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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Don safety glasses: climbers in particular move in mysterious ways and can literally take your eye out as they flail about.
- 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.
- 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.
- If using electrical equipment, be especially careful and always use a circuit breaker.
- When using a ladder, make sure it has a firm footing and never go higher than you feel comfortable with.
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.