Preparing to Cut

No, this isn’t about editing the work in progress (although I am doing that). It’s about surgery, specifically plant surgery. It’s pruning time.

I have admitted that I hate pruning, because of its terrible finality. Once amputated, that branch can’t be reattached. For weeks now I’ve been planning what cuts to make on certain shrubs, notably the magnolia in the front garden. It grows sideways more than upward. In full summer leaf it becomes a hulking monster, so every year I remove two or three branches to restrain this tendency.

Other plants present different challenges, like the holly I try to keep from exceeding 20 feet. Its prickly leaves don’t help the operation. Then there’s the “dwarf” apple tree that isn’t dwarf. Pruning fruit trees should be pruned to maximize productivity. That’s not important to me, because my tree is a “Yellow Transparent,” which fruits extremely early. I’m not interested in apples when there are peaches and cherries available, and these apples don’t keep well, so I’d rather the tree didn’t produce many. Still, I’d rather prune it correctly, rather than by guess and gut-feel.

Then there’s the timing issue. Several years ago, I clipped back an old plant of the climbing rose “New Dawn” early in March. A week later we had a few days when the temperature fell below freezing. Not much below freezing, but I wonder if that’s why 90% of the rose died shortly afterward. In only a few days it went from leafing out to wilting. While not totally dead, it has never recovered. I don’t know if being pruned just before a freeze caused this, but it has certainly made me nervous about rose pruning.

The worst pruning job, though, is the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). It’s a plant native to this region with all sorts of virtues (drought tolerance, deer resistance, attractive foliage, bee-attracting flowers), but mine is tree-size (15 feet tall). And it suckers. Its huge old trunks are surrounded by a thicket of young, vigorous shoots that will no doubt become huge in turn. If I had known its growth habits, I would never have planted it, but all the books I consulted said it was a wonderful choice. And so it is, for large gardens, but not for the small suburban lot.

Pruning the Oregon grape, therefore, isn’t done only with clippers, loppers, and saw. An axe and spade are needed to remove the larger suckers. I had better get this done while the weather remains cool and cloudy; it’s not a job for a warm, sunny day. And, like the holly and most roses, the plant is prickly.

At least I now have a good, indeed an excellent ladder. It’s designed for pruning, with only three legs, one of which can be shortened to ensure stability on uneven ground. Wrestling it from its spot in the garage isn’t fun, so once out it stays out until all jobs for which it’s needed are complete.

Three-legged ladder and Photinia

Otherwise my pruning tools are simple: clippers, loppers, saw. You can see them in the image at the top of the post. Gloves, of course. And for the giant holly, the pole pruner. It’s not my favourite tool, but with it fully extended, and by standing on the ladder’s top step, I can just about reach the top of the holly.

pole pruner by shed
Pole pruner. A heavy, awkward tool. Works better now that I’ve removed the saw.

The tools are assembled. The victims plants in need of pruning have been identified. Let the cutting begin!


  1. Just done my apple and pear tree, I’ve just the one of each, the roses I left well alone since their tidy up for autumn, there’s a lot of new shoots, here’s to a good year – I’ve a 20 foot bay tree that needs drastic shaping, I’ll leave that to March methinks, though any mild day brings temptation to get the ladder out and risk life and limb!

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  2. Wow! You are very well equipped. Oh yes, its always a final decision cutting branches and logs, and doing similar fancy things with the trees we love. Please be safe, and dont test out the stability of the ladder. Falling from ladders are always the most dangerous acidents. Best wishes, Michael

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    1. It doesn’t poke into the ground, but it has a big foot that grips the soil. There are also rubber “shoes” that can be put on all 3 feet when on paved surfaces.
      Thanks for your interest, Steve!

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  3. You are such a capable woman,Audrey – you really are! Tall ladders are out for both of us now as Eric is 93 and my biggie is on the horizon…It’s quite frustrating, as our minds are still fifty!! We are grateful to have lived so long nevertheless, and jog along quite nicely, while having given up the long distance marathons (or short ones…)..Best wishes. xx . .

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  4. You are a true professional when it comes to gardening! I was a rank amateur when I could do it, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

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    1. Thanks, Lorinda. I wish I hadn’t planted so many shrubs that are determined to grow taller and wider than all the books said they would! But as a whole, gardening is a rewarding activity.


  5. Trimming fruit trees immediately after harvest, rather than in autumn or spring, keeps the growth lower. Trimming a deciduous tree in winter or spring makes it grow up faster because it fears its been attacked during dormancy.
    Reminds me, I have to call someone in for the cherry …

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  6. Bless your heart, Audrey. That sounds too much like real work. (And that is just assembling the tools). Please be careful on your ladder. We only do container plants and even that can get to be a chore.

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  7. I have an awful confession to make – I don’t prune anything. That may change next year as the Offspring has made noises about pruning, but I hate doing it so I don’t. Bravo for doing it.

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  8. Pruning is hard to time, Audrey. We had a lot of snow damage this year, and my roses are in trouble. I’m thinking March, although your comment about your roses gave me pause. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that Oregon Grape!. Happy Gardening.

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    1. The Oregon Grape has many good qualities, but one has to be aware of its suckering habit and be prepared to remove them as soon as they appear. March should be fine for rose pruning. I’m not really sure whether experiencing frost right after being pruned is what caused my problem. Still, if frost is a possibility, might be best to delay. Good luck!

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  9. Audrey, I feel that my plants and bushes view my arrival with tools with trepidation and that they may indeed be victims! Your knowledge is fantastic and glad to see you’re kitted out with the necessary equipment. Timing is indeed key and we resorted to youtube videos regarding our precious bush roses in the autumn – must have got it right as they’re just budding now! It seemed harsh to cut them down by two thirds the time! Happy Pruning … of your garden and your words! 😀

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  10. I have a young crabapple whose silhouette recalls Dr. Seuss books. I keep telling myself that I should be able to prune it enough to reshape it to my satisfaction, but that “you can’t put it back together” hesitancy keeps me from the aggressive pruning I think it needs. I alternate between thinking I can sculpt it to thinking I should just chop it out and start again. Pruning woes!

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    1. I understand that a weak plant should be pruned hard, and a strong one lightly. The Pruning Paradox. There’s a saying: “Strength follows the knife.”
      I would personally find it hard to prune some struggling little tree hard. I think you have to decide it’s going to die anyway, so why not?
      Thanks for your comment, Donna!

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