Formal and Informal Pruning

Home landscapes have a sameness about them that originated around the turn of the century. At that time, homeowners began to surround the perimeters of their houses with shrubbery to hide high, unattractive foundations. The shrubs were pruned into neat geometric shapes inspired by Renaissance gardens. This style of planting — and pruning — is all too often repeated today, even though modern homes don’t have high, exposed foundations. Many innovative landscape designers are instead creating gardens and groups of shrubs around a house, rather than a row of traditional foundation plants.

Formal and Informal Styles

Formal gardens appear neat, well-ordered, and under the complete control of the gardener. Long, elegant hedges define garden spaces and mark boundaries. Plant shapes are geometrical and shrubs are usually sheared into individual balls, cones, or boxes. This traditional style enhances some garden settings, in which formality and an elegant look are required. Today’s garden styles tend to be more informal, with an emphasis on a naturalistic look.

Gardeners appreciate the natural shapes of plants; many garden designers emphasize plants in groups or masses reflecting natural, free-form styles. In an informal setting, shrubs are not pruned into rigid shapes but are thinned as needed to emphasize their layers of tiered branches, gracefully cascading limbs, or irregular outlines.

Pruning for a Natural or Formal Style

The pruning techniques chosen determine whether the pruned plant takes on a formal shape or retains its natural shape. For a natural effect, pruning should be inspired by the plant’s normal growth habit. Pruned naturally, a shrub or tree maintains its usual habit and growth rate; only a little attention is required each year to maintain the desired size and shape.

In some landscape designs, formal shapes and neatly defined edges look elegant. Formal landscape designs use square and round shapes and sharply drawn lines for both structures and plants. The natural form of the plant is changed and pruned into the geometrical shape that reinforces the design.

Since the natural shape and size of the plant are changed by pruning, the type of plant becomes less important. A plant that responds well to formal clipping is usually selected; boxwood and yew are the most popular choices.

Different pruning techniques make a hedge either a formal, uniform green wall or an informal row of closely planted shrubs with softer edges. The sheared hedge, an important element of classical European gardens, demands frequent pruning to maintain its tidy formality. A formal hedge should be pruned several times each year, depending on the plants’ rate of growth. Informally pruned hedges, on the other hand, may only need pruning once a year to keep them looking good and within bounds.