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But when a storm comes along and breaks a few stout stems in the lilacs or the hydrangeas, cleaning up the damage gives you a chance to take a closer look at the shape of your shrubs and actually improve on nature. While you’re taking out broken stems and twisted branches in small trees and shrubs, you’re promoting healthy new growth and opening plants up to allow better air circulation.
Storms rarely leave clean breaks. After a winter of heavy snow and a spring of high winds, the shrubs in my garden always need a little corrective pruning, and my husband and I often do this together, sizing up the damage and trimming shrubs and small trees to clean up the damage and also to keep them in scale with the garden. This year, we have been testing Fiskars’ Quantum loppers and pruning shears. Sharp tools are a pleasure to use, and they make clean cuts that heal quickly and naturally. I seldom go out in the garden without my pruning shears, but a sturdy pair of loppers easily handles larger stems that pruning shears can’t quite manage. You really need both.
Cutting out damaged branches is the first step. I like to cut just at or a little below breaks, and then step back to decide whether to remove more. Stems that rub against one another or that grow at awkward angles are obvious candidates to take out. My neighbors appreciate the shrubs in my garden, but I try to trim back growth stretching too far across the property line, and anything rubbing against the fence. Snipping out twiggy shoots along larger stems also helps you see the overall shape of a shrub better.
Over the years, I’ve learned to go ahead and remove some of the oldest stems in established shrubs to allow room for new growth. Cut them neatly at the base. This keeps quinces and viburnums from looking like a tangled nest of twigs, and limits the tendency of forsythia to romp through the flowerbed. I don’t usually try to shape my shrubs into tidy domes, and taking out old stems at the base actually helps me maintain the shrub’s natural shape.
Trees are a little more complicated. A good local arborist with a skilled crew and big equipment helps us maintain the mature trees in our garden, but we do our own pruning on anything we can reach with a stepladder. Long-handled loppers extend your reach safely. When you’re pruning, take out damaged limbs first; then study the tree’s growth and remove competing branches. You don’t want to fight against the tree’s natural shape, but don’t hesitate to make cuts that train growth in a direction you want to encourage.
Small trees near the sidewalk have to be trimmed nearly every year, even if they come through the winter unscathed. If you don’t trim them, passers-by will take matters into their own hands and break small branches off. Limbs that block the view from the driveway may also have to be cut.
Resist the temptation to take too much at once. You can always trim a little more later.
A vigorous morning of pruning usually generates enough stems for a good-sized bundle or two. We cut everything into about four-foot lengths, tie the bundles up tight with twine, and set them on the curb for the yard-waste pickup crew. It feels good to tie up the bundles and then turn around to look back at the garden: a little bit of pruning suddenly makes everything look just as sharp as a pair of new shears.