Category Archives: PbD pruning guide

pbd Pruning Guide : Selective Hand Pruning

Pbd : HOW TO PRUNE | adele medina o’dowd 2/3/2020


1st step : prioritize pruning plants in the yard based on time of year and what looks healthy or not

2nd step : what is 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.  Most of the time, people want their plants to look more like they do in nature, softer. When you are done, the best results will be evident if the the yard does NOT look “pruned”, it should just look healthy/better.

APPROACH pruning a shrub or tree with the strategy of “Selective” hand pruning. Expect to prune branches at different levels and layers within the canopy. Careful not to injure foliage and bark unwittingly, causing undue stress and literally cutting off food production in leaves and nutrient flow in the vascular system.


  • CLEAN TOOLS OFTEN Use clorox wipes or dip tools between plants, beds and yards
  • Careful NOT to spread disease!  Looks for pest infestations and also good predators!
  • Have a bag or blanket right next to you as you prune to keep infected trimmings and infested foliage together and OFF the beds (you can spread box blight with leafblowers)


Look at last year’s growth — know what you are trying to achieve.  Where are you encouraging growth? Are you trying to make it smaller?  Don’t rush it. It might take more than 1 season. Plants are resilient, but they keep changing.  Don’t expect to prune them into a shape on the outside that they will retain — doing that will cause them to become unhealthy “empty shells”.

  • Pruning too much at once can stress the plant — prune no more than ¼ to ⅓ 
  • Start by pruning out any dead or weak wood (always)
  • Careful not to injure Branch Collars
  • Next let light and air in — make “holes”& top branches shouldn’t hang over bottom ones
  • 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
  • Prune longer branches so they don’t break in winter and get leggy  
  • Stagger and vary the depth of your cuts inside the plant
  • Consider the interior branch architecture — what should that look like?
  • Careful with hollies and other plants that grow from new cuts — “hide” cuts further inside
  • Careful in aug/sept — let them remain a bit more rough to conserve energy and foliage
  • Recall 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

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