Sunday, August 12, 2012

Meatballs and Flattops – for the kitchen and barber shop, not your landscape!

Tightly-sheared geometrically groomed shrubs are a common sight throughout commercial and residential landscapes.  I disdainfully refer to them as “meatballs” since the default shape many people force upon shrubs is the sphere.  However, you can find cubes, cones, spirals, cylinders…just about any shape that a shrub doesn’t want to be.

The horror...
...the horror!
Densely branched shrubs with small leaves, such as Yews (Taxus spp.), Boxwood (Buxus spp), and Barberry (Berberis spp.) are the usual victims, however, anything with leaves within arm’s reach is susceptible.  Not that sheared shrubs do not have their place in certain landscape applications, however, shearing is done too often by default rather than by design.
Shearing shrubs for an impeccably maintained aesthetic can be traced to many historical roots.  Topiary practices of training and pruning shrubs into distinguishable and/or artful shapes can be traced as far back as Roman Empirical villas and Japanese Zen Gardens.   European Renaissance Gardens of the 15th and 16th centuries also incorporated strong geometric forms with sheared shrub hedges and specimens, most notably French parterre gardens such as the Gardens of Versailles.  Key design elements of these gardens were symmetry and formality.
Many of the everyday contemporary landscapes where I observe meatballed shrubs would not be classified as formal and symmetrical.  Rather, the shrubs are sheared because (1) the owner / maintainer is trying to keep the shrub from getting “over-grown” or (2) because shearing is perceived as quicker and easier than properly pruning or (3) they owner don’t know any better.

Here is an example of a row of yews planted with the intention of screening and softening a large expanse of building wall.  However, that original design intent has been lost due to the unnatural and stunted forms forced on the shrubs.

Here is the same view modified to show what could have been if the shrubs were allowed to take on their natural form and habit.  The man-made, monolithic brick expanse is softened and more effectively screened by the natural forms.
Shearing a shrub to keep it from becoming “over-grown” is not a matter of proper maintenance but a way to deal with having put the wrong plant in the wrong place.  If a shrub has to consistently be cut back in order to keep from blocking windows, views, or pathways, then the shrub variety was not wisely chosen for that spot.  A smaller dwarf variety would have been a better choice.
Shearing a shrub because it is “quicker and easier” than selectively pruning limbs is a misconception involving looking at maintenance in terms of intensity rather than frequency.  How long does it take to shear a shrub? A few minutes, in most cases.  How long does it take to prune a shrub (selectively cutting individual branches to accentuate the shrubs natural form)?  That depends on the size of the shrub, but more than a few minutes in any case.  However, how often do you have sheer a shrub to maintain that perfect meatball or flat-top?  Multiple times per growing season.   How often do you have to prune a shrub?  Typically, once per year, if that.  Wouldn’t you rather invest a little more time just once a year instead of an on-going maintenance hassle throughout the growing season?
The final reason shrubs are commonly meatballed is a matter of the owner’s taste.  Some people just want a well-kempt and tidy appearance for their shrubs.  My first question would be: does the rest of the landscape warrant manicured shrub shapes?  Is your landscape strongly based on formality and symmetry?  If not, those meatballs are going to stick out like sore thumbs. 

A good example of a mass of yews with natural form.
image courtesy of Oregon State University Department of Horticulture
A speciman boxwood left to grow into its natural form.
image courtesy of Oregon State University Department of Horticulture
Naturally formed Witherod Viburnum
image courtesy of Oregon State University Department of Horticulture

I actually had a client tell me that the only reason he wanted his shrubs meatballed was so he could tell that maintenance crews had been there to ensure he was getting his money’s-worth.  I don’t know how to argue with that.  Hopefully, though, I’ve persuaded and informed some readers to design properly, save time and money, and save your shrubs.

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