The difference between clipping, hacking and blind pruning

Camellia yuhsienensis – not self grooming but apparently resistant to camellia petal blight. To save you the bother of contacting me: no, we no longer sell any plants at all these days and I think it is unlikely that this particular camellia is still commercially available in New Zealand.

‘Blind pruning’ is not, as some might assume, an activity carried out by the visually impaired. An old horticulturist introduced me to the term years ago. Essentially, it is pruning that is carried out so that the end result does not show evidence of it, even though it can be quite extreme. Skilled and careful pruning, as opposed to clipping or, at its worst, hacking. It is a higher-level skill.

I lacked confidence in my ability to carry out extreme pruning without making it obvious so usually left it up to Mark but this year I doubted that he was going to work to my timetable and told myself I can do it. Camellias are obliging plants to work with because if you get it wrong, they come away again with new season’s growth able to sprout from bare wood.

Clipping is done with hedge clippers. We do it with our camellia hedges and with some shaped camellias. It is what gets the sharp definition. The first shaping takes skill – and time – but from then on, any reasonably capable person with a set of sharp clippers can maintain that shape.

Before…

After. Definite hacking on the middle plant but that was the only option to get back the shape I want

Extreme cutting – hacking, as I call it – is unsightly until the fresh flush of growth covers the bare ends but it is sometimes the only option. In this border, I wanted to get the middle camellia, ‘Spring Festival’ back to a mounded growth sitting lower than the four standards behind it. With very little foliage left in the middle of the bush, there was no alternative to extreme cutting and now is the time of the year to do it because it will put on a flush of new growth very soon. It won’t flower well next year but should hit its stride again in 2022.

The four standard camellias behind are all Mark’s hybrid ‘Pearly Cascade’ and they needed more love. Between the two photos, I have removed at least a third of the growth and they look better for it. You would have to look close into the plant to find the fresh cuts because it is not obvious to view. That is blind pruning, as I understand it.

Before…

… and after

The feature camellias in the sunken garden area have not had my attention for the last two or three years and they did not look lovely this year. This is ‘Pearly Cascade’ again, grown au naturelle rather than the grafted standards in the earlier border. It is a pretty enough little camellia although the flower is not by any means unique. It is very like ‘Nicky Crisp’ in bloom. It was as much the habit of growth that encouraged Mark to name and release it. It keeps excellent foliage in full sun and stays low with arching, spreading growth rather than shooting upwards. This plant must be 15 or 20 years old and has just received the odd passing nip and tuck to keep it to size.

But that spreading foliage is dense and doesn’t allow spent blooms to fall. Breeding for self-grooming – where a plant drops its spent blooms – was a big focus for Mark’s camellia breeder Uncle Les and his father, Felix. It stops that ugly look where sludgy brown blooms stay on the bush. But when the foliage is too dense, the blooms can’t fall and that has become even more of problem with rampant camellia petal blight.

‘Pearly Cascade’

Mark is unusually derisive (he not a man much given to derision) about the idea of ground cover camellias or michelias. Both are heavy blooming plants and when they are spreading, as ground cover is, there is no way those spent blooms can fall so they just congregate as a mush on top.

I started on this plant by nipping back the top to the height I want, followed by shortening the sides. This is all work done with secateurs. Then it is an exercise in delving into the body of the plant and reducing the dense growth – taking out wispy branches, short growths and badly crossing branches first and then selecting which remaining stems are superfluous and can be cut back flush to the trunk. It is precise work and it takes time. There is much stepping back to look. In the end, I reduced the plant by about 50% and it looks a whole lot better for it.

Before…

The two C. yuhsienensis were more of a challenge. They had grown huge without us really noticing, larger than we want in this area. This is a beautiful species but it is not self grooming at all. Mind you, with all those spent blooms still on the bush, we examined them and can report that it appears to be impervious to camellia petal blight so that is a bonus.

… and after

and the matched plant on the other side

I needed the kitchen step ladder and a pruning saw as well as secateurs but the approach was the same – reduce the height, narrow the spread and then thin the middle. Even I was surprised by how much I removed but the plants look a whole lot better for that. Looking from above, I can see that I need to remove more from the right-hand side of the one at the front to get a better balanced plant. The four lollipop camellias – another compact cultivar of Mark’s that we call ‘Pink Poppet’ but never released commercially, still need to be trimmed but they are a hedge clipper job. They get shaped like an umbrella or mushroom because we want that flattish, curved shape rather than round top-knots.   The tops are currently out of proportion to the stems on these grafted standards.

