How To Conquer The Fear Of Pruning


Like many folks, my offspring suffer from a fear of pruning. I don’t know where they get it, either, but it’s not from me. (Click here for more about that.) Perhaps they are afraid of making a mistake, doing it wrong, hurting the plant. I have told them, pruning is like cutting hair, and like hair, it will grow back even if you cut their bangs up to the hairline trying to get them even. I even shaved my head once. The only downside for me was that it was December and my head was so cold I had to sleep in a hat. Off track a bit there, sorry.


Back to pruning and how to overcome your fears. Most trees and shrubs need to be shaped after a few years in the ground while they are still manageable by the home gardener. Large trees also need work done, but that is best handled by a licensed professional. I like to limb up most trees in order to be able to grow things underneath. It also makes for a neater appearance. Shrubs, on the other hand, are easier to manage without the need for line and rigging, even for an aging and not very muscular person. They will be the example for today’s story, in particular Hydrangeas.


A general rule for pruning flowering shrubs is to cut right after blooming, whenever that might be. The Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Dooley’ growing in the Fairegarden had gotten quite large over the years. It had not been pruned at all since being moved to the relatively shady Ferngully area. Upon our return from a week at the beach recently, Dooley was looking quite sad.


There had been no rain and very, very high temps. The blue flowers, our soil is naturally acidic, were crispy and not attractive. The leaves were droopy even with copious amounts of water from the hose. The whole shrub splayed open revealing its innards to passersby. The sensible thing to do was to lessen the load for the plumbing system of the shrub by removing some of the branches. (The above shot is from June 26, 2011, happier times for Dooley than 2012. No need to embarrass him further.)


Looking at the base, it was easy to tell the new growth, which was green, from the older, woodier stems. With sharp loppers, the old growth was removed, and with the felcos the remaining younger branches were cut down to the first set of leaves. Doing this in June will allow the Hydrangea to grow new bits that will flower next spring.


In addition to Dooley, the oakleaf Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Alison’ was thinned and cut in the same manner. The older stems were removed and the remaining branches were shortened to the first leafing. Oakleafs can be cut just about anytime and will rebloom easily, well into winter. Alison is a big one and gets trimmed when she begins to block the walkways or overwhelm her neighbors.


Hydrangea ‘Lady In Red’ had also grown quite large and had not been pruned since her replanting in the Ferngully bed. Those first few years after being relocated were touch and go for the Hydrangeas. A post was written about them that can be read by clicking here. Lady in Red had grown too well, and was threatening to completely shade out one of my beloved deciduous Azaleas, Rhododendron ‘Cannon’s Double’. That is unacceptable. The Lady was given the same treatment as the others. Afterwards the area was drenched with the sprinkler set on a steady, low water pressure.


Here is the after shot, after a severe cutting back. The shrubs are happier and so are all of the surrounding plantings. From now on, there will be a more regular regimen of trimming. Yes, it is work, but it should not be avoided out of fear of doing it wrong. Timing is important in certain Hydrangeas and other flowering shrubs, but what’s the worst thing that can happen? You miss a year of flowers, but even then, the shrub will eventually bloom.


So, the way to conquer the fear of pruning… is to simply go ahead and do it.

For other How To posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.

Frances

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32 Responses to How To Conquer The Fear Of Pruning

  1. Frances the Fearless! (Can’t find a synonym for ‘sensible’ with f) Moosey adds ‘the best time for pruning is when the gardener thinks of it – http://www.mooseyscountrygarden.com , the oldest of my gardening virtual friends. This winter I need to do TRUCK-loads of pruning myself… I don’t even want to think of it!

