“Scary” Pruning Practices and the Unfortunate Results

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Butchered Palo Brea Tree

Sometimes when I am driving around, I see a poorly pruned tree or shrub, and I just cringe.  It never ceases to amaze me the crazy ways that people take care of their plants.  Whenever I see plants like this, I whip out my camera and quickly take a photo and then drive away before the homeowner asks what I am doing.

poorly pruned tree

 Butchered Palo Brea Tree

I mean if they catch me taking a photo, I can’t very well tell them, “I am taking pictures of the horrible way you prune your trees ?” Can I?  Well, I probably could and should, but I am too chicken to confront people that way.  I have no problem confronting people about their horrible pruning if they have asked me over to do a consult on their landscaping.  I just like an invitation first before I tell people what they are doing wrong 😉

poorly pruned tree

 ‘Topped’ Willow Acacia

poorly pruned tree

 Willow Acacia as it should look like.

Although, the primary purpose of this post is to entertain with photos of truly awful pruning disasters.  I just have to step up on my “high horse” for just a minute regarding one type of pruning that is widespread.  So please bear with me…

One of the most harmful types of pruning in regards to trees is called ‘topping’ the tree.  It removes a lot of the top growth.  This is usually done to shorten the tree and to preserve a view.  The topping is NOT good for the tree and accelerates more top growth.  The new branches are weakly attached and are much more liable to break, which can cause damage to what is underneath.  Also, topping trees greatly stress the tree which can make them susceptible to insect and certain environmental factors.  You can read more about topping trees here Tree Care.

poorly pruned tree

 Chilean Mesquite with a ‘kink’ in its trunk.

poorly pruned tree

  ‘Poodle’ Olive Tree

 Okay, the vast majority of trees should not be prune into round shapes.

Palo Brea tree pruned into a 'ball

 Palo Brea tree pruned into a ‘ball.’

Palo Brea tree as it should look

 Palo Brea tree as it should look.

Blue Palo Verde tree

 A Blue Palo Verde tree that lost its head.

A few years ago we suffered a severe micro-burst during the summertime at the community where I was working.   The tree above snapped off in the high winds at a weak point in the trunk, which was weak due to improper pruning that was done a long time before the storm.

Orange tree

 This is an Orange tree that has been pruned correctly.

The Citrus tree, above, has been pruned the right way, but I just had to include it in this post because it is so humorous.  Look closely (you can click on the photo to enlarge)…. the homeowner tied CDs to the tree to scare off the birds from eating the fruit.

Many people prune their Citrus trees up so that they look more like a ‘typical’ tree.  But what many people don’t know is that the lower branches produce the most fruit, the sweetest fruit and protects the trunk from sunburn.

Now for some truly awful examples of shrubs….remember the “cupcakes” from a previous post?


 Little Leaf Cordia pruned into a ‘ball.’

In an earlier post, we covered the epidemic of pruning shrubs into the shapes of ‘cupcakes.’  Well, there is another epidemic in where people prune their shrubs into the shape of a ‘ball.’  We call this type of pruning, “Poodle-Pruning” because the shrubs resemble the ball shapes that poodles have when groomed.  Either way, ‘cupcakes’ or ‘poodle,’ neither are good for your shrubs and take away from their beauty.

Feathery Cassia shrubs

 Feathery Cassia shrubs with large areas of dead growth.

One of the results of repeated shearing of your shrubs into specific shapes (cupcakes or balls), results in areas of dead growth.  This is because sunlight cannot penetrate inside the shrub and it is constantly trying to replace the growth that is cut off constantly.  There is a cure, which I will cover in a spring time post, which is when corrective pruning should be done.

Thunder Cloud Sage

 Thunder Cloud Sage, unpruned

Now I don’t recommend going to the other extreme, above, and not pruning.  Just do it correctly.  So, if you have any ‘cupcakes’ or ‘poodles’ in your landscape, do not panic!  I will cover the correct ways to prune many shrubs in the spring, which is the time that it should be done.

So, take care to prune properly, because you never know when I will come driving by with my camera….

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
25 replies
  1. danger garden
    danger garden says:

    very scary! I realize this is going to sound incredibly stupid but I'm surprised to see that this sort of thing even goes on in the desert! I thought people would be less likely to need to manicure and more apt to enjoy the natural shapes. Sounds ridiculous I know.

  2. Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ
    Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ says:

    I wish I could send this post to all the homeowners in my area. There are so many improperly pruned trees and shrubs. I'll be looking forward to the spring blog for help with the correct way to prune!

  3. The Violet Fern
    The Violet Fern says:

    Very scary … I am always so afraid to prune. I have a Cornus Mas and a couple of VERY young Acer Amur that I would like to shape into small tree forms but really have no idea how. The Acers were pruned by the rabbit last winter and I hope this hasn't ruined them? (This year they are wrapped!) I was always told it's safe to prune in any month with an "R" (at least in this region) – knowing what blooms on new/old growth. Can you recommend a good book on pruning? Would be much appreciated! Here, the power companies "butcher" trees to keep the lines clear. Happy Halloween!

