In the Garden:
The bare stubs of this poorly pruned juniper will never sprout new needles.
Please Don't Make Meatballs in the Shrubbery!
My father has never been a gardener. Except for planting the European copper beeches with which he was inordinately smitten (way too many for our half-acre suburban lot), he left all horticultural endeavors to my mother and, when I was growing up, me, the only one of five siblings to show an interest in growing things. Yet every spring, in a rite as full of the promise of a new season as the return of the red-wing blackbirds or the blossoming of the daffodils, he would grab a pair of hedge clippers and head out to the front yard. Muttering darkly that "this place is turning into a jungle," he would proceed to "re-meatball" the evergreen bushes planted along the front foundation of the house, whacking them all back into globular, green submission. My mother, whose pruning philosophy might best be described as "Woodman, spare that tree --and shrub and vine and flower!" would stand nearby, wringing her hands and offering unheeded pleas for mercy for the shrubbery. My parents are now in their late eighties and when, a few years ago, they sold their house to move to an independent living facility, I think that some of the sad, green "meatballs" lining the front walk were the original plants set out in 1964, not much larger than the day they were planted.
A Better Way
Of course, there is a happy medium between my mother's hands-off policy and my father's desire to shear the shrubs to within an inch of their lives. Proper pruning techniques help keep evergreen shrubs looking attractive and healthy, and along with the thoughtful selection of plants that mature to a suitable size, keep them from growing out of bounds. Drive around any neighborhood and you'll see that keeping foundation plantings looking good is a definite challenge for many homeowners. Gangling shrubs with bare lower branches, curtains of green blocking views from windows, and misshapen plants that have been hacked back to clear a path for walking are all too common sights. While deciduous shrubs (those that lose their leaves in winter) and broad-leaved evergreens like rhododendrons are also good candidates for foundation plantings, needled evergreen shrubs, or conifers, such as yews, arborvitae, pines and false cypress are perhaps the most popular. So we'll look at how to choose and maintain these year-round performers so they remain an asset, not an eyesore.
For the easiest care, choose plants that will not outgrow their allotted spot. If your windows are four feet from the ground, a shrub that tops out at four feet planted below will never block the view. And remember that plants grow out as well as up. Give them enough room to spread without growing up against the house siding (bad for the house as well as the plant) or encroaching on the front walk. In general, evergreens that are well-suited to their space need little pruning.
What is problematic here is that many of the popular evergreens used as foundation shrubs can actually grow to be quite large plants if not regularly trimmed. Pyramidal Japanese yews, mugo pines, and eastern arborvitae are examples of widely used foundation plants that can grow eight to ten feet tall or higher if left to their own devices. And once they have become too large, it's just about impossible to reduce their size without leaving a butchered looking plant. Pruning needs to be done preemptively to keep them at an appropriate size.
Smaller growing cultivars of many popular species are often available and should be sought out. For example, dwarf mugo pine (Pinus mugo var. pumila) only grows about three feet tall, and 'Holmstrup' arborvitae grows slowly to about eight to ten feet, considerably lower than the widely used 'Nigra' (Dark American) that can get 20 feet or more, or the 10 to 15 foot tall 'Smaragd' (Emerald Green).
Whorled or Random?
The particular growth habit of a conifer influences how and when it should be pruned. Those with a random branching habit, where branches arise at any point on the trunk, usually grow in spurts throughout the season. Plants with this growth habit include yews, junipers, false cypress (Chamaecyparis), arborvitae, and hemlock. Most randomly branched plants will not resprout if cut back into old, leafless wood. Yews, however, have lots of latent buds in the old wood and can be pruned hard. You can limit the size and promote denser growth of randomly-branched evergreens by pinching or cutting back the branch tips before new growth begins in spring or, if more drastic reduction is needed, by cutting back branches to a lower side limb within the plant. Because plants continue to put on new growth, you may also want to do a second, light pruning in early summer. Don't prune later than August 1 to give the new growth that follows a chance to harden off before winter comes.
Most evergreens look best if they are allowed to develop their natural form. But if you're after a more formal look, plants can be sheared into rigid shapes. Shearing is harder on a shrub because the repeated cutting of outer branch tips to the same length results in a dense outer shell of needles, while interior needles drop due to excessive shading. Yews and hemlocks are the needled evergreens most tolerant of shearing and so are often used for formally pruned hedges.
Whether you prune selectively or shear your plants, be sure to shape them so that the base is slightly wider than the top. This allows sunlight to reach all parts of the shrub, preventing the dreaded "bare knees" that occur when the shaded bottom branches die out.
Conifers with a whorled growth habit, including pine, spruce, and fir, have branches that arise at regular intervals along the trunk. They have one spurt of growth in the spring and won't regrow if cut back into sections without needles. To promote bushier growth and control size, pinch or cut back the new growth in early spring just as it is emerging. The upright new growth of pines is called a "candle." Snap the unexpanded candles in half by hand -- using shears or pruners will leave browned, ragged edges -- before they have opened up. For more drastic size control, you can break off the candle completely.
So save the meatball making for spaghetti night. Choose and prune your evergreen foundation shrubs properly and you'll have healthier plants and a house with great curb appeal.
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