When to trim and when to chop

Am I the only one who grew up in a household where holidays meant extra house projects?

Our yard work has continued through this 3-day weekend, primarily in the form of hacking at bushes. My husband hesitated at first, timidly shearing the azaleas, then realizing the futility. The azaleas put on a spectacular show this spring, perhaps due to the gentle hand-clipper trimming last year, but now they had taken over the front yard.

“Are you sure you want me to chop them?” he asked. “I don’t think you’ll like how they’ll look.”

“Do it! Chop away! They need it!”

He hacked mercilessly and now they are indeed quite hideous, half the size and scraggly if not downright naked. Not to worry—they will grow back in a flash. (This is, after all, North Carolina—land of humidity and heat. Plants love it.)

Likewise, the privet hedge in the back yard shrank by half if not two-thirds. It had grown to the unmanageable height where the trimmers had to be held overhead. (The last time we tried that, someone ended up in the ER with a chopped finger.)

The privets look even worse than the azaleas. Spindly sticks with a few scraggly leaves. Like a bad comb-over. But at the same time—much much better.

So when to trim and when to chop? Well, as the non-plant-scientist in the family, my answer is this: when something is out of control, no longer serves its purpose, or requires a new form, hack away mercilessly. If it’s well-behaved, a trim will suffice.

When I write, I’ve learned that I do better when I generate more words rather than less so I can hack away—not indiscriminately, but unflinchingly—to find the right ones. I’ve learned that sometimes a trim is just fine. And I’ve learned that sometimes you have to hack away until the result is naked and ugly, but the space has been made for new words to grow.

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