How to prune plants

Cornus alba "Elegantissima"
Cornus alba “Elegantissima”

Pruning plants causes a lot of heart-ache amongst gardeners and a great deal is written about how it is done, often with little thought as to why it is done. It must always be remembered that all plants are either originally wild or descended from the wild  and nobody prunes plants in the wild. Before you start to prune a plant first ask yourself do you need to and if so why, what are you hoping to achieve. If in doubt, do nothing, if you do go ahead then be bold.

Reasons to prune:

  • Control size – often indicating the plant is in the wrong place.
  • Improve the flowering/fruiting – most fruit comes into this category, but many ornamental plants also respond to this.
  • Improved foliage – can apply to the shape, size, colouring or a combination of these.
  • Control disease – this can be preventative or to control a problem.

Reasons not to prune:

  • Make it look “tidy”
Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar
Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar

The basic rules.

Some things really apply to all pruning:

  1. Remove any dead or diseased branches – while trees can survive quiet happily with large amounts of dead and even rotted wood in there core; in most cases if the branch is dead or worse still diseased it need to be removed. Any shoot with  Coral Spot needs to be cut hard back as the disease will already have spread well into the living tissue below the characteristic red fruiting bodies.
  2. Remove crossing branches – these will end up rubbing against other ones, damage the bark and provide an entry point for disease. Also they crowd the centre of the plant, creating still air which favours pests and diseases.
  3. Make all cuts clearly and if back to a branching point don’t cut flush to the trunk, leave the swelling where the branch grows out of the main one.
  4. Don’t leave stubs – they look unsightly and are a entry point for disease.
  5. Bear in mind the larger the branch you cut off, the larger the wound and so the longer it will take to heal.
  6. Cut off large branches in stages.  Large branches have a tendency to break off before they are cut though and tear off the bark below the cut. Large branches can also be very difficult to remove from the plant once cut off.
  7. Cut back to an outward facing bud to encourage on open branch structure.

Wound paints.

Years ago it was the norm to treat all pruning cuts with a wound paint. This fell from favour and the accepted wisdom became that all they did was seal the diseases in nice protected environment so their use has stopped. The accepted best practice is now to avoid painting anything on pruning cuts and allow the plants natural healing processes to act.

Tools.

The only tools needed are:

  • Secateurs – pick a well made pair that are comfortable in your hand and keep them clean and sharp. These will do most of you pruning.
  • Loppers – sometimes called parrot bills due to the shape of the cutter on some models. Used for branches too thick for secateurs but too thin for a saw. Looked after a good pair will last many years.
  • Pruning saws – these come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Pick one that feels comfortable and replace it when it becomes blunt. Do not try to cut too thin a branch with a saw, if you can cut it with a pair of loppers use them. If you are doing a lot of pruning the battery powered reciprocating saws with a green wood blade make very good pruning saws.
  • Pole loppers – these are loppers on a long, sometime telescopic pole, and they allow you to cut high branches from the ground. These come into there own when pruning fruit trees.
  • Chainsaws – it will be rare, if at all, that one of these will be needed as they are for cutting large amounts of thick timber. They are expensive to both buy and maintain, as well as being very dangerous pieces of equipment. If you really think you need one make sure you are familiar with there safe operation.

Hedge cutters

These are possibly the most dangerous tool in the garden. They are designed to prune hedges, just hedges, and where there is large area of formal hedging to be kept in shape they save a lot of work. That said some of the most extensive and impressive formal hedging you will see is in formal French gardens and I have never seen a powered hedge cutter used there, just hand shears. Anything else the French view as sacrilegious.  The problem is when people get into their heads that they are a pruning tool. They are not! I have sadly seen some dreadful examples of butchery as the result of a hedge cutter wheeling gardener.

Clematis "Multi Blue"
Clematis “Multi Blue”

Pruning table

As a general rule:

  • Spring and winter flowering trees and shrubs tend to flower on the previous summer’s growth so prune immediately after they finish flowering in spring.
  • Summer flowering trees and shrubs tend to flower on current summers growth so prune them in winter when the plants will not be encouraged to produce soft growth which will be susceptible to frost damage.
  • Be cautious cutting into old wood as not all plants will produce new shoots from it.
  • If you have to remove large branches bare in mind their cuts will take longer to heal.
  • If in doubt phase drastic pruning over time.

