Bravery

I had ideas about going to the Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair this weekend, but it dawned on me that I should spend more time worrying about the plants I already have rather than acquiring new ones. This was something of an revelation for a confirmed plantaholic like myself, and one which I hope doesn’t occur too often.

Our raised beds, the main growing space in our coastal garden, were planted up almost nine years ago and are starting to look overgrown and tired. Many of the plants that we selected were never intended to achieve the proportions they have. A warm microclimate and slightly more sunshine that the rest of the UK has meant that in many years the garden has grown for a full 12 months. I saw the writing on the wall two or three seasons ago, but lacked the guts to take action. Enjoying the leafy exuberance, I let nature take its course. In that time Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ (Japanese mock orange) has become rather less ‘Namum’ and a little more ‘Giganteum’ thanks to its sheltered spot in a warm corner. A wiser gardener would have pinched out the new shoots to encourage bushiness, but The Frustrated Gardener favoured ‘jungly’ over ‘groomed’ and has ended up with what an old university lecturer of mine would have described as ‘green custard’.

On arrival my pittosporums (second plants from the bottom) were neat, well groomed little bushes
On arrival my pittosporums (second plants from the bottom) were neat, well-groomed little bushes

It’s not often acknowledged, but one of the essential qualities of a good gardener is bravery. It’s all well and good letting plants do their thing – that’s the relaxed impression many of us want to portray in our gardens – but the reality is that gardening is about control and discipline. No gardener worth his or her salt will just let a garden ‘go’. Inevitably plants will outstay their welcome, become too large or simply die after a period of time. Unless one is happy to preside over inevitable decline, then intervention cannot be avoided. Bravery, however, should not be confused with brutality. One is about doing the right thing, being courageous; the other about cruelty and savagery. Our local parks department, who seem to think indiscriminately hacking swathes of venerable shrubs down to tabletop level, would do well to heed the distinction.

The task of hard-pruning my pittosporums begins
The task of hard-pruning my pittosporums begins

Having noted in the past that P. tobira ‘Nanum’ will shoot generously from old wood when a branch is cut, I took the plunge and pruned both bushes back to about 10 inches high. Despite having formed a dense mound of evergreen foliage I discovered numerous straggly green shoots close to ground level and am hoping they will thicken up before garden opening weekend in August. It’s a risk, but one worth taking when the alternative is ripping both plants out and starting again. The space that’s opened up will be planted with echiums, just as it was in the early days. These will not cast too much shade over the recovering pittosporums, allowing them to form back into the neat, glossy bushes they started out as.

The thing about being brave in the garden is that the outcome is rarely as terrible as you might imagine. Should the pittosporums not recover, what I have gained is a light, bright corner, room to circulate around the garden table and space to indulge in something new. Before taking decisive action with any plant or shrub it’s worth seeking advice in a good gardening book or on the Internet. The RHS website is about as comprehensive as it gets (although in this instance hard pruning was not recommended). A little bit of research can make the difference between bravery and brutality, success and failure.

If you have a story about being brave (or brutal) in your garden, please share!

Down, but hopefully not out, Pittosporum tobira 'Nanum' after the chop
Down, but hopefully not out, Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ after the chop