ground and let them regrow a new plant. Then they can be pruned into a natural look with green growth clear to the ground over two or more years. If you don’t want to wait that long, you may want to replace them, too.

The rest of the shrubs can probably be saved by using natural pruning methods.

Since the shrubs are too thick with too many branches, you will need to remove some of the excess branches deep within the plant. You will probably find multiple layers of branching.

When plants are sheared with hand or power clippers that shorten several branches at a time you will find three or more outer branches that are connected to one branch.

That one branch is part of another group of three or more branches that are connected to a single branch deeper in the shrub. If you go two levels deep, you will be able to remove several outer branches with one pruning cut. Go over the entire shrub and remove about a third of the branches. Then after one year’s new growth, you will again need to thin out a smaller number of branches.

If you are serious about learning how to prune naturally, you may want to request two of my free leaflets that describe the process. One is titled “What is Natural Pruning.” It describes the process including a section on recovering sheared shrubs.

The second is titled “Types of Pruning Cuts” and goes deeper into when to use each of three types of cuts to prune any plant to get a natural look.

For shrubs that need to be replaced, it is very important to read labels to make sure you are selecting plants that fit the location where they are to be planted. Sun-loving plants need at least a half day of direct sunlight.

Most plant labels show the mature height and sometimes the mature width. If you select plants with mature size that fit within the space you want to plant, you will have a minimum amount of pruning.

You can usually get help selecting plants at full service nurseries and garden stores. Bring your dimension requirements with you.