For me, it was just learning the basics. Then, it all just "clicked" for me. I guess I was already familiar with the growth habits of most plants and trees around here. I just didn't know how to prune. Didn't even know the basics. So, like a lot of landscapers, I was just making everything into balls with shears or hedge trimmers (Wrong!!!)
Then I read Ortho: All About Pruning. Fairly basic book.But it covers ALL of the basics. After I read that book, it just all clicked for me. I could pretty much look at any plant, knowing it's growth habit, and know the right way to prune it.
So I recommend that book. I have all my guys read that book.
Aside from basic pruning techniques that apply to most plants and trees, here are a few other basic pruning concepts that I've found very useful.
1) Don't hedge anything with shears or a hedge trimmer unless it's meant to be a formal hedge! Everything else is to be pruned with hand pruners and loppers or not pruned at all.
2) Keep plants in their natural shape and form. Nandinas, Barberry, Burning Bush, Spiraea, etc. aren't supposed to look like perfectly round balls! Get to know their natural shape and then you just use basic pruning techniques to keep them in that natural shape.
3) Most evergreen trees don't need pruning. If the trees look like this
- don't freaking touch them! They look just fine! Don't raise the crown (that is, cut the lower branches). Don't hedge it and make it look flat in front. Don't trim it around to make it smaller. If it's getting in the way of something else, then the solution is to probably remove that tree and install something that doesn't get that big. The solution ISN'T to butcher the natural shape of the tree!
4) Japanese Laceleaf Maples aren't difficult to prune. Don't be afraid of them. First apply basic pruning techniques like removing dead growth inside and removing some of the criss-crossing branches. Then do a little thinning - pruning at the proper place on the branch. The idea is to be able to see into the branch structure a little, even when it's leafing out. Like this
, not like this
. Here's a good page
with great pics as examples. You can charge good money if you really learn how to prune this properly. And it's not that difficult.
5) Topiaries are similar in that they really aren't that hard to prune. You just have to know how and when. Topiaries are plants that are in shapes, like spiral
With topiaries, the main thing is to keep up on regular pruning.
They need to be pruned a good 3 times or more, during the growing season - every few months. You don't want to ever let them get out of hand. If they get more than a few inches growth on them, you're starting to lose the game and it will be WAY more difficult to bring them back to the shape they were in when they were installed. If you just prune them regularly, it's easy. Then it's just a quick hair cut with some really sharp pruning shears. It's friggin' easy! You're literally just trimming off an inch or so to make them look tight again. Sort of like mowing a lawn every week. That regular mowing is what creates a tight, dense lawn. Same concept here. You can use hedge trimmers on really large topiaries. But usually some really fine/sharp shears and a small ladder are all you need.
6) Prune down perennials when they are brown (or falling over and looking terrrible). My motto for pruning most perennials is; "If it's brown, cut it down." That works for 98% of perennials in people's yards. Even in the middle of the summer it can work well. Got some re-blooming daylillies that looked amazing in May but now in August they look ratty and half-brown? Cut them down. You'll be amazed. They'll be back up and looking great with all new green growth in 2-3 weeks. In 4 weeks you'll have all new blooms on them! Same with ornamental grasses. It's supposed to be evergreen but for some reason looks ratty? Doesn't matter what time of year it is, cut the damm thing down! (Usually ornamental grasses you leave a few inches above the ground). If it's a hardy evergreen ornamental grass in your area, it will come right back in a month or less and look amazing again!
You gotta be a little careful with this rule. Don't want to create a misunderstanding and have one of your guys (or you) cut down a Hydrangea all the way to the ground just because it's brown in the winter. That would be a costly mistake! So it pays to know your specific plants. But as a general rule, that's a good one.
7) Always use the right tool!
If you're having problems with the hand pruners (always use Felco, brothers! Felco #2) then put down the hand pruner and get the loppers. Don't force the hand pruners to do something that's too big of a job for them. If your loppers aren't doing well, drop the loppers and pull out your folding hand saw
. If the saw ain't cutting it easily, then put that down and grab your bow saw
. Same thing goes with shearing. Shears aren't cutting it, get the hedge trimmer. That thing isn't cutting it, get the BIGGER hedge trimmer, etc. Never make your equipment do work it's not made to do and always have all the right pruning tools at your disposal as you're doing your pruning.
Hope that helps. Best of luck, Brother. Pruning is actually fun work, if you learn how to do it properly.