The fine art of pruning

Frances West has an eye for making the cuts that count

May 12, 2002|By Kathy Hudson | Kathy Hudson,Special to the Sun

This is getting too heavy," says Frances West, brushing her hand against one in a line of 75-year-old boxwoods. To the untrained eye the bush looks fine: green, full, shiny, disease-free. "It needs more light and air," West explains, "to encourage growth and keep it healthy." She points to another boxwood nearby whose roundness is broken by occasional empty spaces.

West pauses to study the bush in question. She stands away, silently focusing on it, then steps back up, reaches in and snaps off one shoot, then several with her fingers. With the removal of the twigs, light moves in to reveal leafless, dead shoots below. "It's easy to start with those," West instructs, "to give yourself confidence and momentum." She takes her clippers out of her bag and judiciously begins to make more cuts.

"I own nothing electric," she explains. No chain saws or electric hedge trimmers for this 51-year-old Federal Hill resident, who for the last 10 years has developed a well-respected niche business specializing in the pruning of shrubbery and small trees. "I am interested in respecting the natural growth habits of each plant," says West, who grew up in Gladwyne, Pa., and began helping her parents in their garden at age 10.

"My parents were, and still are, serious gardeners," says West. Her father, Franklin H. West, collected rhododendrons and azaleas, wrote the book The Hybrids and Hybridizers of Azaleas (1978, Harrowood Books) and grew roses. Her mother, Maxine, had a sophisticated greenhouse and did a lot of bonsai. "I was the maintenance crew," says West with a laugh, adding that she was the one of the five children who had the most fun weeding.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania as a French major, West married and moved to Columbia. "My first attempt [at gardening] looked like a burial plot," she says of an early vegetable garden where she grew lettuce, string beans and tomatoes. She gardened while she raised her two children, Caroline and Timothy. As her children grew, so did her gardens. In 1982 the family moved to a 2-acre property in Ruxton. "When my mother came to visit, we'd get lost in those old azaleas for hours at a time," West remembers.

To help their daughter in her increasing passion for gardening, West's parents sent their longtime garden designer, the late Owen Schmidt, to help. "He was the first person to show me how to use pruners," West says. "He spoke the exotic language of botanical names, and he broadened my horizons. I was inspired through his eyes." An especially vivid memory is how he took a badly pruned red maple and gave it a second chance by selecting out what became the foundation of its future graceful shape.

Now West does the same thing for others in her business, Pruning Matters.

Early efforts at using her artistic eye to help friends prune their bushes became a business after she and her husband separated and divorced.

In 1991, she officially started her company, which grew steadily through word of mouth among neighbors, friends and fellow members of the St. George's Garden Club.

West moved to Federal Hill and over a three-year period took eight courses in the ornamental plant series at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., as well as courses in drafting and landscape architecture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"But I've had so much fun with the pruning business that I only do occasional design consultation with clients. I don't draw up plans and have only put in a few small gardens in Federal Hill."

Regular clients for whom she prunes number more than 60. The nurseries and tree companies that once worked in West's Columbia and Ruxton gardens now send business her way. "I refer clients to Fran," says Jan Wisniewski of A & A Tree Experts "particularly those needing help with their boxwoods, because she's meticulous with her pruning and patient with her customers."

West prunes all but eight to 10 weeks a year. "When it's above 50 [degrees], I'm ready to go," says the tidy, petite woman. In winter months, she prepares lectures that she gives as soon as it's warm enough to do the outside demonstrations that accompany her talks. Most recently her lectures have taken her from Smith & Hawken in Baltimore to the Georgetown Garden Club.

This winter she launched a Web site,, in an effort to provide a public service and a reference for people after her lectures.

"There are so many pruning books out there," she says. "I am trying to come up with a better way to illustrate the finer points of pruning."

Her elegant but simply designed Web site offers a clearly written and illustrated step-by-step guide for everyone from novice pruners to longtime gardeners. Even at first glance it begins to demystify the sometimes terrifying experience of holding pruning shears and looking at a prized bush in need of a trim. "Relax! Pruning, in moderation, does not kill plants," West says in her instructions on where to start.

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