Category Archives: PbD pruning guide

pbd Pruning Guide : Selective Hand Pruning

Pbd : PRUNING PHILOSOPHY & STRATEGY | adele medina o’dowd | 2/3/2020

Would you like to prune shrubs and ornamental trees in your own garden? Perhaps you simply want to understand how pruning can improve the look and health of your garden even if you recruit others to prune for you. Either way, that’s wonderful! Clearly, knowing about some some basics and techniques will set you off on the right foot, but how do you begin? Well, take a deep breath and step back, then use this philosophy to help you wrap your mind around a strategy that can guide you. By definition, Selective Hand Pruning means that you proactively select which branches to prune and by doing so, you will strengthen your shrub’s natural architecture, resiliency and ability to photosynthesize.


1st step : Stand back at the curb, front door or the edge of your yard and take a careful overview of your entire front or back yard. Prioritize pruning plants in your yard based on time of year and what looks healthy and what does not.

2nd step : Consider what is a plant’s natural growth habit?  — is the natural shape or form of a plant ever square? 

3rd step : think about the job/role of the specific plant within the yard – what is its purpose? Screening, Flowers, Foundation, Seasonal Interest, Wildlife Habitat, Fragrance, Soil Retention, Shade, what?

UNDERSTAND that plants in the wild do not grow into rigid geometric shapes.  If you consider what the ideal, natural shape is for your plants and picture what that looks like in your mind, you will see softer forms. Even if you would like to have a hedge or shrubs with a more formal shape, plant shapes are organic. It is not healthy for shrubs to be sheared and foliage to be cut in the middle, disrupting its food supply and creating wounds that take extra resources to heal. With some confidence and practice, it is not so hard to make good pruning cuts quickly. You can do it! When you are done, the best results will be evident if the yard does not appear to be obviously “pruned”, but rather, when it just looks healthy, rejuvenated and better.

APPROACH pruning a shrub or tree with the idea of being selective. Before you start, determining what you are trying to achieve, with one plant and within a plant’s grouping. Where are you encouraging growth? Are you trying to reduce size? Do you want to re-balance the shape, encourage fruit and flowers, and foliage. Don’t rush it. It may take more than 1 season to get there. Plants are resilient so you might be able to prune them “hard” but don’t expect to prune them into a shape that they will retain forever — doing that will cause them to become unhealthy “empty shells”. Remember that plants have a life cycle in which they have youthful growth, reach their full potential and then eventually decline with age. Manage your own expectations while implementing your vision. Be selective, be patient and think about the future form and health of your plant.


Now is the moment to make your cut choices. Choose between any competing or crossing branches and retain the best leader of your plant needs a strong one. If there are too many, eliminate some branches that emanate from one location, keeping the best for the overall plant structure. Expect to prune branches at different levels and layers within the canopy. Retain internal and secondary branches. Careful not to injure foliage and bark unwittingly, causing undue stress and literally cutting off food production photosynthesis in leaves and nutrient flow in the vascular system.

  • Prune no more than ¼ to ⅓ — pruning too much at once can stress the plant
  • Careful not to injure Branch Collars
  • Start by pruning out any dead or weak wood (always)
  • Prune long and too heavy branches so they don’t break in winter and get leggy
  • Prune crossing and competing branches that are too close and parallel
  • Prune suckers and waterspouts when the plant is dormant
  • Next let light and air in — make “holes” in the canopy evenly over the entire plant so foliage blends but light and air can filter down into the interior
  • Stagger and vary the depth of your cuts inside the plant
  • Then begin shaping the whole thing based on your vision and knowledge of the plant’s natural form, move forward, stand back, blur your eyes, look at the plant or group, as a whole
  • Consider the interior branch architecture — what should that look like even if you don’t see it from the exterior? Are the scaffold branches strong? Are the smaller, lateral branches balanced all over and nicely spread?
  • Careful with hollies and other plants with branches that shoot from new cuts — “hide” cuts further inside foliage or low to the ground
  • Careful in Aug/Sept — let shrubs remain a bit rough at this typically stressful time of year to conserve energy and foliage
  • Remember that evergreens shed leaves 3 times/yr and sometimes it’s good just to shake or hand remove the brown leaves or needles that are hanging on without pruning branches at all


  • CLEAN TOOLS OFTEN. Use bleach wipes or dip tools between plants, beds or areas.
  • Careful NOT to spread disease!  Look for pest infestations and also good predators!
  • Contain pathogens by having a bag or blanket right next to you as you prune, throwing them inside to keep infected trimmings and infested foliage together and OFF the beds. (Friends don’t let friends use leaf blowers. You can spread box blight with them).


