ILT Insider: Changing the conversation on pruning

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With spring right around the corner, those of us in the environmental services industry are happily ready to leave winter in the rear-view mirror and prepare for the new growing season. Over the next couple of months, here in the Midwest, deciduous trees and shrubs will come back to life and flush out their first new growth of the season. Typically, that is when most property managers and building owners expect to see their contractors break out the power shears and go to work shearing and shaving the plant material around their communities and office parks. We at ILT would like to ask you to consider supporting the movement to reverse that trend. In case you were wondering what that movement is all about, read on…
For many years now, we have been advocates of the anti-shearing movement, recommending to our customers that it is in their best interest, and ultimately in the best interest of their plant material, for our crews to leave the power shears in the truck and opt for the use of the hand pruners. Tree topping and unsustainable shrub shearing is, for the most part, ruining commercial landscapes and this practice needs to be replaced predominantly by natural selective pruning programs.

Shearingis the all too common landscape maintenance practiceof non-selectivepruning that forms plants into shapes that differ from theirnatural growth habit. Unsustainable shearing, i.e. the shaping of trees and shrubs into the endless balls and boxes that are seen on most commercial and many private landscapes, is resulting in less attractive landscapes, unhealthy growing environments, and expensive replacement costs for plants that cannot live out their normal life span.

Shearing creates a twiggy outer shell that gets ever denser and collects more deadwood and dead leaves every year, causing the condition commonly referred to as witches’ broom. These clusters of witches’ brooms create the perfect protected place for pests and diseases to flourish and they detract from the health and longevity of the plant. The weakened plants now require more water, nutrients, and pesticides just to survive, driving up irrigation and material costs. Eventually, as the plants succumb to this unsustainable shearing, more and more dead wood becomes exposed, detracting from their natural beauty. Ultimately, the plants either die prematurely, or get so bad that they cannot be saved and need to be replaced well before their normal life span.
Shearing also encourages water sprout regrowth; those straight-up, skinny, rapidly growing shoots that are a nuisance, breaking the natural architecture of the plant with weak unproductive growth. Water sprouts need to be cut off or re-sheared frequently to keep the plant looking neat. But shearing those off just creates more sprouts, locking the plant into a high maintenance routine. While many people like the look of a tightly sheared plant, the reality is that the sheared plants only look good for a short while before they need to be sheared again; promoting this unsustainable cycle.
Selective pruning, on theotherhand, promotes the health and natural shapeof a plant, saves money byreducing overall maintenance, and extends the life span of the landscape. Selective pruning techniques open up the center of the plant, with precise targeted cuts, allowing air and light penetration to create a stronger, healthier growing environment.  In addition to being bad for the plants, shearing of non-hedgeplants is counter-productive,resulting in higherlaborcosts since shearingrequires multipleoccurrences every season. Although selective pruning is much more labor intensive, selectively pruned plants need to be pruned only once every one to five years; so, in the long run, selective pruning practices will save on labor.
For the selective pruning movement to catch on, we need to address this common misconception that many people have that a plant needs to be sheared tightly to make it look like it is being well maintained. Under most circumstances, shearing actually subverts a tree or a shrub’s natural beauty.Every plant in a professionally designed landscape has been chosen because it adds something special to the overall design. It may have nice flowers, interesting texture, or artistic branch structure. Whatever the feature may be, it should be accentuated with pruning, not destroyed by shearing. A landscape designer’s skill is in creating a natural but interesting, seasonally changing, and aesthetically pleasing picture. Untimely shearing done by untrained contractors destroys that picture, making everything look the same-smooth and round, square and boxy, etc. Shearing continually chops away the new, fresh growth leaving old decaying or dead wood in its place. Additionally, this frequent, undisciplined shearing will often remove flowerbuds that are ready to bloom or those hardening off to provide next season’s color display.
Admittedly, some designers do get carried away with their own desire to be unique or unduly creative, calling for incompatible plant varieties to be placed in areas where they are doomed to be sheared back constantly (under windows, along sidewalks, against foundations, etc.). Then after the designer is long gone, the landscape crews are held responsible for maintaining the un-maintainable. In places where plants have been placed in unsustainable spots in the landscape, they should be systematically removed and replaced with more suitable varieties whose natural growth patterns are better suited to the space. Formal shearing should be reserved for “pruning art” like topiary or formal hedges, and only with plant varieties that are selected because of their ability to withstand frequent shearing.
As a customer, you must understand that most contractors are happy to accommodate your request to tightly shear everything on the property. Maintenance is a business, and most lower priced contractors will be happy to grab the shears and power through all of the pruning needs to be able to move rapidly on to the next task or their next property. Quick shearing fits nicely into a profitable regimen and helps them keep their prices low. However, what they don’t tell you, because they probably don’t know, is that selective and rejuvenative pruning, done properly either in-season or over the winter months, can all but eliminate any need for frequent shearing. That reduction of labor can often lead to saving you money or allowing for even more time on your property for other maintenance operations.
Almost anybody can shear plants without training, but selective pruning is more complex.  Crews require training to understand how this kind of pruning is done. Trained and experienced crews know what to do with each variety of plant in terms of the timing and execution of pruning operations. That type of knowledge is what separates the professional landscaper from the landscape laborer. A laborer simply does what he/she is told; a professional knows what to do. Those professionals get paid better wages so consequently the companies that employ those professionals need to charge a little more. As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for”.
If your doctor were to tell you to stop eating spicy foods to help ease the stomach pain that brought you to his office, would you tell the doctor to go ahead and remove your gall bladder anyway because that is what you think should be done. Probably not. You take the doctors professional advice because that is what you are paying for; and so it is with the professional contractor you hire to manage your landscape. If your preconceived expectations do not align with the sound horticulture practices your contractor is recommending, take a moment to reconsider and allow the professionals to provide the service for which you are paying. As a property manager or building owner, paying a little more for professional service will result in long term cost savings on premature replacements and unnecessary maintenance, and provide you with a more appealing marketable property.
In order for the anti-shearing movement in the landscape maintenance industry to get the necessary traction to affect real change, customers and contractors alike must adopt selective pruning as the new normal.  Landscape business owners must buy into the need to train crews in selective pruning techniques and wean them off the shearing default. Property managers and building owners must adjust their expectations, embrace the natural growth habits of the plants in their landscapes, and take the final step to demand selective pruning be done on your properties.

The purpose of this piece is to promote the demand for better pruning by getting the information out to you, the professional property manager or building owner. Reconsider your expectations. Tour your properties. Examine your landscaping. Talk to your contractors. Specify selective pruning to be done on all of your new plantings; urge your contractors to rehabilitate the previously over sheared plants where possible or replace them where necessary. If you demand that your contractors leave the power shears in the truck, over time, your landscapes will be transformed into the lush, healthy, low-maintenance, natural looking gardens that nature intended.

– Kevin Block