Shear Madness

Click here to read a Shear Madness Article by Cass Turnbull

Shearing shrubs is the most common mistake landscapers and home gardeners make when trying to manage their landscapes.  While shearing is the correct way to prune formal hedges, it can lead to trouble when applied to most other landscape trees and shrubs.  Shearing wastes time and money, slowly degrades the health of shrubs, and ultimately leads to premature replacement.  

Five Reasons to Stop Shearing

1.  Shearing does not control the size of a shrub in the long run.
2.  Shearing is a drain on plant health.
3.  Shearing locks the pruner into a high-maintenance routine.
4.  Shearing subverts the purpose of many shrubs, by eliminating flowers or, even more unfortunately, by destroying branch patterns and texture.
5.  Shearing makes the pruner look bad because sheared shrubbery is considered, wasteful and in bad taste by many people.

Don’t Shear to Control Size

Because shearing is non-selective heading, it stimulates bushy regrowth, creating a twiggy outer shell on sheared plants.  This layer of twigs shades out the interior, which then becomes void of green leaves and full of dead leaves and dead wood.  Meanwhile, the outer shell becomes thicker and larger every year because, as the shrub is repeatedly sheared, it must be cut a little farther out to retain its greenery.  Inevitably, this dense, twiggy outer shell makes size reduction difficult because cutting back too far exposes the ugly dead zone inside the shrub.  Also, cutting through a thick twiggy mass is physically difficult.  Although most plants will eventually green back up when pruned back into the dead zone, needled evergreens, such as junipers, won’t.  These are the reasons that shearing is not a good way to control the size of a shrub.  Selective pruning, utilizing thinning cuts, ensures that there will be a green twig or branch to cut back to and can therefore be employed to reduce a shrub’s size while retaining its natural look.

Only Tough Plants Take Shearing

Shearing is a drain on the health of plants.  Selective pruners spend most of their time opening up plants to let in more light and air and to reduce the build-up of dead wood and disease.  Shearing plants creates the antithesis of a healthy environment, making shrubs more prone to insect attack, dead wood, and die back.  Plants become stressed because the rapid, profuse growth promoted by repeated heading depletes their energy and, given the resulting weakness and the new tender growth, makes them more susceptible to injury from freeze or drought.  In the few cases when shearing is desirable (hedges, topiary, tamamono shearing), care must be taken to choose plants that are tough enough to take repeated shearing.  Even then, the shearing must commence when the plants are young to avoid the sudden stress of shearing after a plant has reached maturity.  Even on appropriately sheared plants, the good gardener will take time to reach inside and clean out the build-up of dead wood, dead twigs, and dead leaves.

Shearing Is High Maintenance

Another problem with shearing is that it is a high-maintenance chore.  The growth, called watersprouts, that results from the heading cuts required by shearing grows rapidly straight up and looks wild.  The heading cuts stimulate rapid regrowth, which soon ruins the tidy look that the first shearing created.  Although shearing the plant may take little time, it gets undone very quickly and locks the practitioner into frequent reshearing.

When plants are selectively pruned, the new growth matches that which already exists in the plant, grows at about the same rate, and looks more natural.  Consequently, a selectively pruned plant stays in control longer.  Shearing is a labor-intensive form of pruning. The first time through is gratifying and quick, but the unwary wielder of hedge shears will soon be locked onto a high-maintenance habit.  More and more shearing will be required keep a plant looking tidy until one day the hapless homeowner can’t see out the window or open the door that is blocked by a giant ball or box.  Eventually, the plant’s health will begin to show signs of deterioration.

Defeats the Purpose

In addition to maintenance and health factors, the gardener must consider the purpose of plants when deciding how to prune them.  Shearing often defeats a shrub’s purpose, usually by cutting off the flowers or ruining other desirable characteristics.  True genius in landscaping is obtained by balancing theme and contrast.  One of the elements of contrast is texture (for example, the fine leaves of a boxwood, the fluffy look of bridal spirea, the bold deep leaf of a viburnum).  Shearing will eliminate contrast of texture.  Everything begins to look the same.

Lastly, shearing does great damage to plants that have been chosen for their secondary characteristic of fine branch patterns.  Star magnolias, for example, are valued not only for their flowers but also for their beautiful branch patterns. Other trees and shrubs highly valued for their fine branch patterns include double-file viburnum, Harry Lauder’s walking stick, Japanese maple, and eastern dogwood.  Shearing ruins them.
Makes the Pruner Look Bad

Shearing, except for specialty pruning like hedges and topiary, makes the pruner look bad because sheared shrubbery is considered foolish, wasteful, and in bad taste by many people.