Those are piles of prunings lying on the grass beside the four plants trimmed so far

Mark’s advice, given to me often down the years, is not to keep lifting and trimming up plants. Over time what evolves – and we have a few examples of these from my earlier efforts – is a plant with bare legs that looks as though it has been grazed by stock up to the level where they can no longer reach. That is why the top down, outside in and then thinning the interior works better to retain a more natural form. If you plan to keep a plant clipped or trimmed, longer term it is easier if you keep the height down to what can be managed without a ladder.

It took hard pruning to achieve this shape, now it is maintained by a simple annual haircut with sharp hedge clippers

Clipping gives sharp definition, at least for a couple of months after the annual trim

Postscript

I didn’t set out to write a definitive piece about pruning camellias but will add two points and links to earlier advice on chainsaw pruning.

Firstly, if you are ever pruning camellias with variegated flowers and foliage (often showing as mottled yellow and green leaves but not every leaf will be mottled), you are likely pruning a camellia which has a virus that causes such variegations. Make sure you disinfect your cutting tools afterwards, before touching any other camellias or you risk transferring the virus. Virus is not always bad but it will weaken the plant and you probably don’t want mottled foliage throughout your camellias.

The mottled leaves and the irregular variegation on the flowers are a good indicator of the presence of virus

Secondly, if you are going to do the chainsaw massacre number and cut a camellia off close to the ground, we recommend cutting about a metre up and leaving some framework to the plant. If you cut it off close to the ground, it will re-sprout as a thicket and you will never get a good-shaped plant out of it, though you will be able to clip to a mound. If you leave some branch structure and a central leader (main trunk), you will get a better-looking plant in the long term.

Now is the time (late winter to early spring here) to carry out such extreme pruning so the fresh growth that will sprout soon can be made on the bare wood.

This piece from 2016 shows the results of chainsaw pruning six months later.

Back in 2011 when I used to do step by step sequences for the newspaper, I covered hard pruning of camellias. My photography has improved a bit since then but the information is still relevant.

7 thoughts on “The difference between clipping, hacking and blind pruning

  1. Paddy Tobin

    Very interesting! I have never noted camellias grown as standards here. Certainly, I have seen them trimmed, hedge-like, as in your final photograph. ‘Spring Festival’ is one which comes to mind as I have seen this treated in this way in several locations in Mount Congreve Gardens. One pruning method you have not described is one I have seen employed in Mount Congreve Gardens over the past number of year. Camellias which were planted 30 – 50 years ago, in dense clumps, had become dense masses which allowed no light in. They were chain-saw pruned – cut to one foot from the ground so they regrew from this low level to give a more open appearance in the woodland. It is very drastic but the plants respond vigorously. I know they test one plant in each clump a year in advance by ring-barking to see if this induces buds below the cut – those which do are obviously suited for this drastic treatment. Overall, it has improved the appearance of the woodland, giving a more open and bright appearance, a change from the dense and dark conditions which had developed. Now, you could hardly describe that as blind pruning!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I have photographed and written about this strategy in the past but it is probably deep in the archives. Though we don’t recommend cutting so close to the ground. Our preference is to cut off about a metre from the ground so that some of the structural framework remains. Cutting to a bare stem close to the ground results in a multitude of new growths and there is very little chance of ever getting a decent shaped plant from the regrowth – it is destined forever to be a bushy mound. Which is fine if you want a bushy mound but that isn’t generally what we are after.

      1. Paddy Tobin

        I think they were originally planted with the “bushy mound” in mind. Certainly they were planted quite close together and large drifts/groups. This was in a woodland garden under beech trees.

  2. tonytomeo

    I cut back several camellia japonica to stumps earlier. They were to big and too close to foundations to dig and relocate. They were too overgrown and bare down low to renovate within a few years. Removal and replacement would have been easier than salvage. However, if removed, I would have replaced them with something else. Instead, I cut them down and left the stumps. If they choose to regenerate, that would be okay. If they do not survive, that would be okay too. I think this is almost comparable to coppicing, which is something that arborists here disapprove of. I actually have no problem with coppicing other plants, or pollarding other trees. In this situation, I have no problem doing it to camellias either.

      1. tonytomeo

        Not many horticulturists approve of the technique, and even those of us who do are aware that, without subsequent restorative pruning, it does not automatically restore specimens.

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