When I first started gardening, I refused to cut back any plant, no matter how straggly or ugly, if it had a few buds that might flower, or had one branch that was living. Cutting anything back felt wrong. I just couldn’t believe that cutting back already spindly or struggling plants would “help” them. Besides, I was only interested an abundance of colorful blooms, so why cut even one off?
This belief held me back for quite some time.
So if you’re at all like me, and hate to cut back any plants with buds or secretly feel that pruning is the devil’s workshop—well, this is the post that could shave years off your growth as a gardener.
But first you gotta have faith.
Someone who helped develop my faith is Tracy DiSabato-Aust. Her name might be quite a mouthful, but her book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, was a game changer for me when is comes to controlling and shaping plants.This is a reference book that is arranged alphabetically, so you’ll need the Latin name of your plant to find it quickly. What I love is that she’s opinionated and packs a lot of information into a small space. Here’s an example: Tracy isn’t shy about letting you know what she thinks, and that’s something that I really like. This book is a great resource to have in you gardening library.
DiSabato-Aust gardens in Ohio which means most of what she says applies here in Minnesota, another bonus for midwesterners since so many gardening books seem to originate from the two coasts where plants are commonly zones 5-6 or above.
You may find your mileage or opinions differ on some plants, but DiSabato-Aust’s opinions are grounded in lots of experience. I was taken aback, for example, by how much she dislikes bearded iris. Bearded Iris are showy and come in a raft of colors and their spearlike foliage is a welcome contrast to all the bushy plants. What’s to dislike? Iris haven’t been the high maintenance nightmare for me that she finds them to be, but it provides an interesting insight. DiSabato-Aust does a lot of commercial work. I don’t mind the daily chore of picking off spent flowers on half a dozen bearded iris. Deadheading fifty to a hundred plants on a daily basis would certainly be a different story!
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I certainly found the illustrations of how effective cutting back plants convincing. Tracy has pictures of a plant cut back and one allowed to grow to its natural height. There are pictures of sprawling, spent geraniums and then the neat mound of fresh foliage that results from cutting back the mess back vigorously.
Technique is an important part of faith.
One reason I was afraid of vigorously trying to shape or control my plants is that I didn’t know how. “Pinch the asters back by 1/3.” What does that mean, exactly? Plant instructions like that were routinely ignored because I didn’t know how to do it. DiSabato-Aust has an entire chapter, filled with illustrations, on pinching, disbudding, thinning, and deadleafing. She explains clearly how, why, and on which commonly used plants that you would want to do these techniques.
I started small. I pinched back the buds on the Shasta daisy, ‘Becky,’ because the plants were too tall for the area I wanted them to grow in. It was really hard to pinch off the flower buds the first time, but when the plants bloomed—a few weeks late but at exactly the height I wanted—I was sold.
The book also has a valuable appendix that lists which plants love clay, are short-lived, deer-resistant, etc. and which plants could be considered “low maintenance.” It’s truly a great resource for both those who are unsure and reluctant to prune and those who love it.