The Fine Art of Teaching Pruning
And a DVD Giveaway


Update: The DVD goes to Dirt Chick because A, she needs it and B, she made me feel sorry for her shrubs. "Please save my sisters," cried a victim of her Felcos.  Who could resist that?  Thanks to other commenters for their great stories and the Plant Amnesty recommendation!

by Susan
Pruning has gotta be the hardest of the gardening practices to teach.  It reminds me of the ice skating discussioPruningn we had here recently because can you imagine
learning to skate by reading?  Or even by watching a video?   

So the question arises:  How DO you teach people to prune?  The gardening coach in me has found the best way is to demonstrate on an actual shrub of the homeowner and instruct them as they take over the job.  And by doing it themselves and getting assurances, they get the feel for it, lose their crippling fear of it, and often learn to love it.  (Remember the words of Kirra: "Learning to prune it empowering!") Pretty soon it gets to be fun.

Okay, I’m getting worked up.  Back to business. 

I was recently offered a DVD-ROM about pruning from Fine Gardening Magazine and was eager to see it because of my high regard for the mag. I’ve especially admired their articles about pruning, so I was primed to like this compilation of 39 articles from the magazine, plus 14 short videos.  Here’s my review.

My first reaction to the articles was gee, as good as they are, not only were they all in the magazine but they’ve all been helpfully squirreled way on the magazine’s website, so why would anyone pay $25 for them?  Then on second thought, the more ways to package useful information, the better.  Some people may use it more if they have it in hand, if they’ve invested in it.

I say just get the information out there because people desperately need it.  There’s no gardening task that’s done wrong more often than pruning.  The word "botched" comes to mind.  Or it’s not done at all on shrubs that sorely need it.  So I welcome this compilation as a contribution to good pruning education. I saw nothing I disagreed with and much that I know to be true – like encouraging readers to NOT prune hydrangeas at all, to NOT shear but instead to mostly thin and rejuvenate, to allow plants to become their natural shapes, which are far healthier and lovelier than anything we can impose on them.  Good pruning is just letting the plant be its best and these writers all know that.  They also encourage readers to jump in and not worry so much, especially with the cane-producing shrubs that you really can’t kill by pruning.  And there’s Tracy Sabato-Aust demonstrating the pruning of perennials and noted pruning author Lee Reich on trees and shrubs.  Good experts.

And about those videos with Lee Reich, he’s easy to listen to, very natural, and the setting is charming.  The subject of tool sharpening may sound dry and technical but imagine your instructor wearing old gardening shorts, working at an old picnic table in his lovely country garden, with roosters crowing in the background.  The subject may be tools, but the scene and mood are evocative of everything I love about gardening.  Or maybe I’m just so starved for the outdoors right now that I get romantic over anything remotely gardenlike, even the sunny meadows of Claritin commercials.  The rooster’s a nice touch, though.

But what about the content?  Well, over the years I’ve probably read a dozen different articles about sharpening pruners, none of which gave me the confidence to try something as intimidating as dismantling my beloved Felcos. But Lee made it look easy enough – even relaxing! – so I might finally give it a try. My only beef is that the camera action is too often jiggly and blurred.  No post-mod film techniques, please.  Oh, it could use some text to make it clearer what Lee’s saying.  What sounded like "carburendum stone" wasn’t clear and kinda needs to be spelled out for some of us. 

I might just buy this DVD as a gift sometime.  You can buy it here. 

Or better yet, win a free one ($25 value) by telling us your pruning story.  Have you killed a plant with your pruners or brought one back from ugliness to its natural beauty again?  Have you had an "aha" moment when you’ve suddenly gotten it?  Send your stories in a comment until Superbowl start time tomorrow.


  1. You are right about the much mis-informed pruning public. One only has to look around at the meatballs and dinner table plants (those that just need a tablecloth over their flat pruned tops)to see the problems. I am working on the espalier pruning technique on some apple trees by the garden. It is trial and error and mostly error at this point but this past year, I did have TWO apples and, the trees are starting to have a bit of structure! LOL

  2. There is no question that most beginning (and even a few advanced) 🙂 gardeners simply don’t “get it” when it comes to pruning.

    The good news is that with a few exceptions, plants pretty much behave similarly when pruned. And to try to explain that, I did up a short video to explain the only two kinds of pruning cuts you’ll ever use.

    This doesn’t address the art of pruning or the specifics of pruning individual plants but it’s a starting point. And it doesn’t cost $25 bucks.

  3. I killed a beloved old apricot tree. I had already pruned it once and then white flies from the neighbor’s tree attacked it. I washed and washed and washed this tree and then someone else suggested that I cut back the infested section. Not good. So, I would love to be scolded by Lee. Pick me.

  4. Kim beat me to the Plant Amnesty recommendation. Great website, great organization. The founder, Cass Turnbull wrote “Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning” that I refer to quite regularly. My only beef is that it doesn’t cover all plants, which I know is an impractical wish because no one could heft such an all inclusive tome.

