On the Persistence of Sheared Shrubs

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Azaleas as Mother Nature intended.

I’ve held off ranting about the examples of sheared shrubs that I see in my town, but no more. Hey, I’m just agreeing with the experts. I Googled “shearing shrubs” and found:

Both the Arizona Water Authority and the AZ Plant Lady agree that it’s bad, and Maureen Gilmer in the Seattle Times declares “Sheered Shrubs a Travesty:”

If Mother Nature had intended shrubs to be square, she would have created them that way. Yet humans persist in trying to render a free-growing plant into geometric perfection.

So there’s the obvious aesthetic objection – the plants don’t LOOK as good, at least in the eyes of most plant-lovers. Correct pruning not only looks better but is much less work.

Maureen’s mentor taught her that “The shrub should never look as though it’s been pruned….And if done properly, you rarely have to prune at all,” adding that “he knew from 50 years in the field just how much work results when shrubs are sheared rather than pruned.” Exactly!

From the U. Maryland, there’s this advice about Pruning Hedges and Shrubs:

Many folks like the look of sheared plants but they lose their characteristic shapes and lateral buds along the stems are stimulated to produce even more new growth. It can also reduce flowering.

And they show how to do it correctly.

The late, awesome Cass Turnbull, founder of PlantAmnesty, tackles the subject thoroughly in “Don’t Shear: Why Johnny Can’t Prune.” Starting with the point that shearing is “unhealthy for plants” and “subverts plant’s natural beauty,” she goes on to pose an interesting question – why the landscape industry has persisted in the practice of shearing.

The resulting maintenance costs [from shearing], when compared to those of selectively pruned shrubs, are high. This is the case with all pruning art, including pollarding, pleaching, cloud pruning, and espalier. They all require high maintenance, with specific species chosen purposely to create a formal garden or garden element… .

The problem with shearing most plants is that shearing stimulates watersprout regrowth that is unattractive and needs to be re-sheared frequently to keep the plant looking tidy—sometimes as often as eight times a year. But selectively pruned plants need to be pruned only once every one-to-five years.

She asks,

Why does shearing persist even among the larger, more successful companies?  If it is wrong and it costs more, why does it continue to be the industry standard?  Why, why, why?

And this is even after the very best training in correct pruning. The problem is “there is almost an instinctive affinity for shearing in the unenlightened” – because shearing makes the “everything look tidy and under control.”

So what’s needed is better marketing! “Selective pruning could be sold to new customers as an alternative to traditional shearing, saying that it costs less, is better for plant health, uses no carbon emissions (gasoline), and requires no noisy equipment. Selective pruning can be called natural target pruning, fine pruning, or aesthetic pruning. Brag on the company’s horticulturally knowledgeable staff and their ability to use the natural pruning technique. These are things that many customers are already seeking.” Brilliant!

Here are a few of the shrubs I see sheared in my neighborhood.

Forsythia

Forsythias allowed to look natural

The very knowledgeable Ruth Clausen offers great advice in her “How to treat forsythia and other old-fashioned spring shrubs.” The University of Maine has a nice video of how to do it correctly. And GardenRant’s Elizabeth Licata wrote convincingly that “Forsythias need to be free.”

Azaleas

Don’t do this!

I was surprised when my web search turned up some azalea-pruning advice I wrote years ago.

Nandina

This photo of a sheared Nandina at an apartment building near me demonstrates an additional pruning no-no – making the top of the plant wider than the base (thereby limiting light that reaches the base). I should send them Southern Living’s “Pruning 101: How to Prune Nandina” for a healthier plant.

Some Support for Shearing

In fairness, not everyone online bashes shearing. C.L. Fornari writes about “The Beauty of Sheared Shrubs, focusing on the shrubs that can handle it: boxwood, Japanese holly and yews.

But one Florida landscaper’s “Shrub trimming brings that extra something all properties can enjoy,” including “How to maintain a solid green wall,” would drive Cass Turnbull crazy.

This Old House offers “5 Design Ideas for Sheared Shrubs that, in my experience, grossly underplays the expense and difficulty of using shrubs for screening. They write that “A beautiful wall of greenery is less expensive to construct than a wall of brick or stone.”

Compared to brick or stone, sure. But I’ve wasted untold bucks on shrubs that failed to provide screening and finally resorted to having wooden screens constructed at a fraction of the cost. And unlike high-maintenance hedges, there’s no upkeep if you use stains rather than paints.

20 COMMENTS

  1. My husband, who has no interest in plants, would love to have a front yard full of sheared shrubs so that our house would look like all of the other houses in the neighborhood. My neighbors just put in a 12 or 15 foot long, 3 foot wide, 3 foot deep planter box against the front of their house. It was planted with three lollipop pruned … olive trees. This appears to have been designed by a professional as part of a massive relandscaping project. In my neighborhood you will also see sheared bougainvillea, sheared western sword ferns (little vertical cylinders!) and sheared lavendar (very popular). Besides the fact that everyone else has them, the shearing is something that can be easily accomplished by an untrained crew of “landscapers”.

