It never fails that at least one day in late fall, the husband or I will get the urge to take up the pruners or loppers and go on a binge.
It doesn't matter if the air is brisk or unseasonably warm. I think it is the late fall sunshine that makes us look out over the garden and glare at last season's overgrown shrubs.
When the attitude hits, we go into the yard with a fire in our eyes that leaves the shrubs quivering with fear. Which ones will be sacrificed for the sake of tidiness? Which will be spared because we think they might give us pleasure when the snow is piled on top of its remains?
We know even before we start that there are plants that should never be pruned in the fall. We know if we cut off the current summer's growth on some plants, we will be cutting off any chance for flowers in spring. That's not to say the mood doesn't strike us to do a bit of pruning there as well, but we aren't monsters.
Shrubs such as azalea, lilac, rhododendron, flowering crabapple, and forsythia are among those that should only be pruned after the flowers drop in early summer. We have been known to forego the rules, however, especially when the plant has grown so tall we can't stand it any longer. A particularly healthy forsythia comes to mind.
Several years ago, I planted two barely-there forsythia twigs in our back yard. One was planted out in the open where it gets full sunlight most of the day. The other was a few feet from the trunk of a large maple tree where it got filtered sunlight and whatever raindrops fell from between the tree's branches. As you can guess, the understory forsythia didn't thrive, but the other did so well, a day doesn't go by we don't look out our kitchen window and wonder when we lost control.
At one point, we decided to cut it quite short with the attitude of: if it makes it, fine; if it doesn't, that's OK too. Forsythias are cheap and easy to come by. We thought about cutting it back in late spring just after it bloomed, but other garden chores kept pushing that task to the back of the list. Before long, summer was nearly over and we still hadn't cut the forsythia.
''Just do it,'' I told my husband. ''So what if we don't have flowers next spring.''
So he did and when I next saw the shrub, it was barely two feet tall with no sign of current year's growth left on its few sparse branches.
By spring, the shrub began to throw out new growth in all directions with lots of pale, green leaves, but no bright yellow flowers. We didn't mind. There are enough substitute spring flowers to pick up the slack.
The next year, we didn't prune the shrub at all. It bloomed from the previous year's growth and was looking fresh again. But once again, by the time the flowers dropped, busy spring gardening kept us from trimming away some of its growth.
Here's where a lesson can be learned. There are several ways to prune a shrub. You can cut out unwanted branches that aren't in keeping with the plant's nice shape. You also can prune out congested inner growth that prevents the plant from getting good sunlight and air circulation to the center and you should always cut away branches that criss-cross each other because, well, that's just wrong.
We have to keep in mind that when a shrub is pruned, especially one as eager to thrive as forsythia, the plant will retaliate by sending out a zillion or more tender new shoots in all directions, simply for spite. It's true.
I hesitate to call this monstrosity a shrub any longer because shrubs are normally waist-high and exhibit some sort of self-control. This forsythia now resembles a one-story building and takes up more space than the square footage of my bedroom. Small children could get lost beneath its fountain of branches. I think Hansel and Gretel's wicked witch might be building a gingerbread house under there. I worry about my little dog.