Below is a table of some common plants with details of there specific pruning needs.

Plant Frequency Timing How
Berberis - deciduous When too large or congested. Can be thinned after flowering, but best pruned in February. Thin congested branches and shorten them to a where they branch. Will generally come away from old wood.
Berberis - evergreen When too large or congested. Can be thinned after flowering, but best pruned in April. Thin congested branches and shorten them to a where they branch. Will generally come away from old wood.
Buddleja davidii Annually for best flowering. March. Cut back hard.
Clematis – large flowered hybrids which are expected to flower their main flowering before mid-June Annually. February to March when the buds are plump and green. Cut out any dead wood and shorten the remaining vines to the first pair of plump buds.
Clematis – main flowering is after mid-June Annually. February to March. Cut all the shoots to 1 metre or less above ground level.
Clematis – spring flowering Only if space is limited. Immediately after flowering. Cut out all the shoots which have flowered.
Cornus - grown for their coloured winter stems Annually, for best winter stem colour. Early spring. Cut back hard.
Cotinus When too large or congested. Early spring. Cut back to within 2 or 3 buds of old wood.
Cotinus "Royal Purple" - if grown for large foliage Every one or two years Spring Cut hard back to near ground level.
Deutzia Annually for best flowering. Immediately after flowering. Cut out some old wood lose to the ground to encourage new growth.
Escallonia Annually. After flowering in autumn. Cut back old flowering growths. Can be hard pruned at the same time if too large.
Eucalyptus gunnii – grown for its round juvenile foliage Annually Once frost have finished in early spring Cut hard back to near the ground level.
Ficus carica (fig) – fan trained Twice a year End of June and November End of June: Pinch out the growing tips of the young shoots on the frame work of branches. Tie in the resulting shoots. November: prune back half the fruited shoots to 25mm. The remining shoots should be tied in parallel to the wall, spacing them 20 to 30cm apart. Do not allow the framework to become too crowded as the young growth and fruits need plenty sunshine.
Forsythia Annually. Immediately after flowering. Cut back flowered shoots to encourage strong new growth lower down which will provide next spring’s flowers. Aim to remove about 20% of the old wood.
Garrya elliptica When it is becoming too large. Spring Cut back as necessary.
Hydrangea paniculata and H. arborescens Annually. Spring For more prolific flowering prune prune back to a healthy pair of buds 25 cm above the ground level (up to 60 cm if you wish to form a taller bush).
Hydrangea – climbing Annually. After flowering. Cut back over long shoots but try to retain the top grow as this is where most of the flowering occurs. Drastic pruning should be done over three or four years to minimise the reduction in flowering.
Hydrangea – shrubby Annually. Late winter to early spring. Cut one or two of the oldest shoots to the ground to promote new growth. Mopheads are best dead headed in spring to protect the terminal buds but Lacecaps can be dead headed immediately after flowering.
Hypericum calycinum When looking tired. Winter Can be cut down to the ground and top dressed with a general fertilizer.
Hypericum “Hidcote” When it is becoming too large. Winter Shorten outermost shoots back to sides shoots to hide cuts.
Lonicera - climbing and flowering later, on the current seasons growth When it is becoming too large. Spring. Cut back any shoots which are becoming too long.
Lonicera – climbing and flower early on the previous seasons growth Annually. Late summer immediately after flowering. Prune back by a third.
Lonicera – shrubby ones used for hedging Three times a year. Spring to autumn. Trim to maintain shape. Neglected specimens can be cut hard back to 150mm high.
Lonicera – winter flowering When too large or congested. Late spring immediately after flowering. Prune shoots flowered shoots to new growth and remove about a fifth of old wood to promote new shoots.
Mahonia When too large or congested. Once flowering is finish in spring. They flower on the ends of shoots so shorten them to bring the flowers nearer to the ground. Come away from old wood well.
Malus domestica (apple): Bush – spur bearing Annually. November to early March. Shorten last season’s shoots by one third.
Malus domestica (apple): Bush – tip bearing (e.g. 'Blenheim Orange', 'Bramley's Seedling', 'Discovery', 'Lord Lambourne', 'Worcester Pearmain') Annually. November to early March. Cut back a proportion of older fruited branches to a strong younger shoot positioned closer to the to the main trunk or higher up the branch. This will reduce congestion and prevent branches becoming too long.
