BOOK REVIEW - Essential Pruning Techniques, George Brown and Tony Kirkham ©2017

Review by Jen Kettell, Owner Jen Kettell Radiant Leaf (

Tony Kirkham, head of the Arboretum and Horticultural Services at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, has recently revised and expanded George Brown’s 1972 standard, Essential Pruning Techniques. Those of you who know me are well aware that: 1) I love pruning, 2) I love books, and 3) I am a proud nerd…therefore, I was delighted to dive into yet another pruning tome. Kirkham’s revision begins with a fifty-page primer on pruning techniques, followed by its 300+-page Abelia-Zenobia species-by-species guide. Every page includes beautiful color photographs by Andrea Jones.

In the introductory primer, Brown and Kirkham lay a very solid foundation in pruning techniques, beginning with an inquiry into why we prune. The first section on young tree pruning is excellent, especially since they begin with proper planting (hooray!). At Kew, all trees are planted in sharply square holes; they have found that this shape allows the roots to grow past the planting hole more easily—not the ISA-way, but not major departure either. Kirkham offers sound advice on corrective formative pruning in presenting common examples, like training a leader after loss of the original. In the remainder of those mere fifty pages, he is able to concisely review proper tools and maintenance, PPE, pruning timing, pruning/heading cuts, fruit tree practices, hedging, coppicing, pleaching, and still more topics. Surprisingly, despite a short section on PPE (personal protective equipment), there are zero images of anyone working with either safety glasses or gloves in the entire book.

One of the true gems of this book is the handful of pages devoted to fruit trees. Kirkham describes training several “restricted” fruit tree forms-- essentially, espalier trees that are further pruned into fans, cordons, and “stepovers.” For the stepover, the arborist would modify an espalier to a single set of lateral branches at 12-18” above the soil line. This form serves two functions: to grow delicious apples or pears in a small space, while creating a low living border for a vegetable garden. The accompanying images by Andrea Jones are excellent examples of this type of craftsmanship.

The great bulk of the book follows the primer, where the authors share specific advice on tree, shrub, climbing, and fruit tree species. Since Kirkham is based in Kew, there are many plants which do not grow in New England, but nearly any you may be looking for can be found in the guide. For each species presented, there is comprehensive accompanying text for habit, timing, objectives, and species nuances. Again, many great photographs of woody plants in all seasons complement the writing.

Essentials is surely written with the pro in mind, and I would certainly recommend this book as an addition to one’s pruning library. The authors reach the heart of the matters of pruning in short order with clear and straightforward writing. The information is based in up-to-date arboricultural science and practice, with respect for the natural habit and needs of individual plants. I would hesitate to recommend it to a homeowner or beginner, since the A-Z guide may just frighten them from attempting any kind of basic pruning. In addition, because it was written in England (and therefore England’s climate), arborists will automatically make some adjustments based on New England’s climate that the novice may not. So my fellow arborists, take a gander at this updated pruning guide from across the pond, have a spot of tea, and enjoy the many Britishisms sprinkled throughout it pages.