  2. I agree that most shearing done by non-gardener homeowners or their landscaping crews is unnecessary and even unsightly. But I disagree that shearing is inherently bad. Like CL Fornari, I love the structure and geometry of a beautifully sheared boxwood ball or pyramid, especially among shaggier plants, and a clipped hedge is undeniably beautiful. I’m reading a book right now about famous gardens in Japan, and nearly every one has undulating mounds of tightly clipped azaleas. So it’s a more complicated issue than just saying, don’t do it because it’s bad for the plants.

    Topiary and hedging are art forms, as many an English, French, Italian, and Japanese garden illustrates. Used with intention and in moderation — and with skill — a clipped shrub adds beauty to the garden. That said, the art has trickled down to the suburban homeowner in a reflexive way — it indicates a cared-for yard — and it makes sense to encourage busy homeowners to let plants have their natural shapes. As with all gardening, it starts with right plant, right place, because so much shearing occurs when a shrub or small tree is planted too close to the house or sidewalk and then must be clipped repeatedly to keep it in bounds. And don’t get me started on the practice of crape murder in the South, wherein landscapers and homeowners routine butcher elegant crape myrtle trees by pollarding them every winter.

    Since non-gardener homeowners and general landscaping crews will never read Garden Rant or other articles about proper pruning, maybe plant tags could be enlisted to help, with photo illustrations (for non-English-literate crews) showing proper spacing from buildings and sidewalks, and with a photo of a mature specimen that’s unclipped. That might be asking a lot of a plant tag — it might have to be a mini-booklet — but where else would one start?

  3. plants are a design material. While shearing is overused, there is definitely a place for it in landscape architecture. That said, most landscapes would be better off without as much shearing.

    • I studied landscape architecture- and our education is outdated- based on architectural principles and man’s dominion over nature. Plants are living and collaborative. Shouldn’t good design honor a plant’s true habit?

  4. I once saw in Miami someone “shearing” a Crinum lily into a box shape. Nearly had a horticulturally-caused accident!

  5. Oh boy do I agree with you. Drives me nuts in Spring when these poor geometrically sheared lilacs, forsythia and spirea are nothing but a dense nest of twigs with the odd bit of greenery. Nary a flower in site. What’s the point in planting them? Have done several short articles for community newsletters urging people to go ‘au natural’.

  6. So, what to do with azaleas that have been sheared for years? We bought a house last year with two large azaleas that have been sheared into tall rectangles. Any suggestions on how to jake them look more natural? Thanks.

      • Or trim those plants mercilessly after flowering, and you may be surprised that the mature root system will push forth stunning new growth that can be managed to compliment the surrounding established plantings. Worst case scenario is the shrub dies, then you can rip them out.

  7. The county sheared a hedge at the edge of our Rec Park. Because they waited too long between maintenance trims, it had gotten so big it was growing into a path. The result, though, is incredibly ugly and, two years later, is still brutally cut, bare branches. It’ll likely never recover

  8. C.Allen, we also bought a house with sheared azaleas. I began selectively pruning them by cutting about ⅓ of the poor, stubby limbs each year to a healthy limb. Five years later, they are graceful and natural looking again.

  9. The shrub should never look as though it’s been pruned….And if done properly, you rarely have to prune at all”… words to live by. This is the philosophy I apply to pruning. The only time I previously used the electric shears is to periodically give my yew hedges a shape-up, but after learning how to prune them properly there is a big difference. Of course, it took my a bit of trial and error to figure out how to prune them but I can already tell there is a big difference from how they looked at this point last year, vs this year.

  10. Japan, on the the other hand, has made it an art. As have, in some instances, the British. It’s not shearing per se, but an ignorance of plants and a near complete disrespect for nature.

  11. We can look to history and understand that the practice of intensive shearing of plants was a practice of the vastly wealthy to create gardens that demonstrate on wealthy man or an institution’s uncommon might. To harness nature to succumb to a geometrically pleasing order signaled power and control, not to mention an army of unskilled labor to maintain that order.
    Lingering vestiges of that mindset are still prevalent today. Those suburban homeowners who care little to learn each plant genus’ growth habits and maintain accordingly, will see order and beauty in the simplicity of a sheared shrub. It’s more about power and control. They get to let a noisy power tool show those rangy leaves and stems who’s the boss. Or they can hire a service with underpaid staff who also don’t care to understand best horticultural practice nor develop a sensitive (and somewhat more time consuming) maintenance routine.

  12. And we should not ignore that the British have established rather noble traditions that incorporate carefully clipped hedges to serve and elegant foils for more complex mixed borders that are much akin to exuberant American gardens of those who love the special gifts of many plants types: shrubs, perennials, bulbs, annuals, grasses and ferns. Those UK gardens show that with proper selection and care, a sharply clipped shrub is not explicitly a crime against nature as some are suggesting.

  13. To shear or not to shear, that is the question for many homeowners. The answer, I think, depends on the context of the garden and the skill of the gardener. I will say that hedge trimmers are banned from any garden I care for. Regular shaping, not shearing is the way to keep shrubs looking presentable.

    • Sheared shrubs do have their place…in the idyllic gardens of Europe’s grand estates and palaces. Apart from there, they simply look strange to me. Much like that Minecraft game, the kids these days play. In any case, the gardener’s skill is paramount. Nice article!

  14. I think it is so ugly. We would need plant amnesty in Europe. The natural growth is important I admire this woman and she does a great job. I think a beech hedge is beautiful in spite of beeing sheared but you need some wind shield.

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