Gardening: What If We Stopped Pruning Our Trees?

November is a good time to plant and prune trees and shrubs. Our gardening expert Eric Charton suggests that we review our maintenance habits.

Sus to preconceived ideas about tree and shrub pruning. Eric Charton, coordinator of the Strasbourg Eurometropole’s garden and composting relay club, shares his experience with us regarding tree pruning

You just have to ask the question differently. You may have gotten into the habit of trimming your hedges and your decorative trees. (For fruit trees, the problem is different and will not be discussed here). Well, you should know that this is a mistake, according to our gardening expert. By pruning your shrubs, you are entering a never-ending pruning loop.

What does pruning do to a tree or shrub?
“The more you prune, the more you make the tree think it is in its juvenile phase and the more you delay its adult development,” explains Eric Charton. By doing so, the gardener is slowing down the maturity of his tree, in other words, he is not respecting its deep nature. And who says, delayed development, says increase of the fragility. If the tree develops normally, without any intervention, it will develop its roots in parallel and grow regularly and harmoniously.

If the gardener prunes his shrub anyway, what reaction will he trigger in the plant? The botanical explanation is a bit technical, but it is necessary. The stems of the tree have buds. The tip of the stem is called the apical bud, or terminal bud. All along the stem are the lateral or axillary buds. If you cut the end of the stem, each of the lateral buds will enter a kind of race to the scallion to become in turn the apical bud of the new developing stem. So the small branch before cutting will multiply as the successive prunings take place. The result will be an indescribable mess of young branches. Over the years, the natural balance of the tree not being respected, the tree will grow and spread at the height of the cut and weaken in its lower part. Until this imbalance weakens it and makes it more susceptible to diseases and insect pests. As for the trees, the principle is the same for the branches, the cut causes the lateral buds to develop and each cut area becomes more fragile and multiplies the risk for the branch to break by strong wind.

The idea is to let the branches grow normally from their bases to their ends, in a regular and harmonious way. You must also let the branches bloom naturally, because the branch then tends to calm down its growth. In a word, it is enough to respect the natural growth of the tree, without playing tricks on it, without “titillating” it as Eric says. Otherwise, the tree may feel that it is in a permanent growth phase and will exhaust itself by developing in all directions. What Eric sums up with this truism: “If the tree is going to be big, it has to be big.”

Stop Pruning Your Garden in the Fall - When to Prune Shrubs and Trees

So how do you manage not to prune?
This is a long-term project. The pragmatic Eric suggests a logical approach. You must try to visualize your garden before you even start designing it. The very first rule is to know the ecological functions of your garden: which soil, which climate, which sunshine. This knowledge of your land allows you to determine the species that will be happy there. Then you just have to imagine the height of the trees you want to reach. You want to hide the view of the neighbor’s garage, choose a tree with a definite growth of 2.5 meters. You want protective shade over your entire deck, think bigger and choose trees that can reach 5 to 6 meters. You will have all the time to see your tree grow and bring you from year to year the shade beneficial to your summer naps. Trees should be planted according to your aesthetic objectives but especially according to its final growth. There is no need to prune it, it will reach the ideal size for you when it is mature. A “win-win” contract, as we say.

One last detail, however, if you ask a nurseryman for advice, make sure he doesn’t direct you to trees that are bigger than you want while telling you “You’ll just have to prune it!” That would be counterproductive.

Then it is advisable to plant your acquisitions at a good distance from your fences, in order to respect the standards of neighborhood in force. Also remember not to plant anything near electrical or telephone cables, nor too close to your houses. Once these rules are simple, you can enjoy serenity and landscape well-being.

The advantages of not pruning
The very first advantage is of course that you will produce less green waste. You will still have leaves to collect in the fall, but no branch waste, otherwise known as wood waste. The only exception is if your branch is wounded or broken by bad weather, it must be cut off cleanly to avoid wounds, which can make it more fragile. And as our expert gardener says so well “The good waste is the one we don’t produce.”

The other advantage, not negligible, is procrastination. And yes, if we don’t prune, we can do other things. Like admiring our shrubs growing in harmony and lulling ourselves to sleep with the sound of the wind through the foliage. Or not. It’s up to you.

What if the rules of urban life force us to prune?

Needless to say, this wise advice is only applicable if you are starting your garden. But if you have already made the mistake of planting your trees, shrubs or bushes too close to fences or the sidewalk, you should continue to prune. In this case, Eric recommends pruning less often, but drier. Cut back drastically, then let it grow for two or three years (or more if possible) and then continue. This technique also has its advantages. Less intervention on the one hand, therefore beneficial for the health of the tree. And bigger waste after the cut. This larger and denser wood, instead of being chipped like young wood, can be used as faggots for barbecues or fireplaces, or can be used to make dry hedges. Eric sums up this new method of temporal spacing of actions on your plantations: “What you did every day, you do every week, what you did every week you do every month, and so on until what you did every year, you do every 5 years.

Finally, if you don’t think you can do without annual pruning and you want to follow Eric’s advice, there is still a drastic solution: cut your shrubs, replant the cuttings at the right distance from your fences, i.e. at a distance roughly equivalent to the final height of your shrub, and pull out your first line of shrubs. I know, it hurts to say it like that, but it’s effective.