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Pruning in winter: A handler with care

(Jason Hornick/for Express)
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Elizabeth Doyle’s company, Yankee Clippers, is known from Arlington to Potomac, Md., for its talent for pruning. The secret: Rather than hacking off the top and sides of plants in buzz-cut fashion, Yankee Clippers makes cuts at different levels for a more natural look. “A well-pruned garden looks like it hasn’t been pruned,” Doyle says. We asked her to share her tips for skillfully grooming trees and shrubs.

Is winter a good time to prune?
Winter is a wonderful time to prune because anything that is deciduous — that means they lose their leaves — allows you to see the structure of the plant a lot more easily.

Why is structure so important?
If the structure of a plant is beautiful, the plant will be beautiful and healthy. A lot of our pruning is correcting bad growth patterns, like branches that start on the left side of the plant and grow through and end up on the right side of the plant.

What tools do you need to prune?
You need hand-pruners and a 6-inch folding saw, which is instrumental for removing dead wood on the inside of plants.

What’s your first move?
Identify your sight lines. It could be how your shrubs are viewed from the driveway or the walkway or the back patio. Making sure the plant is the right shape from all viewpoints is very important.

Where do you make your first cut?
Once you’ve identified the sight lines and set an objective for the plant ­— for example, “I need to angle it off the walkway” — start with the most egregious branch that’s sticking out. Follow that down and see where you could make your cut based on inner growth. We only cut “above green,” which means we make sure that leaves are below the cuts we make.

And then?
Then you work on a different part of the plant and take another cut. You just can’t work one area or you can get yourself into a pickle.

There’s quite a bit to this.
Pruning is a lot like chess. There’s a lot of thinking involved.

Do It Right by Hand

“We’re not turning [shrubs] into squares and circles and triangles,” Elizabeth Doyle says of her hand-pruning technique. “We’re undoing that work and making azaleas look like azaleas and hollies look like hollies.” Doyle says that bluntly chopping the top off a shrub, which many landscapers do, is like giving it a blunt haircut, which will constantly need to be touched up. Doyle’s method results in a low-maintenance garden. “We layer the cuts so that the shrub will grow, but it will hold its shape,” she says.