Battling berberis, bramble and briar

I manage to get myself into a tight spot, wedged between the boundary and three prickly customers, armed with only my wits, a garden fork and a slightly inadequate looking pair of secatueurs. The loppers lie tantalisingly out of reach on the barrow only feet away but separated from me by an impenetrable curtain of spines. Obviously the brambles need to come right out now, and I do my best to cut away the tangle and lever out the stubborn roots from beneath the neighbour’s fence, snapping one of the tines off my fork in the process. The second trusted garden friend I’ve lost in a week. Collateral damage. But no time for regrets now, there’s a job to be done, and decisions to be made. How much to cut from the other two, and when? That’s a thornier issue.

The barberry gets away scot free. It has a pleasing, open shape and there is something about the contrast between its dainty red berries and evil spines which earns it its right to remain unmolested. The rose too escapes unscathed, at least for a few weeks. February is rose pruning time – I have to have something to look forward to after Christmas. I’m conscious that this might be considered too cerebral an approach to winter pruning, surely the one time of year to indulge a testosterone-fueled session of Man Pruning (by which I mean pruning in a typically male manner, not the pruning of men, which is something altogether different). Sexist? Maybe. But I have yet to meet one lady who will charge around a garden with a manic look in her eye, indescriminately hacking away at vegetation, whereas I do know several gentlemen who fall prey to the condition and have to be lured away from their frenzied activity by the promise of a rare steak dinner and a game of rugby on the telly. On occasion, a slash and burn approach is entirely appropriate, but it needs to be dictated by the particular requirements of the garden, the plant in question and time of year. An uninformed approach fails to take into account the phenomenon of some plants’ disposition never to recover from the traumas of a severe disciplinary pruning, while others respond with greatly increased vigour.

I remember one poor cherry tree outside the building where I used to work. Each new year the owner of the office and adjacent house would employ someone to cut every branch and twig to exactly the height of her garden fence, with no consideration for the shape of the tree or where each cut appeared in relation to the buds. The result was a crazy beast of a thing, with massively thick knuckles at head height from which every spring would burst a mass of rampant epicormic shoots several feet high, much to the annoyance of the householder. If only they’d cut it in late summer, before the leaves had fallen, then the energy which the tree would preserve over the winter would have been appropriate to its new, reduced size, rather than to the size it remembered being was when it entered its winter dormancy.

Ideally, a little restraint is caused for, or at least a pause for thought. Before hacking away it helps to find out what it is that you’re about to attack, and how it might react over the next season (the online RHS Plants Selector and several of the organisation’s encyclopedias and manuals contains this helpful information). I’ve come to learn that while enthusiasm for the battle and brute force can play their part in the garden at this time of year — especially in more overgrown areas — it’s really strategy that wins the day when it comes to pruning. Timing is all, because nature has a way of winning over the long game, and it makes life easier with her as an ally rather than a foe.

Above: pruning in the alliteration border.

Do the Right Thing

On the right, the forsythia the spring after we moved in, with
our friend Mark expertly logging the ash tree he’s just pollarded.

Someone once said (I think it was the apostle Paul although I’m fairly certain these weren’t his exact words) that it’s all very well knowing what you ought to do, but quite another thing actually doing it, when all you want to do is the exact opposite. I don't recall any stories about the saint being a great horticulturalist, but the notion holds true in the garden too. Over the past few weeks our forsythia hedge has taken on the silhouette of a lunatic banshee’s hairdo, and against my better judgement, I’m struggling to resist the temptation to give the thing a good trim and restore a little order before winter sets in.

We inherited this hedge with the garden, along with some pitifully skeletal borders, a lumpy area of grass with a collapsed greenhouse buried beneath, three large and unruly dog roses, a horizontal, lightning-struck apple tree stubbornly clinging to life, and a substantial plantation of stinging nettles. Not to mention the strange mound at the end of the garden (I’m always slightly wary digging here in case I unearth someone who incurred the displeasure of a previous resident, but so far we’ve found nothing more sinister than house bricks). So this small stretch of hedge, no more than four metres in length, was the cheeriest thing in the garden, especially in spring when it is one of the first things to burst into flower – a vivid splash of golden yellow on arching, leafless stems. At that time of year I can forget the fact that it’s been planted in far too small a space – this relative of the olive tree needs room to flourish – and just enjoy the display. But, on the understanding that it must spend the winter months bereft of foliage in a state of twiggy undress, for the rest of the year I want a nice, well mannered hedge. The problem is that, since forsythia flowers on the previous years growth, the ideal time to give it a good cut back is immediately after flowering: any pruning after about May will reduce the material on which the next year’s floral display depends. I am reluctantly coming to appreciate that, with this plant at least, I cannot have both the spring display, and a tidy, compact hedge. The two things are mutually exclusive.

I know this to be true, but needless to say, continue to snip away far later into the year than I should. I fear this year I have already transgressed – perhaps one afternoon in July – but as I stand in the early evening air, the hedge in question gesticulating at me rudely against the twilight sky, I utter a small prayer for strength, take up my shears, and go and vent my frustrations on the hedgerow on the opposite side of the garden.

Two years and two months later, the same view of the garden as in the first
picture, with the hedge now providing a good backdrop to the new planting