Shear Madness

So, if you have a sheared hedge--and do rent a pair of power shears—restrain from taking on the rest of the yard.  Don’t get carried away with shear madness.

A Little History

Twenty-five years ago I set out to end bad pruning in King County. The first thing I did was write articles explaining what pruning was wrong. I am still surprised that the Arboretum Bulletin saw fit to publish them. The titles were: Birch Butchery, Cherry Stripping, and Poodleballing—Sport of Kings. At the same time I started PlantAmnesty, a nonprofit organization to promote better pruning. Our mission is “to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs caused by mal-pruning.”

We have succeeded, by and large, in ending tree topping in Seattle, a seemingly impossible task when we started. To measure our progress we analyzed ads in the yellow page under Tree Services. In 1999, 60% of the yellow-page ads listed topping as a service. In the real world, the incidence of topping was more like 90% of all the work done on trees. In 2005 only 20% listed topping. In 2010 it had dropped to zero. I estimate that about 10% of the work done continues to be topping, not by tree service companies, but by landscapers and overzealous homeowners with ladders. It’s pretty much a right of spring. We can never stop educating people to not top their trees.

The Shear Madness Campaign

Unfortunately, the parallel campaign to end inappropriate shrub shearing has gone nowhere. Even worse today than 25 years ago, shrub shearing remains ubiquitous in Seattle, across the country, and around the world. I figure I have about ten more good years in me, and I hope to convince the PlantAmnesty board to pull out all the stops. The crusade to end shearing, which I call the Shear Madness Campaign, is work that will have to be done in addition to our regular duties—teaching pruning classes, running the referral service of good gardeners and arborists, facilitating the adoption of unwanted shrubs through our Adopt-a-Plant Program, supporting the Seattle Heritage Tree Program (we locate, evaluate and designate the special trees of Seattle), and doing the many other activities that keep us funded and fulfill our mission. How can we possibly succeed?

With tree topping, our first step was to reach out to the natural constituency—gardeners, garden clubs, and garden writers who like plants—and heighten their awareness of the problem. I must have presented my slide show of Pruning Horrors to hundreds of garden clubs. We alerted the public through our humorous and informative Hall of Shame Booth (featuring photo-posters showing the consequences of bad pruning) at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. Local arborists who knew good pruning supported us in word, deed, and funding. The State gave us funding for Public Service Announcements on TV, for brochures, and for DVDs. And the media (TV, radio, and newspapers) came to us, intrigued by our name and mission. Through the resulting media coverage, we reached hundreds of thousands of people with the good pruning word, absolutely free. We wrote letters to weather forecasters, media horticulturists, and reporters who recommended topping—which many did at the time. When we started our crusade, tree topping was synonymous with tree pruning. Slowly we changed public perception of topping so that it is no longer regarded as an acceptable practice.

Tree topping is bad and wrong and it shouldn’t be done because it impairs the health and safety of trees and it’s hard on the pocketbook. Tree topping just doesn’t work in the long run to make a tree safer or shorter. The opposite, in fact, is true. Shrub shearing is also bad, and it’s wrong and it shouldn’t be done because it impairs the health of shrubs. It causes watersprout regrowth that looks awful and gets exponentially worse at every pruning, therefore costing more money. The ill-effects of shearing are delayed, but it will and does kill plants. Long before they die, they will become unwieldy balls of crowded branches, deadwood, and dead leaves with a nuisance of watersprouts that demand constant attention.  A well-planned landscape is practically immortal as long as it is weeded and watered. I have watched with sadness as many fine landscapes have been sheared to death over the course of a decade or more.  And how annoying it must be for the designers to see their carefully selected and placed plants ruined by overzealous, uninformed, well-meaning workers. Shrub shearing should be disallowed on the basis of waste alone—it is a waste of time, money, and plant material. Hundreds of thousands of plants are being ruined, everywhere, all the time.