    Hi Jack, thanks! That is wise advice and something I sort of follow when taking down a branch or seven. Truck loads of pruning, sounds like you have your work cut out for you! HA
    Frances

  2. Mark and Gaz says:

    Nice post! A lot of gardeners still fear pruning but it’s all part of maintenance for a good garden :)

    Thanks Mark and Gaz. Unless one has nothing but annuals and perennials, and even the woody pernnials need cutting, pruning is necessary.
    Frances

  3. Gail says:

    Frances, You’re so right and I am loving your new moniker ~”Frances The Fearless”. Jack/Sequoiagardens is spot on! Now, I must thin those Oakleaf hydrangeas that are towering overhead and blocking the breeze on the porch. xoxogail

    Thanks Gail. Jack is a sweetheart, isn’t he? The oakleafs get a lot of hacking here, Alison grows much larger than expected and blocks the pathways if I don’t stay on it. But so many shrubs are WAY larger than advertised, or as the one guy at the nursery said, those heights and widths are with pruning! HA
    xoxoxo
    Frances

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I don’t think of myself as fearful when pruning is needed. I just think it never turns out the way I envision it which is disappointing to me. This spring I cut back alllll of my hydrangeas for a change. They have all bloomed better than ever. I think the warm winter and no late frost had the most to do with that though. Most summers my Nikko Blue hydrangeas get 4′ tall. This year with the drought they only got to about 2′ tall in most places. It looks odd to me because I know how tall they normally become.

    Hi Lisa, we have to adjust the vision sometimes in gardening! HA Remember that the macrophyllas, like Nikko Blue must be cut before August to have blooms the next year. If you cut them in spring, there will be no flowers. Oakleafs and paniculatas bloom on new growth so can be cut anytime. Just a reminder…
    Frances

  5. indygardener says:

    Where are my pruners? I need to do some cutting back of a few shrubs so the overall plant will survive the drought. Good advice, Frances.

    Thanks Carol. Now is a good time to do pruning on anything that blooms on year old growth, no later than August. I hope you find your pruners! HA
    Frances

  6. This post earns a Bloggers’ Medal of Valour as far as I’m concerned. It has provided just the info and inspiration I needed as I was puzzling over whether or not to reduce the size of some hydrangeas that were struggling with the temps. Thanks for the tips on technique and timing as well as the motivating message of “just do it”.

    HA, thanks Michaele, I appreciate your support! Sometimes people just need a little nudge to do what needs doing. Ask my kids, that is one of my specialties. We don’t call it nagging, though some might.
    Frances

  7. Debbie Davis says:

    Thanks, Frances, I needed that! My hydrangeas are having the same issues and one has outright died. I’m going to go out there today and have at it, thanks to your inspiration.

    Thanks Debbie. I am sorry to hear about your hydrangea dying. It has happened here, too often to mention. Thinning out the shrub so that water can penetrate whenever it decides to rain will help.
    Frances

  8. Julie Amundson says:

    Not only shrubs but perennials respond well to a good cutting. After flowering chives, oregano, lungwort and many others, I shear them to the ground. In a couple of weeks new growth is up and is very fresh looking.

    Right you are, Julie. There are several things here that get cut back, especially those that get taller than we would like, certain asters and mums that will be prettier in the fall if shorter so they don’t flop over. I love seeing that new growth!
    Frances

  9. Marguerite says:

    Hi Frances! Always love your photos no matter what you are talking about….. Each time I prune (or weed for that matter) as I get further and further into the job the pile just grows and grows. Somewhere around the time it reaches my knee I ask myself, “now why didn’t I put down a tarp so I could drag this all away from this spot in stead of bending down and carrying armload after armload to x?”. So, all I can say is…. Don’t forget to put down that tarp (or giant garbage can). Happy July!

    Thanks Marguerite, good point! After cutting these three hydrangeas, the pile was over my head. Luckily they are growing close to the brush pile that I maintain for wildlife, (that’s my story and I am sticking to it). It is easy to toss the cuttings on there to offer habitat for the critters. Tarps are good, too.
    Frances

    ahhhhhh, brushpile for wildlife. So THAT’S what that thing is. Now I can tell my husband. He’s been a wonderin. You are always so full of good ideas. This one is almost as good as my beloved lambs ear sheepies.

