Getting The Chop

Reading time 8 minutes

Part of any gardener’s skill set is judging when enough is enough; that point where exuberance and gay abandon tip over into a top-heavy, over-blown mess. If pruning, cutting back or hedge trimming is not tackled at the right time it can be difficult, time-consuming or even impossible to get some plants back into shape, and in the meantime they may smother their neighbours. My advice is to delay no longer than you must in order to do the right thing by the plant and its companions. There are right and wrong times to pick up a pair of shears or secateurs, but it’s not nearly as complex and daunting as many gardening books might have you believe.

I’d like to think I am fairly good at anticipating the right time at which to intervene in a plant’s natural development, but sometimes it takes an unexpected event to prod me into action. Earlier this week a non-gardening neighbour informed me that they would be getting their flat roof replaced and that several of my plants were causing an obstruction to the work. This was both true and a deliberate move to disguise myriad air conditioning units and ugly aerials. My first reaction was to feel rather aggrieved by the imposition and then anxious about the damage that might be caused to my precious plants. When I looked objectively at the mounds of Trachelospermum jasminoides rollicking across the leaky roof, I realised that the only genuinely attractive portion of the climber no longer resided in my own garden. Instead, all I could see was a tangled mass of hard brown stems supporting the best part of the plant several metres away.


A flash back to Christmas Day 2008 during the garden's first winter
2008 – The last time the sliver of wall above the cladding could be clearly seen, with a youthful trachelospermum on the right


Under threat of the roofers taking matters into their own hands and dumping the cuttings on top of my gingers, I decided to tackle the pruning myself. Brandishing perilously sharp Okatsune secateurs I clambered to the back of my raised beds and started cutting. I had planned to take a slow and meticulous approach, which indeed I did, but discovered more fresh new growth on the trachelospermum’s lower portions than anticipated. I took the plunge and decided to remove the majority of the knotty old growth to let the plant rejuvenate itself. This has revealed a thin slither of mellow brick wall that I have not seen in years and will allow me to re-paint part of the cladding that surrounds the courtyard. What’s more, it will admit more sun into the garden and lessen the rain shadow in that part of the bed.


The Watch House, August 2016
The wall once again exposed to the elements


Although I prepared myself thoroughly for the task in hand, I was quickly reminded of the precautions one should take when tackling serious pruning or trimming after promptly stabbing myself in the forefinger with my secateurs:

  1. Wear gloves, preferably gauntlet style if you’re in short sleeves. This is a piece of advice I take reluctantly, as I much prefer doing most jobs with my bare hands.
  2. Don safety glasses: climbers in particular move in mysterious ways and can literally take your eye out as they flail about.
  3. Look at what you are doing and take your time: this may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get distracted and stab yourself in the thumb, or worse. Don’t rush the job.
  4. Limber up first: heavy pruning can be strenuous work involving muscles that one doesn’t often exercise. Do some gentle activity first to get yourself warmed up, ensure you have a firm footing and take breaks in between sessions. Your back and limbs will thank you the next day.
  5. If using electrical equipment, be especially careful and always use a circuit breaker.
  6. When using a ladder, make sure it has a firm footing and never go higher than you feel comfortable with.



Pathway, The Watch House, August 2016
Trachelospermum jasminoides lining the path to our front door


Now is a good time to prune hedges, evergreens, perennials and climbers that flower on new growth, provided they have finished blooming. Hedges are unlikely to grow much more and should maintain a crisp, neat outline through the winter. Perennials will often produce mounds of fresh foliage during the autumn months if they are tackled now. Something to note with trachelospermum is that it produces a white sticky sap when cut – this is not considered poisonous but may cause a reaction on sensitive skin and can stain paving and clothing.

My biggest challenge is what to do with all the woody prunings. We have no compost heap and no green waste collection, so they will have to go to the tip in the car. Him Indoors will be pleased!

In my experience the decision to prune is rarely the wrong one. Even if you are initially alarmed by the plant’s reduced size, provided it has been pruned correctly and at the right time it will quickly recover and give its neighbours a fighting chance. In the garden space is a virtue and plants will always fill a void. A gardener’s gift is not just to fill space, but to create and maintain it.