Malus domestica (apple): Restricted as cordons, espaliers, etc. Annually. Mid to late August, when the bottom of the new shoots are stiff and woody. New shoots are stiff and woody along their bottom third, with dark green leaves and a cluster of leaves at the base. 1. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20 cm (8 in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20 cm (8 in) long as they usually terminate in fruit buds 2. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster 3. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely 4. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this is a persistent problem, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire.
Osmanthus When it is becoming too large. After flowering in spring Shorten outermost shoots back to sides shoots to hide cuts.
Populus × jackii 'Aurora' Annually. Late winter. Prune hard to promote new shoots with larger variegated foliage.
Potentilla When too large or congested. Spring. Cut back to tidy up, but remove avoid cutting into old wood; apart from the odd shoot to encourage new growth.
Prunus avium (Cherries: sweet) Annually. Early to mid-summer. Fruit on one year and older wood so aim for a balance between existing fruiting shoots and their replacement. Do not winter prune to reduce the risk of silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Prunus cerasus (Cherries: acid) Annually. Late summer. Fruit on previous seasons wood, so aim to balance last year’s fruiting wood with this year’s growth which will be next year’s fruiting wood. Do not winter prune to reduce the risk of silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Prunus domestica (plum) When the crown needs thinning. Spring. Cut back as necessary.
Pyrus communis (pear): Bush – spur bearing Annually. November to early March. Shorten last season’s shoots by one third.
Pyrus communis (pear): Bush – tip bearing Annually. November to early March. Cut back a proportion of older fruited branches to a strong younger shoot positioned closer to the to the main trunk or higher up the branch. This will reduce congestion and prevent branches becoming too long.
Pyrus communis (pear): Restricted as cordons, espaliers, etc. Annually. Mid July, when the bottom of the new shoots are stiff and woody. New shoots are stiff and woody along their bottom third, with dark green leaves and a cluster of leaves at the base. 1. Cut back new shoots (laterals) more than 20 cm (8 in) long growing from the main stem to three leaves above the basal cluster of leaves. Do not prune new shoots that are less than 20 cm (8 in) long as they usually terminate in fruit buds 2. Cut back new shoots growing from existing side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf above the basal cluster 3. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely 4. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, remove this in September. If this is a persistent problem, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire.
Ribes - flowering When too large or congested. Immediately after flowering. Remove any weak shoots and prune some shoots hard down to ground level to encourage strong new growth.
Ribes - foliage Annually or biennially. Early spring. Cut hard back.
Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) - bushes Annually Winter Remove dead and low branches. Prune side shoots to one to three buds and shorten branches to one third.
Ribes uva-crispa (gooseberry) - cordons Twice a year Early June to mid-July and then Late Autumn or Winter Early June to mid-July: cut the side shoots back to five leaves and tie in the leader to its cane. Once it reaches the top of the cane at 1.7m cut the leader back to five leaves back from the end of last year’s growth. Late Autumn to Winter: after the leaves have fallen cut the side shoots back to one or two buds and cut the leader back by one third until it reaches the end of its cane. Once it does cut the leader back to one to three buds back from the start of last seasons growth.
Rosa: Shrub, standard, climber. Annually. February to March. Reduce by two thirds. see How to prune a rose bush.
Rubus fruticosus agg. (Blackberry) Annually. Winter. Remove the fruited canes and tie in the new ones.
Spiraea - spring flowering e.g. S. ‘Arguta’ When too large or congested. Immediately after flowering. Cut back the shoots that have flowered while retaining as much of the new growth as possible as this bares next spring’s flowers.
Spiraea - summer flowering e.g. S. ‘Anthony Waterers’ and S. ‘Goldflame’ When too large or congested. Early spring. Flower on current seasons growth so cut back to within 2 or 3 buds of the old wood.
Syringa Annually Immediately after flowering Remove old flowering wood. It may be necessary to pinch over vigorous shoots in summer and remove suckers from grafted plants.
Viburnum – grown for their berries. (e.g. davidii) When it is becoming too large. Late winter. Reduce as needed.
Viburnum – spring flowering (e.g. x burkwoodii carlesii, opulus and rhytidophyllum). When too large or congested. Late spring or August, but not so late that new growth will not time to ripen before winter. Remove weak shoots and shorten others back to a manageable size.
Viburnum: winter flowering When it is becoming too large. Spring. Reduce as needed.
Weigela hybrids Annually. Immediately after flowering. Thin crowded bushes and remove a couple of old branches to ground level to encourage new shoots.