    Oh yes, a very important part of every garden, the pile of brush necessary to keep the wildlife happy. That is is also an easy place to throw trimmings too large for the compost is a happy by product. Also, the stuff breaks down over a few years and soil can be harvested from the bottom. All good! Glad you made some little lambies, too!
    Frances

  10. Randy says:

    That was a very enlightening post, Frances. Since I intend on flooding my garden with hydrangeas when I get more shade this information will prove to be very beneficial for me. Thank you…

    Thanks Randy. Good luck with your ocean of Hygrangeas! In the right conditions, I have seen acres of them in bloom outside of Charleston, SC, they are magnificent.
    Frances

  11. Crystal says:

    I have an old Hydrangea that I really don’t prune hard enough. You’ve inspired me to give it a proper haircut after flowering.

    Good deal, Crystal. I hope it responds quickly with new growth. I am giving extra water to these that were cut and there are lots of little baby green leaves sprouting already.
    Frances

  12. Alison says:

    “Alison is a big one and gets trimmed when she begins to block the walkways or overwhelm her neighbors.” Oh dear! I guess that diet isn’t helping me much…LOL This was an excellent tutorial on pruning hydrangeas. I used to be afraid of pruning, but not any more. I’ve seen enough shrubs bounce back from my ineptness.

    Oops, sorry Alison! HA Good for you overcoming that fear of pruning. It is so fun to go around the garden with snips in hand to cut stuff. Especially when it is too hot to plant or move things.
    Frances

  13. I’ve never thought to prune my mophead hydrangeas because winter usually does it for me. Last winter was an exception and I think I’ll take your advice and cut mine a bit. They aren’t in as bad a shape as your ‘Dooley’ yet, but a little shaping wouldn’t go amiss.

    Hi MMD, thanks for visiting. I have not needed to do much pruning until this year for the same reason to Dooley. There is usually plenty of dead wood to remove. The mild winter gave us the best flowering ever, but the long stems certainly flopped open and the drought and heat have not been kind to him. Poor guy, he looks better, if a little scalped, now.
    Frances

  14. Frances you are so right…just get out and do it…I have learned to prune so much better now that I just do it…but the weather takes care of many shrubs…or the deer…for others I trim them as needed….no fear anymore.

    Thanks Donna. Experience helps being more comfortable with the pruning, so true. We just had a gust front, high winds with no rain, that broke many branches, whole trees, etc. Lots of nature pruning happens here, as well.
    Frances

  15. Good advice! I am not afraid of pruning but my wife certainly is. She copes with this by leaving it all to me. I follow the advice of Prince Charles’ last head gardener – “Let mother nature tell you what to do.”

    Hi Green Bench, thanks for adding in here. I would listen to anything Prince Charles’ current or former head gardeners would have to say, and agree completely. Nature sends us messages all the time, if we only learn how to listen to her.
    Frances

  16. sharon says:

    I have one of these cool clippers. In florida we have no trepidation about hacking away at our jungle in Florida..haha

    Hi Sharon, all fixed through the magic of WordPress! HA I can imagine the need for constant hacking in Floriday. No fear of pruning could be tolerated there!
    Frances

  17. I’m happy tp uncover your blog throughout Hort mag. I love the haIr cut analogy especelal for novices. We all have learned our lessons pruning through experience. Good post. I’ll be back.

    Thanks Patrick, and welcome. Pruning is a lot like cutting hair, usually the plants will grow back even better and healthier.
    Frances

  18. I think well pruned shrubs polish up the garden and make it look more sophisticated! I am never afraid to prune. I spent this morning pruning and clearing a pathway through a client’s garden which was so overgrown that it was a hedgerow of Hybrid Musk roses, crape myrtles, wisteria, winter honeysuckle, and 8 ft tall plume poppies. But what a sense of satisfaction comes from restoring order. Of course my arms look as though I was in a fight with a gaggle of feral cats-

    Thanks for joining in the pruning free for all here, Tales. That hedgerow sounds menacing, with the good, the bad and the ugly. Good for you getting it all sorted! Sorry about the scratches, you have needed armor to protect you and it is much too hot for that.
    Frances

  19. I love to prune, but many are afraid they are going to ruin the plant. It is really the opposite, if you don’t prune the plant will not thrive and be beautiful!

