The Pitfalls of Improper Pruning: A Tale of Flowering Shrubs

Flowering Shrubs need pruning, but how they are pruned makes such a difference. Aren’t these shrubs beautiful?

Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)

flowering shrubs need pruning

Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)

Thunder Cloud Sage (Leucophyllum candidum ‘Thunder Cloud’)

flowering shrubs need pruning

Thunder Cloud Sage (Leucophyllum candidum ‘Thunder Cloud’)

Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’)

flowering shrubs need pruning

‘Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’)

You would think that the beauty of these shrubs, in flower, would be enough for people to stop pruning them into absurd shapes, but sadly, this is not the case. In the Desert Southwest, there is an epidemic of truly horrible pruning that affects not only Texas Sage (Leucophyllum species), but also Cassia (Senna species), Fairy Duster (Calliandra species), and even Oleander.

The Consequences of Excessive Pruning

Unsurprisingly, excessive pruning like this is NOT healthy for shrubs and it strips them of their beauty.

The ‘Frisbee’ Phenomenon

You don’t have to go far to see these sad shrubs. All you need to do is drive down the street as I did…

flowering shrubs need pruning

Okay, it should be rather obvious, but I will say it just the same,  “Do not prune your shrubs into the shape of a ‘frisbee’.

The ‘Pillbox’ Pruning

I kept driving and found even more examples of truly awful pruning.  Sadly, all are within a 5-minute drive of my house.


I call this ‘pillbox’ pruning. These Texas Sage & Cassia shrubs were located across the street from the ‘frisbee’ shrubs.

Leucophyllum frutescens 'Green Cloud

An attempt at creating a ‘sculpture’? Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)

flowering shrubs need pruning

 A second attempt at creating a sculpture?

Let’s get real. Shrubs pruned this way does nothing to add beauty to the landscape. And, when pruned this way, they cost more, take more time, and use more water – it’s true!

‘Cupcake’ Pruning: An Unappetizing Approach

Now on to some of my favorite ‘cupcake’ examples:

Leucophyllum frutescens 'White Cloud

An entire line of ‘cupcakes’. ‘White Cloud’ Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘White Cloud’) 

flowering shrubs need pruning

Do you think they use a ‘level’ to make the tops perfectly flat? I honestly wouldn’t put it past them.

flowering shrubs need pruning

You can see the dead area on the top, which is caused from this shrub being sheared repeatedly.

flowering shrubs need pruning

This dead growth is caused by lack of sunlight.  Repeated shearing (hedge-trimming) keeps sunlight from reaching the interior of the shrub.   As a result, branches begin to die.

After driving around for a while, I drove toward home when I saw the saddest ones of all…

Flowering Shrubs Need Pruning, but these are Disappointing

flowering shrubs need pruning

 Now if you look closely, you can see a light layer of gray-green leaves, which really don’t begin to cover the ugly, dense branching that has been caused by years of repeated shearing.

Texas Sage

 I actually like topiary, but not when done to a Texas Sage. Some people prune up their shrubs so that they can clean up the leaves underneath more easily.

The Goal Should be to Prune with Purpose

Now, I am not against formal pruning, when performed on the right plants. But, it is not attractive when done on flowering, desert plants and it is also unhealthy for the shrubs themselves and contributes to their early death in many cases.  Add to that the fact that it greatly increases your maintenance costs due to repeated pruning and having to replace them more frequently.

Now if you have shrubs that look like any of these pruning disasters, don’t panic! They can be fixed in most cases.

flowering shrubs

 Now, why would anyone want to remove the flower buds from your shrubs by shearing,  when you can have flowers like this?

Join the ‘Cupcake-Free’ Movement

If you are tired of unnaturally shaped shrubs in your landscape, I understand. Believe it or not, most flowering shrubs need pruning once or twice a year at most – and NOT the type of pruning into weird shapes. I find it ironic that your yard will look better when you do less.

flowering shrubs

So, if you are wanting to declare your landscape a ‘cupcake-free’ zone, I have something I think you’re gonna love. I invite you to check out my popular online shrub pruning workshop where I teach you how to maintain flowering shrubs by pruning twice a year or less. Hundreds of students have taken the course and are reaping the rewards of a beautiful outdoor space filled with colorful shrubs at a fraction of the work.

Are you ready to break out of the cycle of green blobs?

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."
34 replies
  1. Nell Jean
    Nell Jean says:

    I'm always amazed at the folks around here who prune their azaleas into geometric shapes in fall and then wonder why they have a few meager blossoms down inside the shrub while the rest of the world is fairyland, come spring.

    Is it a genetic failing? Can they not SEE?

  2. The Violet Fern
    The Violet Fern says:

    Oh how sad! I love shrubs that are left alone to grow naturally. But I also love the "limbed up" effect on some – like Viburnums and Acers. I was curious to know if any of these poor cupcakes, frisbees or pill boxes could be saved – will look forward to that next post.

  3. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    LOL-I thought this trim into boxes that Germinatrix wrote about was just endemic to post European colonial countries, but these pic "take the cake". Really, from mexico to Thailand to the Caribbean hired gardeners seem to have been trained to trim any and everything (including trees) into boxes. Apparently since colonial times that's what the colonists thought gardens in the tropics should aspire to look like-formal topiary of Europe. Sometime people remark that my plants "need a good trimming" haha

  4. Pam/Digging
    Pam/Digging says:

    Wow, that second picture is amazing–what color! I don't think we have that variety here in Austin, although many other types of cenizo do very well.