For more information on specific plants see:

  • Clematis by Christopher Lloyd
  • The Old Shrub Roses by Graham Stuart Thomas

How to make compost

Plastic compost bin
Plastic compost bin

All gardens produce some waste be it weeds, grass cuttings or dead flower heads and virtually all have soil which benefits from some additional organic matter. The local authority will take it away, often for a charge, or you can recycle your garden waste as compost and reduce the amount you have to buy. The problem is there is a little more to it than just making a heap of garden rubbish and hoping for the best. People complain that that they end up with a foul smelling mound and this is always the result of believing that just heaping up all the grass cutting will make compost. It doesn’t! To be a success a compost heap needs a varied diet.

The way to start is to create an area for the compost and decide how you are to contain it. The easiest way in a small garden is to buy one of the plastic compost bins, they come in various sizes and can be place in a discreet corner out of sight. They need no base to sit on, if anything they are better placed straight on to the bare earth. Larger gardens may need something a little more ambitious but here it need not be very fancy. Some cheap fence post with strong netting stapled to them will do, the kind sold for pig netting should do. Now the important part filling it.

Home made compost bin
Home made compost bin

A lot of research has been done on composting and it has been found that a successful compost heap starts with 30 times as much carbon in it as nitrogen but a lot of things you want to compost do not have that golden mix of carbon and nitrogen. Some things like grass cuttings have a lot more nitrogen than this and some like cardboard have a lot less. Now in addition 3 more things are important the temperature, the amount of water and the amount of air.

In the UK the outside temperature is going to be beyond your control and in practice is of little importance. How moist the heap is also usually not an issue unless you add a lot of dry material or we have a long dry spell. In practice as long as the heap is moist, not sodden, you should be alright.

This only leaves the carbon to nitrogen ratio. In practice though this can be simplified by dividing material into high nitrogen, generally green, waste and low nitrogen, generally brown, waste and mixing them in the ratio of 2 green waste to 1 brown waste.

Green waste is things such as grass cuttings, weeds, plant clippings, manures and vegetable scraps.

Brown waste tends to be leaves, hay and straw, sawdust, wood chippings, shredded paper, old compost.

Note:

Some brown waste, such as dry leaves, can be very bulky so try to imagine them pressed tight together when gauging how much your adding.

Try to mix the different materials to stop dense layers forming, grass cuttings are particularly bad for this. If you have a lot  of grass cuttings you may be better taking it to the council recycling centre and letting them compost it.

Don’t get too hung up on the proportions; the natural course is for things to breakdown, you’re just encouraging things along. Just make sure the heap gets a varied diet.

If the heap starts to look dense and slimy with a smell you need to mix in some brown waste like shredded paper, compost heaps shouldn’t smell!

If the heap looks dead and dry it needs some green waste, compost heaps hardly ever need to have water added to them.

How to make a garden hedge

Hedging at Les Jardin du Manoir d'Eyrignac
Hedging at Les Jardin du Manoir d’Eyrignac

Hedges have been an integral part of gardens since the earliest times and encompass a vast range of ideas. Their main purpose though is to divide up space; be it marking the boundaries of a garden or dividing up the area within them. Many people shy away from hedges on the grounds that they take too much work to maintain or will take to long to establish. While it is true a formal hedge needs cutting at least once a year and you have to allow time for the plants to grow nothing provides the same sense of structure to a garden, just look at Hidcote Manor!

