Shearing is not Pruning

This time of year, we’re preparing for winter and many folks are doing some Fall pruning. Do you say you’re grabbing your shears

Ficus benjamina (formally sheared)

Ficus benjamina (formally sheared)

or your pruners? There is a difference between pruning and shearing.

Pruning means cutting off a part of a living plant, and covers everything from snipping a twig to reaching deep inside a tree canopy and sawing off a major branch. Shearing is a particular kind of pruning, one in which only branch tips are cut, and they are cut as a group rather than individually.

The goal of shearing is to force lots of small outer branches while creating a smooth outline. The result — if it is successful — is that the sheared plant loses it’s natural identity and becomes a formal shape.

Creating a box hedge topiary by hand

Creating a box hedge topiary by hand

The most common example of the technique is the flat-faced wall of a sheared hedge, but people also shear plants into mounds, pyramids, graduated balls on sticks, or (in a few extreme cases) things like chess pieces and leaping dogs.

Shearing at the simple hedge level seems as thought it should be easy; just hold the shears at the proper angle and clip away. In fact, it takes patience, practice — and strong arms — to see where you need to cut and then do the cutting properly.

Electric hedge trimmers promise to relieve you of much of the work, and they do make it go faster. But they are heavier than hand shears, their speed increases the chance of mistakes, and they have a regrettable tendency to tear everything they touch instead of cutting cleanly.

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