By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
When it comes to manicuring your landscape plants, University of Georgia experts say there's a big difference between pruning and giving your shrubs a haircut.
"Many common yard plants, particularly boxwoods, are pruned with electric trimmers," said Jim Crawford, the UGA Cooperative Extension coordinator in Jefferson County. "This method is fast and requires less labor, but it's really shearing, not pruning."
Crawford says electric trimmers allow home landscapers to create nice shapes in their shrubs, but they're actually giving their plants a "haircut."
Hollies can take it, boxwoods can't
Hollies can usually withstand this type of pruning, and that's why they are popular in formal garden settings. They can be sheared into all kinds of shapes, such as the well-known Disney characters in the Disney World landscape.
"On the other hand, boxwoods and other shrubs can't take shearing," Crawford said.
"Cutting off the tip ends when you shear allows all the buds underneath to break out and grow," he said. "If you look at the ends of small limbs that have been sheared, you'll see several other limbs growing from just under the cut end. Over time, these small branches get trimmed and the new branches under them get trimmed and so on until all the stimulated growth forms a dense covering over the outside of the plant."
This thick, foliage "shell" will eventually shade any sunlight from the interior of the plant.
"What remains is a thin layer of foliage on the very outer edge of the plant trying to feed all the wood on the inside," Crawford said. "The plant gradually goes downhill, simply because it was pruned wrong all those years."
Let the sunshine in
The secret to pruning your landscape shrubs without harming them is to make sure you leave openings for the sunlight to penetrate through.
To properly prune, Crawford says to pick the longest shoots and trace them down into the plant. Once you find the limb's origin, cut the limb off flush from the plant.
"This takes longer, and your plant won't have that perfect, smooth, sculptured appearance," he said. "But the plant will look more natural, and, more important, it will live longer."
Cut flush or at the fork
Always prune trees and shrubs at a fork or flush with the larger limb it grows from so the wound can heal, Crawford said.
"Cutting the plant anywhere else causes multiple sprouting," he said. "You'll soon be left with even taller, more unsightly shoots, or you'll start your plant on the road to slow death."
For more information on proper pruning techniques and other landscape tasks, contact your local UGA Extension agent. Just call 1-800-ASK-UGA1.