In Praise of Pruning

The September issue of the NZ Gardener magazine had a profile of Palmerston North gardener, sculptor and retired florist, David Anyon. We have never met David that we know of, but several of our friends and colleagues speak highly of his skills so it was with interest that I read the article. The photos of his garden did not, we suspect, do it justice but it was his philosophy on pruning and shaping that particularly struck a chord.

To quote the article: “David emphasises that what he does isn’t pruning so much as shaping, to create mood and drama. He’s convinced that if more gardeners got stuck into a little clipping and shaping of their trees and shrubs from the outset, it would help to prevent mishmashed jungles.”

We first noticed this technique of picking out and shaping accent plants carried out to great effect a few years ago at Hollard Gardens in Kaponga. I can recall writing about it at the time. It acts like a punctuation mark in a garden, a feature which is a plant and not some placed object. It gives a degree of formality and a focus to what can otherwise become a melded mass of foliage and flowers.

Gardening conversations here can start as early as 6.30am with the pre breakfast cup of tea and for a while we mulled around the appeal of freshly planted young gardens. Owning and working in an old and very well established garden as we do, the appeal of a young garden is not part of our personal experience. But there is no doubt that there is something fresh and charming about newly planted gardens and Mark figured that it was because when you start with young, smallish and fresh plants, each one stands largely on its own, in its own clearly defined space and therefore has a distinct shape. As the plants grow and start to compete for more space, often intertwining and encroaching on their neighbours, the whole effect starts to meld into the mishmash referred to by David Anyon. A very different set of skills are needed to take the garden to its next level of maturity – lifting the skirts of larger plants to expose the trunks, creating layers, thinning, shaping, changing some of the underplanting to meet different conditions for starters. But New Zealanders tend to be great at creating young gardens and too often we have seen the response of trying to recreate the juvenile charm by either starting again and repeating a similar planting from scratch or by taking plants such as camellias and evergreen azaleas back to stump level so they will rejuvenate and look as if they are young and fresh again. Too few garden plants are ever allowed to reach maturity in this young country of ours.

David Anyon was articulating a different approach. And, as he pointed out, going against the prevailing ethos of the 1960s which still prevails to some extent today, where clipping is seen as fine for formal hedges but rather naff in other contexts. Personally I don’t want a garden where everything is clipped and restrained, which is just as well because we would need a small army of clipping minions to manage our seven acres. We saw too much of that in Italy where very little was ever allowed to grow naturally. But shaped and clipped accents have their place in gardens both large and small – probably even more in large gardens which can become jungle-like or rambling over time.

I spent Saturday afternoon pondering this as I was up and down the ladder cloud pruning Camellia Mine No Yuki. Even though Mine No Yuki is now in her third year of this treatment and I was just going over old ground, it still took me the better part of five hours to recover her allocated form. At the time I was wondering if devoting so much time to one plant was justified when we are feeling the dreaded weight of pressure to get the entire garden groomed up to the level we like for our upcoming festival. But when I had finished, I decided it was definitely worth it. It provides a key point, a feature to arrest the eye in what is otherwise a rather formless and featureless area of garden. The controlled formality makes the surrounds look natural by contrast, rather than unkempt.

In that Gardener article, David Anyon also refers to what he calls ‘defuzzing’ – removing little twiggy bits and dead bits from branches of larger plants. He sees it as making for cleaner, more attractive trunks and framing small spaces and vistas in the garden. I couldn’t agree more. This defuzzing is, I decided a while ago, one of the most satisfying and fun aspects of gardening. You can’t defuzz in young, juvenile gardens- there is not enough to defuzz. But it has a most rewarding impact in an older garden.

I am thinking of requesting a new ladder for Christmas. Our ladders are OSH hazards and need care. But we do at least have decent tools here. There is nothing more off putting than blunt or stiff hedge clippers, secateurs that won’t keep an edge, pruning saws that are blunt and bent or loppers that no longer lop cleanly. Mark is adamant that he won’t teach me how to use a chainsaw and they terrify me anyway, but I have learned that I can achieve a great deal with a good pruning saw. Gardeners with small hands or arthritis may like to treat themselves to grape snips as well. They are pretty cheap, as I recall, and pleasant to use as well as being light enough to carry easily in a pocket. I tend to wreck them by trying to cut through wood that is too thick but we bought a dozen pairs a couple of years ago and I still have a couple of brand new sets waiting hidden in my drawer. Mark favours a lightweight and small set of secateurs which were very expensive to buy but much easier to use than heavier and cheaper brands. If you are a serious gardener, buy quality.

The sky is the limit when it comes to pruning, shaping and tidying individual plants in a large and mature garden but I am really looking forward to having more time to indulge in this aspect of gardening. I certainly would not claim to be in David Anyon’s league (taking everyday plants and turning them into unique works of art, according to the writer of the article) but I would certainly like to get there. It is a great deal more creative than weeding.