Unless you are already hooked on the zen of pruning, we understand that sometimes it can seem like an overwhelming job. But pruning with your friends makes it easy. You can relax and keep each other company. When you prune with friends and family, you can compare ideas for which cuts to make or not to make and ask for extra eyes to help you see the plant or the grouping from different views, especially at a distance. This is VERY helpful when you are standing inside a big boxwood, a densely planted azalea bed, or standing on a ladder looking up into the branches of your Japanese Maple or Flowering Cherry. Talk about it, as you work. Offer to help your neighbor and ask them to help you. Pruning is really fun with friends! Learn and gain confidence together. Enjoy yourselves and you’ll be done in no time.

Yellowwood Lollipop=bad

Winter dormancy is a great time to prune ornamental and young trees to improve their architecture, structural integrity and form. This Yellowwood [ Cladrastis kentukea ] was in real need of correction after having been pruned badly last summer.

BEFORE : If you look at the “Before” images below, you can see that previously, it had been pruned so that virtually every branch was cut so that each was the same exact length, assuming a weird lollipop shape. This shape is very unnatural and unfortunate for ANY tree! It almost looks like a fan. We often see trees that have been pruned in this fashion when the owner really only wanted for the tree to be shortened or neatened a bit. Pruning trees into lollipops is a bad idea for the tree’s health because, in the same way that shearing a shrub creates a more dense exterior shell of foliage, lollipop trees suffer from poor architecture that blocks light from the interior of the tree. Branches become long and spindly and can break more easily, there is much less interior foliage for photosynthesis, and the tree becomes stressed. Plus, it’s silly looking and awkward. You don’t want your tree to look and feel like a cartoon.

AFTER : To correct this, Pruning by Design made staggered cuts at many different levels in the tree canopy being careful to create a balanced, soft form. You can see in the diagram of the cuts above, that it is very possible to allow more natural characteristic branching by pruning the tree correctly. Trees grow in this way for a reason, because it provides an evolutionary advantage. We keep and encourage a strong leader and main branches with shorter lateral branches inside. We cleaned up broken or weak branches, and shortened some of the overly long side branches that extended over the walk and into the neighbor’s doorway. By creating layers within the tree, the tree’s future health is improved by allowing light and air circulation in, important for preventing fungal growth and insect attacks. The Yellowwood’s structure is now much more graceful, too. Now it looks like a tree, not a lollipop.

Annika removing a “hanger” with clean cut that will heal better with CODIT “response growth”, preventing microorganisms to invade the old wound.

Don’t let bad box pruning happen to you!

Bad Boxwood Pruning


Friends don’t let friends shear boxwood: Check out the brown leaves cut in half, carelessly and needlessly wrecking photosynthesis potential for making food for the plant. This type of “pruning” also, unfortunately encourages foliage to grow as an outer “shell”, blocking light and air circulation to the interior. SAD!

Pruning by Design can fix this.

Azalea pruning time is NOW

This azalea branch below is toooooo long and growing horizontally into the plant.  It will break someday.  That’s not great for the shrub!Azalea pruning time

Azaleas are very tough so after they bloom and after the new leaves have flushed out, it’s time to prune in your area.  In the Washington, DC area, the time is now – late June.

Azalea pruning time

Find a joint where there are too many branches (see below). Make a diagonal cut with the longer side of the cut on the side where you’d like new growth to appear or continue growing.  This joint has many other branches growing vertically which can be encouraged to grow upward rather than sideways.  Azaleas can take very hard pruning.  It’s very hard to make a mistake with Azaleas (a type of Rhododendron).
Azalea pruning time

Here (below) is the “after” view of the joint with the new cut.  This is a good, clean cut outside the branch collar.  The long horizontal branch that was there before is no longer crossing into the shrub.  Growth is encouraged to grow up and outwards allowing light and air into the interior of the shrub! can help you prune Azaleas for health, beauty and a long life.  write to us today!

Azalea pruning time