    I agree, cupcake cenizos are just not right.

  5. James Missier
    James Missier says:

    probably you should make copies of information about this plant & put it in their post boxes and include your blog detail for comments.

    Maybe, just maybe – they all are ignorant about the plant & someone like you need to tell them about it.
    Im sure they will be very grateful for saving their plants.

  6. Carol
    Carol says:

    I completely concur … what are people thinking of… your beautiful photos show so clearly that the natural way is stunning. Carol

  7. Deborah Elliott
    Deborah Elliott says:

    Improper pruning is one of my pet peeves also. Here in Alabama I sometimes see azaleas, which should be allowed to grow naturally in a woodland setting, pruned into some of the same shapes as the unfortunate Texas sage. This is often done at the wrong time as well so that most of the spring blooms are removed. How sad. Thanks for your great post.

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

    I think you should continue writing and showing examples of poor pruning of desert shrubs and trees. It will make people more aware. Unfortunately many people do not trim the shrubs themselves and there is a language barrier with the people who do. It can be hard to find someone to do it correctly. I don't blame the landscapers because many people, from other parts of the country originally, expect their shrubs to look like cupcakes and pill boxes. At least you are educating people on how desert plants need to be trimmed, but being able to communicate to the workers that often do the pruning is a difficult step in the process.

  9. Kiki
    Kiki says:

    Yay..that was fun! I want some thunder cloud sage! It is mega gorgeous! Great photos..fabulous post and I love the title too!! Very creative!

  10. Catherine@AGardenerinProgress
    Catherine@AGardenerinProgress says:

    They are just gorgeous in full bloom, but so sad pruned like that. Some of them look like little footrests or stools. I think some people hire "gardeners" that really don't know much about gardening and just like to use their pruners.

  11. Rebecca @ In The Garden
    Rebecca @ In The Garden says:

    Great post, the first pictures are so beautiful, I can't see pruninga shrub like that. On the other hand, I do appreciate an excellent pruning job (a la Edward Scissorhands), but the hack jobs seen around town are generally quite horrific. Mixed feelings about the topiaries you posted, they are much better than the cupcakes.

    I tend to err on the side of not enouigh pruning, which results in somewhat leggy shrubs :(. I just like things to grow as they are.

  12. Titania
    Titania says:

    You are so right with the cupcakes etc. they look so ugly and take away the graceful growth of a shrub. Firstly it is a lot of work and the result is horrible. Like you said there are some plants which lend themselves for topiary. I have never been enthusiastic about that sort of gardening. The flowering shrubs look splendid and it must hurt your sense of aesthetics when you see "topiary lookalikes"!

  13. Msrobin
    Msrobin says:

    Thanks so much for ID'ing all the flowers I saw! Those poor Texas Sage plants made into cupcakes. I believe that Wabi Sabi does not only apply to faded flowers, but any kind of transient beauty. Go ahead and google it, it's quite interesting. I just know that I've often enjoyed a faded blossom almost as much as a fresh one.

  14. janie
    janie says:

    I cannot imagine why anyone would bring on the extra work of shearing the bushes, when they are most gorgeous left alone. Good post, Noelle.

  15. VW
    VW says:

    I'm trying to keep an open mind – maybe some people like cupcake shrubs? Or maybe the efforts of horticulturalists to educate their neighbors will result in happier, prettier shrubs that have been pruned lightly if at all. Good luck!

  16. Helen
    Helen says:

    Cutting off the flower buds is just plain crazy. And the bald patches left in some of these disasters should tell the cutters that they're not acting in the plant's (or their) best interests. Topiary foliage is one thing, but why bite the bough that blooms?

  17. Christine
    Christine says:

    Ouch! That's why you're supposed to leave things to the professionals! This post reminds me of magazines that take pictures of fashion disasters and black out the victim's eyes!

  18. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Really it was a very very nice surprise to see such nice plants in that shape… H hope i can do the same in Saudi Arabia with the same desert plants in my landscape projects… thanks alot for that unique ideas of prunning
    Eng Muhammad Rashid

  19. Adeanaz
    Adeanaz says:

    The Thunder Cloud Sage is stunning.

    I really wonder what people are thinking when they prune. Can they not see how awful it looks? I have a neighbor that prunes EVERYTHING into squares. They have square bushes, even square lantana. Fortunately, nature rules and they lose those stupid shapes fast. Come on people, it's not really that hard to do this right!

  20. IEDarla
    IEDarla says:

    I am new to AZ and the material here. I was looking to identify a sage. Mine is lavender. I think I will be visiting your page quite a bit. 🙂

  21. Vivian
    Vivian says:

    Sadly, mi HOA here in Las Vegas makes me prume my sage all the time, tbey want the round shape. If not I get fined.

  22. Pam Chapman
    Pam Chapman says:

    I think a lot of the problem is not only due to unskilled landscape people, but also people who don’t want to have to trim bushes more than once every 3-4 months. Flat out laziness on their part and owners who don’t want to pay the extra to have the job done correctly more often. We have just moved here recently qnd saw what was done to our bushes. We don’t want a “chop” job–I want blooms on my bushes! May have to go through more than 1 landscape company to get the correct pruning, but, hey, it’ll be worth it to me. The last landscapers cut the lantanas in raised bed down to sticks (!). New landscapers next time, and again and again till we get the point across. If they have to come oftener than every 4 months, so be it! I want a yard that looks like someone CARES fornit!

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