We have moved into a home where shrubs have been pruned into boxes and balls. We prefer a more natural appearance. Can they be pruned to make them look more natural?
Yes, it is possible to restore plants to a more natural appearance, but it will take more than one pruning to accomplish it. Now is a good time to prune most shrubs. However, spring blooming shrubs such as azalea and rhododendron have already set their flower buds for next spring’s bloom. If you prune now, you will remove most of next spring’s flowers. Wait until shortly after they bloom next summer to prune them.
You probably also noticed that the shrubs’ growth is quite thick, because they have been sheared. Shearing cuts the tips of several branches at a time. Each sheared branch regrows with three or more branches. After shearing three times, you can have 25 or more branches for each original branch.
So your first job is to thin this growth. Make individual pruning cuts with a hand pruner deep inside the shrubs. Go two or three layers deep to remove larger branches, which have several smaller branches attached. By removing about a third of the branches this way, the shrub is opened up and no longer looks so crowded. The adjoining side branches fill in where a major branch has been removed. Prune shorter on the edges and corners of the square shrubs to create a rounded shape. Don’t prune all branches to the same length. The variety of lengths will give the shrub a more natural appearance.
You may notice that the ball shaped plants have lower branches that are shorter than upper branches. It is important to reshape these shrubs so that the upper branches are shorter than the lower ones. You can do this by doing very little pruning on the lowest branches, gradually pruning shorter as you go up. It may take more than one year to accomplish this reshaping because you do not want to prune so short that you have branches that will not grow new leaves. This is particularly important for needle-leaf evergreen shrubs like junipers that will not regrow leaves where all green growth has been removed.
You may also notice that some shrubs have outgrown the space where they were planted and would be better replaced than pruned. When small plants grow together they begin to look like a hedge after pruning. When replacing shrubs check labels to be sure their mature size fits the space where you are planting them. Sometimes it is best to enlarge beds by removing grass in front of them.