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Fall 2023

Aesthetic Pruning: Taking pruning a step further

by Hedwig Van Den Broeck

Introductory note: We highly recommend reading ‘Plant Native Shrubs Now for Winter and Spring Bloom’ and ‘Pruning to Control Growth’ in this Fall issue first as this article elaborates on both topics.

There is something magical about strolling through nature, where fauna and flora thrive without human interference. Our California natives - whether groundcovers, shrubs, or trees - just appear to be having a great time doing what they do best: growing effortlessly.

Madrone pruned. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
Madrone pruned. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
 Even though I’ve always been more interested in natural gardening, it wasn’t until a beautiful young Madrone tree, Arbutus menziesii, in my garden was hit by a huge Oak limb that fell and ‘topped’ the Madrone that I became interested in aesthetic pruning. Not only was the damaged tree a hideous sight, but it also seemed unlikely that this beautiful tree would recuperate. I was, however, determined to find a solution.

Madrones, nicknamed refrigerator trees, shed all their bark during summer. The deep red gives way to an exceptionally smooth green trunk. If you place your hand where the bark has peeled, the tree feels cold to the touch. Not only is this a very beautiful CA native tree, it is also a desired tree for wildlife. Birds relish Madrone berries, and raccoons, deer, and other wildlife passing by, eat them as well. This tree also provides good habitat and nesting places for many bird species. Madrones can be found naturally at the edge of many of our forests where they will always compete with surrounding trees for more light. Arbutus menziesii is often confused with Abutus unido. Both are cousins in the Ericaceae (Heath) family.


Doing the proper research was important. After delving into websites like Calscape.com and the UCANR website, I consulted a certified arborist and aesthetic pruner. Aesthetic pruning is defined as a ‘form of living art blending the artistic ability of the pruner, the essence of a tree, horticultural science, and the needs of customers and the environment’ (www.aestheticprunersassociation.org).

Toyon kept low with pruning. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
Toyon kept low with pruning. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
The young, heavily damaged madrone was small enough, so no ladders were needed to make some big pruning cuts and a lot of smaller cuts, all the while following the advice on pruning CA native trees, more specifically Madrones. It took 3 years of careful pruning to give the tree the shape it has today. The Madrone bounced back beautifully and is now the focal point when you enter the wooded part of my property.

Other Ca native trees, such as Toyon, Arbutus Unedo, and many different varieties of Manzanita, can benefit from this practice as well. It is important however to carefully follow pruning instructions for the specific tree you wish to prune; proper cuts, necessary tools, best time of year to prune, preventing disease and infection, etc.


  • Manzanita pruned. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
    Manzanita pruned. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
    When growing older, tall growing Manzanita tends to only stay green at the top and produce a lot of dead undergrowth. You will be amazed at how beautiful these Manzanitas look after trimming, with their interesting dark twisted branches becoming more visible and looking almost like garden sculptures. Trimming Manzanitas (like many other trees) also makes these trees and shrubs much more fire-safe. Keep in mind, however, that Manzanitas do not produce new leaves when you cut into a bare branch.
  • Toyon is very forgiving when pruning; in fact, you can cut it all the way down to the ground if needed. They will grow back, and when they do, you can change their shape, keep them low growing, or trim Toyon into a hedge.

Very tall pruned Manzanita on a steep hill. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
Very tall pruned Manzanita on a steep hill. Photo by Hedwig Van Den Broeck.
 I am not trained or certified as an aesthetic pruner, nor will I ever be one, because my love for natural gardening is greater. As I mentioned earlier, our native trees in California thrive when we allow them to grow naturally. If the need for pruning arises, it needs to benefit the tree first. Doing it aesthetically can beautify the tree, but only if you do the proper research or ask for help from a certified arborist and/or aesthetic pruner.

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