Psycho Pruning – by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


Let’s face it; nicknames usually have some basis in fact. My parents used to call me “psycho-pruner”, and over time, I’ve come to accept, and even be proud of my predilection to prune. I usually don’t count it among the joys of gardening, but there is something powerfully cathartic about a good chop and trim session. I remember a couple of summers back, I went out into the garden to “tidy things up a bit”, and before I knew it, I had created a pile of brush about twice the size of a minivan. Just this morning I was wacking away at the faded perennials in my garden and a neighbor called out, “Beware the mad pruner.”  Some folks never change.


Many people equate a well-trimmed garden with personality disorders

like compulsive trophy polishing. Here in Austin, where laid back is the state religion, creating a front yard parterre might force your neighbors to start a petition drive. “Boycott cruel and unusual prunery!” In many Austin neighborhoods, a topiary garden would feel as at home as a Dallas matron at a biker bar. Be that as it may, I come here today to praise pruning and encourage you to take up your shears.


Winter is a good time to ponder pruning, and in some cases, to actually carry out the deed. Many species require winter pruning in order to perform well in the coming year. Crape myrtles, for example, bloom on new wood, and a winter shape-up encourages the growth that will produce lavish summer color. I treat the pruning of my crape myrtle as if it were a ribbon-cutting ceremony that marks the official opening of the garden season. I wait till the first week of February and, with that special glint in my eye, get to work.


Crape myrtles actually offer an excellent introduction to “the way” of pruning. I cringe when I see what most folks do to their crape myrtles.  Instead of an artful pruning, what most of the trees are subjected to is just this side short of sadistic. While I do enjoy pruning mine, I don’t feel compelled to punish them. Instead, I try to sculpt them so that their smooth trunks and limbs have a graceful flowing effect. Each cut is carefully considered-- I try to shape the tree as if it were a giant bonsai. The result is a tree that is beautiful even before it leafs out or blooms.


Towards the end of February, it will be time to start shaping the evergreens in my garden. In particular, I’ll need to trim my little boxwood pyramids. These were rather late additions to my garden, I added a “double file” line of these little guys because I thought they’d add a touch of whimsy to an otherwise naturalistic bed. They look like mini garden sentinels waiting for a parade. In addition to being fun, they also provide structure for visitors. Their “parade route” leads your eyes to a special place in the garden-- a pagoda and a “viewing stone” framed by a weeping yaupon holly tree.


A few years back I attended a string of garden lectures where everybody was denouncing the tedium and tyranny of pruning, and boxwood hedges were held up for special contempt. Knowing titters from the audience reinforced the speaker’s self-righteous calls for gardens liberated from clippers and shears. If there were any other members of the secret order of psycho-pruners  present, they were biting their tongues, as was I. But, no longer… My battle cry now is for “Pruner Pride.”


All gardens, even the most native and naturalistic, benefit from the hand of an artful pruner. In this season where the garden is poised for the green flood of springtime, remember that our gardens are co-creations, shared with mother earth. And like any good mother, she expects you to tidy up your room. Now get clipping!



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