Choosing a hedge plant

When deciding on a hedge it has to be remembered that you are going to need a lot of the same plant and its going to be there for a long time. Cost and availability are clearly going to be important, particularly if a long hedge is planned. It also has to be suitable to its location: is the soil limy, shallow, free draining, water-logged? Also is the site exposed or sheltered, in open sun or shade? A good hedging plant needs to be hardy and suited to its location, the last thing you want is to lose chunks of you hedge the first hard winter, but also has to be amenable to being treated as a hedge. Most hedges are keep clipped and a good hedging plant needs to be a mass of dense smart leaves; as an open habit will never look good. The size of the leaves also matters as large leaves that look tatty when cut with shears; meaning they are best suited to informal hedges and screens, unless you have he time and patience to trim them carefully with secateurs.

Mixed hedges

Hedging at Chateau de Losse
Hedging at Chateau de Losse

Nobody said a hedge has to be only one type of plant, in fact most hedges usually end up with some lodgers in them over time. The red flowered climber Tropaeolum speciosum is often seen scrambling through yew hedges to great effect and wild clematis and ivy are seen doing the same thing in field hedges. So long as the hedge is sufficiently established and the climber not too vigorous a great range of combinations will add to a hedge. But you do not need to restrict yourself to mixing in climbers; the plain green of a hedge can be broken up but the inclusion of variegated plants in the mix. Care has to be taken to ensure one doesn’t swamp the other but say a plain green hedge with variegated buttress can lift an otherwise ordinary hedge. Mixed hedges are also sometimes used to recreate a more natural hedge for wildlife. For example 75% Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), 10% Field Maple (Viburnum opulus), 5% Beech (Fagus sylvatica), 5% Field Maple (Acer campestre) and 5% Holly (Ilex aquifolium) spaced 300mm apart, or 500mm apart in a pair of staggered double row 400mm apart, will produce a pleasing effect. Better still have a good look at the near by hedges and copy those, being careful not to be tempted by elder (Sambucus racemosa) as it’s short lived and tends to swap its neighbours and you will probably end up with self seeding themselves anyway!

Formal or Informal

Does a hedge have to be cut? The traditional image is of carefully trimmed walls of green, but where a more gentle appearance is called for a natural unkempt look can be more fitting. In a larger garden a screen of bushes can serve to define areas. For example a wild flower area could be separated from the remainder of the garden by an uncut screen of hawthorn and if needs be the side facing a more formal area could be keep cut. Even smaller gardens could benefit from an edging of lavender left to grow over the edge of a path to soften it.

Wildlife and hedges

There is no doubt that wildlife benefits from gardens, it is a two way street, and shrubs provide valuable cover and nesting sites so a hedge will benefit the wildlife in the garden which in turn adds to the garden. To this end any hedge cutting must be avoided if it could disturbed nesting birds, which in the UK, at least, is a criminal offence. In the UK the RSPB recommend that hedge are not cut from early March until the end of August for this reason, but these are guidelines and some years bird nesting could extend beyond this time frame.

Establishing hedges

A hedge is a long term investment in a garden so prior to planting the area needs to be well prepared. The ground needs to be clear of any perennial weeds which will be very difficult to eradicate once the hedge is growing. Any drainage problems have to be sorted out and with plants which will not tolerate water-logging, like Yew, it is prudent to install effective land-drains in all but the most free draining soils. As hedges are made up of closely packed large shrubs they tend to be greedy neighbours as their roots spread out looking for food and moisture and in some instances setting a barrier between them and any adjoining planting may be a sound investment, corrugated sheeting, builders damp proof membrane or cheap pond liner would suffice.

Maintaining a hedge

Topiary at Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac
Topiary at Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac

Hedge cutting became much easier once the powered hedge cutter became widely available but still most hedges will need cutting at least once a year; so it is best to plan ahead to make the task as easy as possible. First off make sure you not only leave room for the hedge to grow when you first plant it, but leave plenty of room to get in to cut it. Most plants will only create leaves where there is sun so cutting the hedge so it slopes slightly in toward the top will help get light all the way down to the base, this is less of an issue with plants like Yew which seem un-bothered by shade but most will tend to develop an unsightly sparse bottom! While on the topic of hedge cutting you should consider how high you actually need your hedge, yes a 6 metre high hedge will no doubt afford you great privacy but is also going to create an awful lot of shade, and in the UK you are also in danger of falling fowl of the high hedges act! This aside you have to consider the practicalities of cutting the monster, a 1.8 metre high hedge will still block the line of sight but the top can still be cut from the ground or a small step. Steps always present plenty of opportunity for accidents without powered hedge cutter being thrown into the equation.

