Pruning and shaping

Ulmus Jacqueline Hillier after pruning. For the avoidance of confusion, this plant is only 3m by 3m, not a forest giant.

Ulmus Jacqueline Hillier after pruning. For the avoidance of confusion, this plant is only 3m by 3m, not a forest giant.

I am married to a master pruner. I recognise his skills are hugely greater than mine. This was reinforced when he pruned the Ulmus Jacqueline Hillier at the weekend. This plant is meant to be a dwarf but it is looking less and less dwarf-like in our rockery and needs attention most years to keep it to a suitable size for that location.

At the end of the better part of half a day, he asked me how I thought it looked. In fact it looked very similar to how it had looked when he started. It is a plant with a lovely characterful shape and fan like sprays which hold the tiny leaves. There was close to as much lying cut off on the lawn as there was left on the shrub but you would not pick that. It had been reduced considerably in size and scale but had lost none of its form or shape. That is good pruning, dear Readers, as opposed to the butchery carried out by lesser mortals.

There was almost as much on the ground as left on the plant but you could not tell that by looking.

There was almost as much on the ground as left on the plant but you could not tell that by looking.

Such dedicated and meticulous pruning takes time, skill and sharp hand tools.

We joined a garden tour in the north of Italy some years ago and anyone who has visited those grand Italian gardens will know that most are clipped and shaped to within an inch of their lives. In fact they are so heavily clipped and groomed that plant health is often not that great. It is all about form and shape and very labour intensive.

Similarly, we have looked at the meticulous bonsai specimens in the Chinese gardens in Singapore. These are tended constantly by people with nail scissors, I kid you not. It may not be nail scissors exactly, but they were definitely nipping and snipping with scissors of some description. Surgical precision and detail. Again, labour intensive.

We lack the personpower here to carry out that sort of heavy clipping and shaping. Oh, to have a small army of serfs that we could upskill and then reward with a hovel in which to live and the occasional sack of spuds. But even then, we would not want a heavily contrived and clipped garden, preferring instead to go with some degree of natural harmony. It is all about degrees, however. Gardening involves a whole lot of management and manipulation to get desired effects.

Once the initial shaping and training is done, it does not take huge skill to maintain it. These are just camellias used as shapes in the garden.

Once the initial shaping and training is done, it does not take huge skill to maintain it. These are just camellias used as shapes in the garden.

Getting the initial shaping on plants is the skill, or bringing an over-sized specimen back to a more manageable size and shape. Once it is done, it only takes a moderate level of skill and care to maintain it.

I have watched Mark bring a wayward plant into line and that is why I am happy to concede his skills are so much greater than mine. He takes his time and he concentrates. He is up and down the ladder repeatedly (despite this playing havoc with a dodgy knee joint), viewing the plant from all angles at all stages. Major cuts are very carefully considered because you can’t glue a branch back on if you make a mistake. It is all about finding the natural shapes within the plant and highlighting those.

Frankly, it would often be faster to cut a plant out, even if it then involves major work removing stumps and roots. But if one forever removes plants when they get some size and maturity, then there is never a chance for them to develop character and the garden will remain perpetually juvenile.

All this comes back to the fact that we use plants as features and focal points in our garden, not ornaments. We prefer to clip a strategic plant here and there than to paint the outdoor furniture a different colour or place an urn.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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One thought on “Pruning and shaping

  1. helenmirvine

    Thank you for this article.I honestly feel as though I am yelping into a void when it comes to pruning but here you are. I have actually at last fallen over an amazing guy to prune on my big jobs and it is such a relief. My attitude to pruning caused one client to say “it’s only bloody gardening Helen”. Nature is so kind to us,on the whole we do not deserve it.Thank you.

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