I’d love to hear what jobs you are tackling over the Bank Holiday weekend, or if you are just sitting back and enjoying the fruits of your labours.


It's good to see a little more of the garden's architecture after my pruning exploits
It’s good to see a little more of the garden’s architecture after my pruning exploits



Categories: Climbers, Foliage, Musings, Practical Advice, Trees and Shrubs

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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18 comments On "Getting The Chop"

  1. I didn’t do anything recently in the garden that required a ladder, but I sure worked up a sweat all week. I was moving shrubs and plants around and our humidity was in the upper 70 percent range. No rain yet either. you dig a hole and have to break up the soil because it is like small rocks. Not good. 🙁

    1. Sounds like hard work Judy. I am not good in humidity so you have my sympathy! We haven’t had any proper rain for weeks now and there’s none forecast, so I am using the hose tonight. Keep up the good work 🤓

  2. Such great advice, Dan. We’re often a bit late with the summer pruning of the fruit trees in the orchard, so a good reminder to get on with it. I have a 20′ multi-stemmed ancient bay tree to reduce in the coming months, a job I shall get someone in for as you a sensibly say know your limits to keep safe.

    1. That does sound like a big job Kate, and probably a dusty one. Finally watched your episode of GW last night as a distraction from the ironing pile. Very enjoyable and your garden looked marvellous. Congratulations!

    2. Hi Dan
      I’d love to know how your trachelospermum looks now. Could you share a photo? And could you please also advise: I’d like to hard prune five big pecimens right back to 10cm above ground level in order to move them from 100cm troughs to a new location in the ground. What do you think?

  3. French pruning a prunus kojo mai ( I think) which I planted at our cottage in Perthshire 16 years ago. Lifting the canopy is really rewarding. Also renovating viburnums and wigelia from the same period….much neglected until this weekend! FUN.

    1. I agree Sarah, lifting a tree’s canopy is very satisfying and can radically change the look of a tree, as well as admitting more light beneath. I tackle this job regularly in our seaside garden to reveal interesting bark and prevent it becoming too shady. Sounds like you deserve a rest tomorrow!

  4. More of your good advice Dan, on both the gardening and health and safety fronts. I worked as a radiographer for many years and one August Bank Holiday request cards arrived with clinical diagnoses of ‘Hedge Trimmed Fingers’ and ‘Fly Mowed Toes’. The A&E registrar was succinct and the patients realised too late that they had not taken sufficient care of themselves.
    Here in the South West Mr TT and I will be avoiding the beaches, much as we would love to go – too busy! Some cuttings in the propagator are begging to be potted up which will give me room for some more, including the lovely Lavender pinnata.
    Hope you have had a good BH weekend.

    1. Thanks Tina. Those injuries sound gruesome! It’s so easy to forget yourself when getting stuck into pruning jobs. I do it all the time, but have managed to stay on the right side of disaster. You are quite right to avoid the beaches. I drove back to London in the dead of night to avoid Broadstairs on Bank Holiday Monday! I took lots of cuttings yesterday and plan to take a few more having cleared out the greenhouse yesterday.

  5. Oooh as much as I love Dahlias, Hedychium and Ricinus communis I love the 2008 look, all green shades and textures and architectural shapes and sea green grey cladding with the minimal pure white table plants. Très divine.

    1. Believe it or not that picture was taken on Christmas Day! Winter is the only time I restrict myself to white flowers, before the yellows and blues of early spring emerge. Winter is a nice period of calm between the more colourful seasons.

  6. Thanks for this timely nudge, I will prune my trachelospermum asap. I shall also create more order in my spring border.

  7. i’ve always wondered why its not that easy to find information on what shrubs can take a very hard/rejuvenation pruning. Some can be pruned right back to the base but others never grow back if you take that approach (which i found out the hard way with coronillia and rosemary).

    1. I generally go by the rule that if a shrub is woody, dry and shows no sign of any leaves or reshooting at the base then it’s best to check before giving it the chop. Then you get things like bay, rhododendron and camellia that will sprout readily from old wood. It’s a minefield, as you say, and I doubt you are the first to lose a lavender or rosemary this way. Happily they are easily replaced! Have a great weekend.

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