Seattle's pruning princess cautions against cuts that kill
Good pruning is invisible. Done right, the tree or shrub looks tidier after pruning, but natural. Shearing, where all the branch tips are cut off in a uniform, nonselective way, has nothing to do with a plant's natural habit.
What to do, if you do
Any day that is 32 degrees or above is good for pruning. Now that the leaves have fallen, the internal structure of trees and shrubs is clearly revealed so you can cut out crossing or rubbing branches. It's ideal to prune grapes, maples, birch and other "bleeders" now when they're dormant, and deciduous plants can even take radical renovation pruning this time of year. For more information on pruning in our climate, see "Cass Turnbull's Guide to Pruning" (Sasquatch Books, $19.95).
"BAD TOPIARY is a crime against nature . . . It's as undignified as putting a tutu on a lion," proclaims pruning princess Cass Turnbull. A tireless educator, Turnbull is founder of Plant Amnesty, an organization dedicated to ending the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs.
Beacon Hill topiary enthusiast Joel Lee, subject of last week's column, doesn't need to worry about Turnbull taking him to task. "I appreciate a beautifully sheared hedge, and I even like some of the goofy stuff out there," admits Turnbull, who once carved an elementary school's boxwood hedge into a bookworm.
But "what (acclaimed folk artist) Pearl Fryar does is topiary; what his neighbors do isn't," says Turnbull flatly.
Good pruning is invisible. Done right, the tree or shrub looks tidier after pruning, but still natural. Shearing, where all the branch tips are cut off in a uniform, nonselective way, has nothing to do with a plant's natural habit.
Turnbull thinks tree topping is almost always the wrong thing to do, shearing is only sometimes wrong. Nevertheless, she's alarmed at all the sheared shrubs and trees she's seeing around Seattle lately. Because of the recession, many untrained amateurs have started landscaping businesses, and it shows. "We've managed to put a real crimp in tree topping over the last 23 years," she says. "But shearing has gotten worse!"
So when is shearing OK? It depends on the kind of plant, and few are tough enough to hold up to such treatment. Plants with tight foliage, like boxwood, Japanese holly, pyracantha and yew are the best candidates. But often totally inappropriate plants are poodle-balled, or cut into bumps, spirals or spheres. "When the inherent beauty of a plant is compromised, it's painful for those of us who know what it should look like," Turnbull says.
Aesthetics aside, there's an arsenal of practical reasons to cease and desist with the clippers. The scariest is that shearing locks a gardener into a high-maintenance regime. Particularly on deciduous plants, shearing results in a big mess of skinny, ugly, rapidly growing water sprouts. Shearing also creates brown "dead zones" not likely to green back up, especially on conifers. It encourages disease and pest problems, and increases freeze and drought damage. To educate Seattle gardeners about the benefits of good pruning techniques, Plant Amnesty is offering low-cost classes, including ones in Spanish (see www.PlantAmnesty.org). Volunteers are going door-to-door distributing information, starting in Magnolia, a neighborhood Turnbull calls the poodle-ball capital of the Northwest.
The good news is that plants are resilient, and most can be salvaged even after being carved into cones or caterpillars. Turnbull likens rehabilitation pruning to growing out your bangs, because it takes so much patience. The steps are pretty much thin and wait, then thin and wait some more. Plants like forsythia and spirea can take radical renovation pruning, which means cutting them to the ground to allow them to grow back into their natural shape.
Turnbull suggests hiring a coach to prune along with you, or an expert to give a private lesson while pruning in your own garden. (Plant Amnesty has a referral service; call 206-783-9813, ext. 3).
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
Furniture & home furnishings
POST A FREE LISTING