    Learn by doing is the best method. It’s how I overcame my fear of pruning (rotundiarephobia, maybe, based on its Latin roots?). Eight or ten years ago, after attending a pruning class, I hired the instructor, an arborist with a respected tree service, to come to my home and give me hands-on instructions.

    We tackled my coral bark maple, which had been non-selectively pruned when my neighbors’ huge Doug fir was felled, not chopped and dropped, and landed in my front garden (insert appropriate curse words here, I’m sure I said them all). An hour later, my lop-sided maple was on its way to a better shape and I was much more confident in my pruning abilities. However, I have not yet mastered my fear of sharping my pruning tools. I understand the whats, hows, and whys but it’s my own follow-through that still daunts me. I’ve been known to duck the task and buy new blades for my Felcos instead.

  5. The first time I ever pruned was for a customer who wanted me to do his roses, and I swear I was scared to death I would kill them all. I still don’t have any confidence with roses. My mantra over the years has become: dead, diseased, damaged, crossed; dead, diseased, damaged, crossed… That is how I spproach any pruning job and once all the dead, diseased, damaged, or crossing branches are cleaned out, it is much easier to tell what to do next, if anything. Natural shapes rock. Last time I moved I left a very lucrative gardening business and started up again in a place where it wasn’t nearly as good, just to escape all the tight-ass boxed and balled hedges I had to maintain. One piece of advice. If you are teaching someone to prune, don’t show them what to do and then look away!! Beginners tend to get carried away with their new skill…

  6. I was a beautiful, if overgrown, old lilac bush. If only you could see my jagged branches and my stumpy sticks, you would realize how the crazy, misguided gardener who lives at my house needs this DVD. Sure, I didn’t flower that much but did that mean I deserved this hackneyed hacking? You write about natural shape, how I wish. My “shape” now resembles the rooster-head haircut of a 9 year boy who has been dreaming of a mohawk but is very directionally challenged. Sticks everywhere, long in some places, short unexpectedly. I see my shrub sisters around the yard, trying to shrink to avoid her flashing Felcos. Please, although it is too late for me, please save my sisters. Send this gardener the DVD before its too late!

  7. I am one of the mangagers at a local garden center, and people often call us for advice. A couple of years ago on a unusually nice February day, a frantic woman called and said “Help, my husband is going out to prune something – anything, do you have a list of thing that he can cut without killing.”


  8. Ahhh… winter with Lake Effect Snow in northwestern Indiana… always reminds me of the time(here we go) my good friend, associate, helper, piano tuner and jazz musician found ourselves sitting, as in a crow’s nest, in the previously topped tops of eastern white pines. We had climbed up the ladder-like whorls of these planted-as-a-screening-hedge behemoths to our stump seats, twenty-five to thirty feet above the snowy ground, ONLY because the owner was threatened with their REMOVAL unless they were kept shortened, due to their linear proximity to the high-tension power line on the other side. It was with much negotiating with the requesting owner, and much respectful apologizing to the pines, that we found ourselves there, that crisp winter day.
    My point for sharing this experience is that first and foremost we must approach every pruning opportunity with reverence and respect, and much consideration.
    If we pay attention to the unnatural responsive growth that is stimulated by less than ideal pruning, we will learn what should not be done.
    And, if we are humble and respectful, we may experience magical moments under most unexpected circumstances.

  9. I received my lesson in Extreme Makeover Pruning when I performed my horticultural internship at The Filoli Garden Estate in Woodside CA.
    If you want to become a Cirque du Soliel Surgical Gardener this is the place to go for your Phd. ( Pruning Horticultural doctorate )
    Everything, I mean everything is pruned into some sort of contortionist act.
    Leptospermums resemble waterfalls, Olive trees are pruned into massive hat boxes, Sycamores are pollarded into stubby knobs that resemble horticultural amputees, 220 forty foot tall Taxus baccata ( yews) are sheared in perfect Viagra prone upright position.
    There is nary any erectile dysfunction in this group of stoic marching coniferous green soldiers.

    Our choice of tools for manual deformity included large and small chain saws, sawzalls ( a type of construction saw) loppers, hand pruners, shears, Felcos and a fabulous little electric tool called ” The Little Wonder” .
    Coppicing with Confidence should have been the title of that internship !

  10. I know your reference to “Super Bowl Start Time” would make sense to most people and get around the whole time zone thing, but I had to look it up! I hope my comments get in under the wire.

    In our garden, we have a “100 year old lilac bush,” according to our now-deceased very elderly neighbor. We’ve tried several pruning techniques over the 25 years we’ve lived here, but I can’t say that any of them have yet proven to be the best! On the bright side, we haven’t killed the lilac either.

    Also, we planted a Roxbury Russet apple tree 3 years back and it’s thriving. This year, we need to do some serious pruning. How great it would be to know we are pruning correctly for both the apple tree and the lilac bush.

    Thanks for your very fun blog.

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