  4. Janet
    Janet says:

    You are singing my tune!! Proper pruning techniques are so important!
    I noticed in SC near our lot on the lake that some are topping their Tulip Poplars…aughhhhh. Why on earth?
    Love the CDs in the orange tree.

  5. Amy
    Amy says:

    Good post, Noelle! We just had our lawn mowed and they cut my shrub to look like a big meatball. The other day, I was just thinking how much I liked that shrub. :/ I guess it will grow. They need to stay away from my "stuff" – sorry, i'm venting….-Amy

  6. JOHNSON, Cotswold Hills, England.
    JOHNSON, Cotswold Hills, England. says:

    This post is so desperately needed as examples of bad pruning are everywhere.

    My pet hate is what I call the 'hedgehog' cut of shrubs where all the natural growth has been cut to a straight top line, leaving a stiff, unatural and spiky look.

    Perhaps you should leave a notice attached to the unfortunate specimens you come across with a link to your blog!

  7. Brad B
    Brad B says:

    Thanks for the post. I've seen so many trees hedged into balls or just generally hacked at. The poodled olive almost made me cry. what is with people. I think you should tell them what you are doing when you take the pics. Homeowners would read up on a lot of home repair before doing it or hire someone else, they should do the same with their trees.

  8. Autumn Belle
    Autumn Belle says:

    Seeing all these photos makes one realise why all the more he/she need expert help. Otherwise, optical disasters like this will happen. A tree felled by incorrect prunning, that's the worst to happen. The poor tree.

  9. Lucy Corrander
    Lucy Corrander says:

    I'm sure I'm not meant to say I want a tree with pom-poms in the branches – but I do, I do. It's wonderful. Imagine how people would smile as they went by. It would brighten our lives.

    I was admiring someone's neatly trimmed lavender hedge yesterday – usually, I like them all sticky outy.

    Bare patches in bushes and hedges are ugly though and I feel sad whenever I see them and worry that the plant is ill.


  10. Kanak Hagjer
    Kanak Hagjer says:

    Your post has been an eye-opener. I didn't realize how badly it can be done too. Interesting to read about how and which areas such kind of pruning can be harmful for the plant.

  11. Teresa O
    Teresa O says:

    The electric company likes to create huge holes in beautiful trees to allow lines to go unscathed. Seeing a whole row of trees with the center cut out is sad and infuriating. To see homeowners or landscapers turn a natural shape into a something surreal seems so silly. Besides poodles and cupcakes are the ice cream cones…shrubs shaped into severe cone shapes. They look so yummy…not.

    Great post, Noelle!

  12. susie
    susie says:

    Boy oh boy did you hit on my pet peeve! We have poorly trimmed plants & trees all over town, residential & commercial spaces. I spec plants to fit the size of the location….what a concept! I tell all my customers….no trimming, let the plant get to full size & just deadhead flowers….call me if it gets to big.

  13. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Thank you for such an interesting and informative post the best ways to prune small trees is always a concern for me at this time of the year. Not that I do the pruning I have to stand and direct proceedings for Mike to prune and it is never quite right.

  14. James Missier
    James Missier says:

    I found the poddle pruning very common in my place, usually done on most plants along the street plants.
    And trees the whole branch is cut off and left bare for new sprouts to spring forth.
    But often I noticed that trees are uprooted and replaced every 10 years.

  15. catmint
    catmint says:

    I hope you drive by with your camera – but it's a long way south! I found your post interesting and it made me cringe. I started gardening late in life and it was, and still is, trial and error. One reason the garden is still not established after 30 years is because I got rid of my mistakes, after trying out stuff like topping. I am currently trying to grow a group of eucalypts and they are not responding well. We are not in sync. I generally find shrubs easier than trees and some trees, like multi trunked ones, easier to grow than single trunked ones. Anyway, thanks for stimulating and challenging post, AZ. Cheers, catmint

  16. ShadowySteeds
    ShadowySteeds says:

    I met my husband when he was living in the Texas Panhandle south of Amarillo. Now, trees are few out there, and he had a yard full of Elms. He got tired of the bugs and such, so just went and cut the branches off down to the main trunks (and these were aged trees and good sized). I met him several years after they fact and wish I had photos to share! They looked awful! We have been married 18 years and he now knows to not cut anything down without asking, and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES does the tractor and bush hog belong in my "areas"!! Robin at The Flying Orchid

  17. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:


    Thank you all for your comments. It seems that improper pruning is rampant in all areas. I received some photos from others of scary pruning that they had observed.

    VioletFern, you would think that I had a good pruning book, but I looked through my library and I don't have one. The International Society of Arboriculture does have some helpful information at http://www.treesaregood.org/treecare/pruning_mature.aspx

    I hope this information helps.

    Noelle (azplantlady)

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