Why Is It Important To End Bad Pruning?

August 25, 2014

By: Cass Turnbull, PlantAmnesty Founder/President

I invented and have run a nonprofit to end bad pruning (mostly tree topping and unsustainable shearing) for 26 years. During that time I’ve written a lot about the topic: why topping and shearing are bad, how to prune selectively, why grounds crews won’t selectively prune, how to change pruning practices and how I came to start PlantAmnesty.

But I don’t believe I have ever been asked to write on why undoing bad pruning practices is important. It’s important to me because mal-pruning ruins plants, which are things I especially like, and because it doesn’t make sense. Instead of making a tree safer and smaller, or saving the tree and the view, topping makes it potentially more dangerous. It ruins the tree and the view. Because plants speed up their growth rate after heading cuts, it doesn’t even really work to keep them smaller. Much the same is true for shrub shearing. Over a period of time, it will ruin the shrubs’ health, costs more to maintain and compromise those features for which the plant was selected. Not to mention, the noise, dump fees, waste of gas and pollution it all creates.

Branchless In SeattleMost people, including people in the green business, think that mal-pruning is a matter of personal taste. I guess it appears that way, but it is not true. It is not a matter of aesthetics – the customer prefers that it look this way over that way – it is a matter of what’s right and wrong. Nuisance shearing and topping aren’t pruning, they are just cutting.

Things are made more complicated by the fact that in some instances, formal hedges and real topiary-shearing is okay. I’ve written on that topic too, but that still doesn’t answer the question, “why is it important?” Sometimes reporters come right out and ask me why I am spending so much time and energy on such a (unimportant) goal. Why not be passionate about ending world hunger or saving polar bears or something?

The best I can do is to provide a tortured analogy of the sort for which I’m famous.

Imagine a car lover, a person who has restored old classic cars and collected or designed the best in the auto industry. This person goes to live in a third world country where everyone is newly rich because of discovered oil. Almost the entire population – people who used to live in huts five years age – now drive expensive cars: Mercedes, Lexus, Jaguars, etc. But instead of changing the oil, they just drive them until the car engines seize up and die. When this is pointed out to the drivers, they just tell you that, “It’s okay, cars only last a while anyway. They can be replaced.”

Horror Is Not The WordOr if they do change the oil, they use vegetable oil. When you suggest that they should use proper engine oil, they reply to your concern, “oh but I do change the oil at the mechanics shop” – a garage that I should mention, is staffed by mechanics who don’t know the names of the makes and models of the cars. Would we understand this person’s devotion to fixing the public’s mistake? Well, our situation is analogous. I’m a professional gardener, so bad pruning drives me crazy!

So it is not that bad pruning is a particularly important problem, it is because it is such a ubiquitous, persistent, intractable problem. Besides, it’s just plain crazy that people waste time and money to slowly ruin their own plants.

That’s why ending bad pruning is important to me.


From time to time, Water – Use It Wisely features guest bloggers who write about topics related to water and water conservation. PlantAmnesty, established in 1987, is a 1000-member mock-militant nonprofit organization whose purpose is to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs caused by mal-pruning.  

A big “thank you” to Cass for contributing to the Water – Use It Wisely blog. Water – Use It Wisely agrees that proper pruning is not only important to keep our Xeriscapes healthy and beautiful, but also more water efficient. Did you know that shearing and improper pruning causes your plants to use more water? Find some of our helpful Water – Use It Wisely partner resources (Tree Pruning Video), as well as this University of Arizona Shade Tree Pruning Guide for more information.