Renovating a shrub border usually means addition by subtraction. You are going to take away a lot more than you put in — but everything will look better. Some shrubs probably will have to be removed, and others will have to be pruned heavily.

I know I have said that a properly planted shrub border does not have to be pruned. If you install plants by giving them plenty of room to reach their ultimate height and width, you shouldn’t have to do more than remove the occasional damaged branch.

But things could have gone wrong. You could have bought a shrub so new that the ultimate given size was wrong, so it grew larger than you were told. Or you could have bought the house with the garden already planted. Or you planted your garden before you knew as much as you do now.

Needled evergreens — especially taxus or yew, thuja or arborvitae and the dwarf Alberta spruce — are the biggest problems. The same is true with privet, although it isn’t an evergreen. These shrubs have green only at the end of the branches, so you really have to cut them back slowly an inch or two at a time, being careful not to open up naked areas.

But you are not going to be able to make them a lot smaller — with one exception.

You can prune taxus severely, but you have to do it in the spring, as soon as the snow goes. It will regenerate a little bit later in the summer, but it will look really ugly for up to two years. It probably is time to just take it out. Life is too short to live with plants you no longer like.

Taking a plant out involves physical labor. If you aren’t going to put a plant in the same exact spot, you can cut it off at ground level, cover the cut with mulch and wait for it to rot. But the stump is likely to get in the way.

When I am removing a plant that I’m just going to throw away, I cut off all of the branches and leave the main stem about 4 feet high. That way the branches don’t get in the way of the shoveling and you have something you can grab onto when it comes to actually pulling the plant out of the hole.

Some roots are fairly shallow, and removal is easy. Taxus roots go deep, and removal is a major job. You may be able to pull the shrub out with your vehicle (this is a last-ditch effort, and may pull up surrounding plants), but if all else fails, go back to the paragraph where I tell how to cut off the trunk and mulch over the roots.

Deciduous shrubs are a lot easier to deal with. Some of them you can’t really kill. As an example, you can cut common lilacs right down to the ground and they will sprout new shoots quickly and begin blooming again within a year or two.

But if you don’t want to go to that extreme, just do a severe pruning. Start by cutting all branches that are rubbing against your house or something else you don’t want damaged. Then go after the tallest and largest branches or, if it is lateral growth you are trying to control, the ones that spread out into the walkway or lawn farthest.

For that first cut I follow the branch down to its source to see if I can cut it at the ground or at the main trunk without making the shrub look ugly.

If in doubt, cut less. You can always cut more later, but — and I sometimes wish this wasn’t true — it is impossible to put a branch back on once you’ve cut it.

With most deciduous shrubs, you can cut about a third of the plant in any year’s pruning. But by taking the longest and largest branches, making sure not to create any huge gaps, you can make a plant a lot smaller.

Another option is to move a shrub. In the past year I have successfully transplanted mature hydrangeas, kalmias (mountain laurels), rhododendrons and azaleas. Digging is tougher because you can’t cut off all the branches like you would when you are throwing the plant away. And you try to damage the roots less. But the secret is not to rush.

When you replant, put in a lot of compost and make sure to water regularly. There is no guarantee the transplants will live, but you aren’t out anything but a little labor.

In a similar vein, I got a call from Lindsay Knapp, who planted the garden at the John Calvin Stevens apartment house I wrote about a few weeks ago. A couple of the hydrangeas she put in did not root well, and died back. To save them, she pruned them back severely, and they immediately started putting out new growth.

A pruning saw and loppers can solve a lot of problems.

Oh, and when you go to your local nursery for replacement shrubs, be sure to read the plant label or tag closely about how large the shrub will grow. And allow a couple of extra feet, just in case. Fill the space with some perennials while you wait for the shrub to fill in.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at

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