Question: We recently moved into a home with established trees and shrubs. We love the landscape, but do not like the way the shrubs have been pruned. The previous owner used a power clipper to prune the shrubs. Their shapes are artificially thick and round or flat on top. Can they be pruned to give them a more natural look?
Answer: Shrubs which have been sheared can be pruned to restore a more natural shape and thickness. However, it may take more than one pruning to recover. When shrubs are sheared the tips of all the branches are pruned. This causes them to produce multiple side branches. The first pruning causes about three branches to develop where there was one before. The second pruning produces about nine branches to develop. After the third pruning there are 20 to 30 branches.
Start by following a branch down inside the shrub two or three layers below the outer branches. A single cut deep inside will remove multiple branches outside. 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. If the shrub has been pruned into an artificial square shape, the branches on the corners are shortened more to give them a round shape. Don’t prune so severely that all the leaves are removed on the corners. You may have to prune several times with a month’s growth between them to completely recover. Don’t prune all branches to the same length. The variety of lengths will give the shrub a more natural appearance.
It is also important to prune upper branches shorter than lower ones. This allows light to reach the lower leaves. Without adequate light, plants shed lower leaves, leaving a bird leg effect.
You may also find that some shrubs are too large or crowded for the space where they were planted. Where adjoining shrubs are sheared the same size they begin to look like a hedge. You may be able to remove every other shrub creating space so remaining shrubs have room to grow naturally. However, the sides of shrubs left may have bare branches. It may take a year or two for branches around this bare area to fill in. Evergreens like junipers may never recover.
It may be necessary to remove whole groups of shrubs and replace them with new ones which mature at a smaller size and require much less pruning. Make note of window heights and walkway placements. Check plant labels for mature sizes so they fit the location.
Shrubs also look more natural if they are not planted in straight rows. Clusters of odd numbers such as three and five are more natural looking. Make planting areas larger by removing some grass, rather than always pruning shrubs to fit grass borders. Curved borders are also more natural looking than straight ones.
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