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Shearing: the good, the bad, and the ugly

A picture of a sheared shrub along the sidewalk that I noticed on a walk.

So what's the deal with shearing? There's arborists who love it, arborists who hate it, arborists who do it, and arborists who don't. I've done it, and I would say I'm in the middle.

The picture of the shrub above is a really good example of the problems that poor shearing practices can lead to: overly dense outer vegetation stimulated by the shearing leads to a lack of light on the interior of the plant, which in turn leads to dead branches and twigs, and sometimes a greater propensity for fungal or bacterial disease due to the buildup of moisture, lack of light, and ample deadwood.

At the same time, as a humanist interested in the cultural histories of human interaction with plants I'm slightly fascinated by shearing: topiaries often look very cool.

The plant health issues with shearing can often be resolved by combining it with fine-pruning: if you first make larger cuts to open up the interior to light, remove deadwood, maybe remove lower twigs and branches to reduce ground contact, and only then shear the outer twigs gently, many types of plant can both maintain their health and look very formal.

However, that still doesn't account for the issue where you have tons and tons of people with the skills and knowledge to steward our landscapes towards a more sustainable future doing things like shearing boxwoods into perfect balls with gas-powered shears instead of doing more critical work, or resting and relaxing for their own well-being.

Ultimately, I think a sustainable place for shearing in our collective future is as a public-space novelty and private hobby: cool topiaries in parks and people who perhaps aren't professionals experimenting with shearing plants for fun--but always in combination with well-executed pruning.


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