    Eileen

    Hi Eileen, thanks for adding in here. I agree, most shrubs appreciate the shaping and thinning.
    Frances

  20. Nell Jean says:

    Like you, a bold pruner. I am held back by my fear of being stung by yet another wasp.

    Hi Nell Jean, I am so sorry by you getting stung. I was also stung by a wasp this year, and have noticed many more of them landing on my skin, maybe looking for a drink of salt water?
    Frances

  21. I just wrote an article for our MG newsletter on pruning. Also learned my lesson with the gardenias, even though they could grow to their mature size in the space they have been planted…..they needed to have been pruned back to strengthen their branching….so it doesn’t topple over again.

    Good job, Janet. Many gardeners have trouble knowing when and how much to prune. It helps most flowering shrubs to trim them, like getting a good haircut. (Unless one is seeing just how long their hair will grow if left uncut. Ahem.)
    Frances

  22. Dee says:

    That seems to be a lesson we all need to learn. I just drove in awhile back. I think I learned on roses.~~Dee

    Hi Dee, thanks for joining in here. Roses, with all the pruning that they need would be a very good place to lose the fear.
    Frances

  23. Great post! I am usually a very happy pruner–but the plants are such stress in the heat that I have been holding off a bit. As soon as it cools a bit I will have my pruner in hand!

    Hi Stacey, thanks. The hydrangeas here look much better now that there is less foliage for them to maintain. There were some sunburned leaves at first, with those underparts being exposed to the searing sun, but new fresh green foliage has emerged and is coping nicely. There has been extra water given to help them along.
    Frances

  24. Okay. That does it; I’m pruning my Lady in Red. I transplanted her last fall. I should have pruned her more right after transplanting, but was on a garden tour and wanted to leave her larger for the tour. But now this summer she is suffering and I think she would do well with a pretty good haircut. Hopefully she will be happier next year with a deeper root system and new top growth. You have given me the encouragement I needed to make the cut! Thanks!!

    HiToni, thanks for stopping by. Lady in Red had a slow start from having been moved from a shadier and much drier than I had imagined spot. The soil is crumbly loam where the hydrangeas were moved and they settled in nicely with good blooming the last few years. It was time for a cut. Good luck with yours!
    Frances

  25. commonweeder says:

    I recently toured our local Bridge of Flowers with an urban forester from the University of Mass. and after talking to him I felt very brave. I got all kinds of info about pruning trees. Since then I have been looking at my gingkos and a huge hydrangea but my nerve is failing. However, he said summer is a good time for pruning and I’m trying to gear up again.

    Be brave, Pat! Your trees and shrubs will thank you! Just do it!
    Frances

  26. Great post! It reminds me to get out there and prune my hydrangeas before its too late.

    Thanks Graceful Gardener. Now is the time to prune most spring blooming woody shrubs. It is just remembering to do so once out there with so many other distractions.
    Frances

  27. skeeter says:

    I am one of those “Fear Pruner” people! I am so glad that you shared your thoughts on this subject. I am never afraid to have my hair cut because as you say, it will grow back. But when it comes to the plants, I fear pruning them. After this analogy, I shall now get my pruners out and go to work…

    Good for you, Skeeter! Just do it!

  28. sharon says:

    I want to get some Stipa…is it good for zone 9? beautiful

    Yes, I believe you can grow the Stipa, we are on the northern edge of its hardiness, Sharon.
    Frances

  29. Agreed, too many people are scared and have the fear of pruning to due being frightened about doing away with the wrong limb. Many see it as being surgeons! Hahahaha!! Some take it so seriously, but it really isn’t that hard it all comes with experience and observing how your branches grow out, which ones are right above the base. Its a science, its a passion. Its gardening.

    -Tony Salmeron

    Hi Tony, thanks for joining in here. It is suprising how many gardeners are fearful of making a wrong cut so do no pruning at all. It does take some thought, but we learn from our mistakes. Doing nothing teaches us nothing.
    Frances

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