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The Case Against Shearing your Shrubs

posted in: Home and Garden
Azaleas sheared (L) and as Mother Nature intended (R)

As a gardening writer and teacher, my favorite how-to topic has always been pruning – especially hands-on, demonstrating how it’s done on clients’ own (overgrown, neglected) shrubs. Teaching people to prune is rewarding because it’s SO often done incorrectly, and no wonder because correct pruning techniques are NOT intuitive, at least at first. Anyway, that’s my excuse for offering Greenbelt Online readers this unsolicited advice.

If you Google “shear shrubs” you’ll find no experts who were for it, no matter where in the U.S.they live. For example, the Seattle Times doesn’t mince words, declaring “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 – that plants look prettier in their natural, unsheared state, at least in the eyes of most plant-lovers. But correct pruning is also much less work.

The Seattle writer went on to say her 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!

The University of Maryland has 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 go on to show how to do it correctly.

The late 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… It requires 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.

Cass was hired by various government agencies to teach better pruning practices to employees and contractors and lamented the resistance to change, despite the obvious savings in labor. She concludes that the problem is “there is almost an instinctive affinity for shearing in the unenlightened” – because shearing makes the “everything look tidy and under control.”

Her solution? Better marketing! I especially like these selling points for correct pruning, which she calls “selective:”

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.

So here are some shrub types I see around Old Greenbelt that could use some of that carbon-free selective pruning.


Forsythias in their natural state

I recommend  “How to treat forsythia and other old-fashioned spring shrubs” by a trusted horticulturist. The University of Maine has a nice video of how to do it correctly. And my garden-blogging partner wrote convincingly that “Forsythias need to be free.”


A wider shot of the same poor azaleas shown in detail above.

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


This photo of a sheared Nandina at an apartment building in Old Greenbelt 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.

Learn from Videos?

If you’re like me and learn how-to information best by watching, check out these videos about pruning spring-flowering shrubs.

Next up –  How to Prune Privet and Euonymus Hedges along Sidewalks

The most pressing pruning problem in Old Greenbelt is surely how to keep hedges from impeding or endangering pedestrians using the inner sidewalks. For answers, I’m afraid that Google won’t help much because the situation is pretty unique – the use of privet and a particular variety of Euonymus, lots of shade, and the extreme closeness to sidewalks – so I’m asking Greenbelt’s best horticultural minds for their advice. That’s coming soon to this blog.

Follow Susan Harris:
“Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV.

  1. Larry Pritchett
    | Reply

    Good article- no shearing! I know about Cass Turnbull, got her book, very good. Trying to get maintenance gardeners to change is one problem but the other is the landscapers! Putting the wrong plants in the wrong locations, big plants in small areas, it’s a night mare. I’ve done maintenance gardening, pruning for more than 40years, things haven’t changed much. Went by a commercial account recently, every tree was topped, by big tree service did the work. Googled the service, they had a 5 star rating! Unbelievable! But enjoyed your information on pruning, keep up the good work.

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