But there is a problem. Whereas tree topping looks horrible to the average person, sheared shrubs are attractive to the untrained eye. I remember, when working on the grounds crew of the Seattle Parks Department, riding up Queen Ann hill in a green truck with my boss when we drove past one of those goofy sheared yards. My boss said in disgust, “Sheared to within an inch of their lives!” I thought to myself, “He sure is a party pooper, I think they look cool and their health seems fine to me.” Thirty years later I’m married to that guy and running a nonprofit to end shrub shearing. These days I think of the love of sheared shrubbery as an early awareness and appreciation of plants. It is a stage that should be passed through quickly on the journey of garden appreciation—sort of like when I was a little girl and liked pink unicorns. One needs to mature and develop a more sophisticated appreciation of what plants do.

The problem is not only that shearing looks good, but also that there are times and places where shearing is the right sort of pruning to do: formal hedges, real topiary, and tamamono (the sheared lower-story plants in authentic Japanese garden). But in these cases, as with all forms of pruning art, the species are chosen specifically for the purpose, training starts young and is guaranteed for the life of the plant, and it is designed and installed for just such a purpose. You don’t just go outside one day and turn your forsythia into a duck. Everything that is sheared is not topiary. Species criteria for good topiary are plants that have small leaves, spaced close together, that are tough enough to take it, that break bud on bare wood, and hopefully don’t do anything else very interesting (like flower).

Because some people like how it looks, and because there are instances where shearing is the correct thing to do, there is a widespread misperception that shearing is just an alternate kind of pruning—really, just a personal preference. And we at PlantAmnesty are being plant snobs to try to take away someone’s source of amusement! After all, what gives us the right to impose our own aesthetic on others? And what about those poor immigrant laborers? What are they going to do for a living?

To that I say, shearing is not an alternate kind of pruning Or maybe it is, but only insofar as it is the wrong kind of alternate pruning. A leading arborist from the Western Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture recently said to me that the common practice of tree topping in Italy is “a tree management system.” Well, I guess so, but tree topping is the wrong tree management system. A friend who visited the south heard a tour guide refer to slavery as an economic system. I guess that’s true, too—but it is an untenable economic system.  If there were just a few crazy oversheared yards out there, I guess we’d just call it folk art and move on. But shearing is everywhere—I mean everywhere! I set out one day to take a photo of a selectively pruned commercial site and, after driving around for two hours, I couldn’t find one. There is just block after block of sheared landscapes. It’s really depressing. We’ve got to do something. But first off, the natural constituency of plants (that’s the Arboretum Foundation, garden clubs, master gardeners, and media horticulturists) need to fully understand in their hearts and minds that shearing isn’t an optional kind of pruning. It’s just plain wrong—wrong and bad and shouldn’t be done. You are not being a meanie to tell the condo manager, or the golf club manager, or the park department that they need to require all non-hedge plants to be selectively pruned. You are just being responsible.

But what about Olga who lives next door and proudly shears her forsythia every year. We don’t’ want to hurt her feelings, do we? I’ve been doing this a long time and what I have found is that people who already shear don’t get upset. When they run across our literature, see the slideshow or pass by the booth, there seems to some sort of protective mechanism in place. They either 1) dismiss PlantAmnesty is just a bunch of overbearing kooks, or 2) conclude that their yard is actually topiary and a damn fine specimen at that. And that’s fine with us. We simply want to educate those who are yet uncommitted to request selective pruning and reject shearing. Landscape companies who shear sometimes welcome the chance to get out of the rut. Some company owners, however, can get pretty upset when you tell them what they have been doing is wrong. There is an old saying, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” They will get over it. Sometimes the bosses understand selective pruning but have a hard time controlling the shearing maniac found on all grounds’ crews everywhere. This person needs to be stopped. And as for those poor immigrant laborers, there is no reason they can’t learn selective pruning too. Then they can become skilled labor, charge more for their services and participate more fully in the American dream. This is why PlantAmnesty continues, and expands, our Hispanic outreach program.

The Shear Madness Campaign is going to be a lot harder to run than the Anti-topping Crusade. As already noted, the main reason is that shearing is perceived as a style or philosophy of pruning, not as something that doesn’t work. Getting grant funding will also be practically impossible. And since the gardening movement collapsed and newspapers ceased to be the main source of information, our media outreach is more difficult too. Up until now, the media has been the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to change the body of public knowledge. I am an analogue woman in a digital world and cannot fathom how Facebook and Twitter can help change common knowledge. Perhaps help is out there. We won’t know till we try. And try we will. The effort will take perseverance, money, creativity, and the ability to withstand being perceived as intolerant. Wish us luck!