Clearing up after the cutting is also a time consuming exercise and specially so if the clipping land in a herbaceous border, so throw a dust sheet over the plants and the sheet can then be gathered up with the clippings contained. Once you’ve cleared up remember you removed a lot of nutrients with all your cutting and so the hedge will benefit with a feed of a slow acting fertiliser in spring.

Hedge Plant Selector

Plant Common Name Formal Hedges Informal Hedges Evergreen Shade Foliage Colour Flower Colour Single Row Spacing Double Row Spacing Comments
Acer campestre Field maple Yes No Green Pale green 450 A native plant that makes a good hedge, though more commonly used mixed with other plants. Very tolerant of soil and aspect it turns a very attractive pale gold in autumn.
Berberis darwinii Darwin’s barberry Yes Yes Yes Partial Green Orange 600 Makes a good impenetrable evergreen hedge 0.9m to 1.2m high. If left unclipped you get yellow spring flowers and blue berries in autumn. If clipped do so after flowering.
Buxus sempervirens Box Yes Yes Yes Green 450 to 600 The classic for dwarf compact hedges for edging and dividing up areas. The more vigorous forms will make 3.6 to 4.5 m high if wanted. The plant seems to attract snails!
Carpinus betulus Hornbeam Yes Partial Green 450 Like beech but more tolerant of heavy soils. A native plant it makes an excellent hedge in exposed locations.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Lawson’s cypress Yes Yes Green 450 to 600 Makes a good densse hedge but likes adequate moisture and good drainage. C. ‘Fletcheri’ makes a good dense hedge and being slower growing than the type takes longer to form a hedge but is less demanding of clipping there after.
Corylus avellana Hazel. Hazelnut Yes Partial Green 600 A native plant that is very tolerant of soil and aspect. Makes a good hedge on its own or mixed with other natives.
Crataegus monogyna Hawthorn, May Yes Partial Green White 300 The native Hawthorn is the commonest hedging plant in England forming many miles of hedgerow. It is very tolerant of dry and wet soils of all types in any situation. It makes a tough impenetrable hedge, often mixed with other native species. Very tolerant of being cut hard back.
X Cupressocyparis leylandii Leyland cypress Yes Yes Green 600 900 with 450 between the rows The rapid growth of this plant has lead to its over use and abuse by people looking for fast hedge. If keep regularly trimmed it make a good dense hedge but if left to grow it soon becomes a problem. Like most conifers it will not grow back from old wood and has a reputation for being poorly rooted.
Escallonia cultivars Yes Yes Yes Partial Green White through pink to red 450 As a formal hedge its smallish leaves repond well to clipping to form a neat hedge. As an infromal one it makes very attractive one and which will form hedges in a range of sizes depending which of the many cultivars are grown. Trim after flowering if necessary.
Fagus sylvatica Common Beech Yes Partial Green 450 This ever popular hedging plant is a hardy evergreen, happy in any soil but heavy waterlogged ones. When cut as a hedge it retains it leaves until they are replaced by the new leaves in spring. If grown as a pleached hedge you get the smooth silver trunks.
Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group Copper Beech, Purple Beech Yes Partial Dark purple 450 As the plain green form but with dark purple leaves in summer.
Hedera helix Ivy Yes Yes Yes Green Green 450 Though not an obvious choice Ivy can make a very good hedge; it is easy to grow being happy in any reasonable garden soil, hardy and very tolerant of shade. To start it off some form of cheap fence is need for it to grow up, chestnut palling or cheap trellis will suffice, and once it gets going it can be clipped with shears once or twice a year. The fence will rot with time but by them the plants should be self-supporting. A vast range of cultivars are available to chose from.
Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ Yes Yes Yes Yes Variegated green and gold 450 Makes an attrctive verigated hedge like the native holly and has it strengths and weaknesses but is if anything a little slower growing.
Ilex aquifolium Common Holly Yes Yes Yes Yes Green 450 A popular and native which makes a good intruder resistant hedge. It doesn’t transplant very well so it is normally sold in pots and its relative slow growth makes it expensive. It will make a hedge any where from 1.5 to 6.0 m high. It has two draw backs, apart from possibly its slow growth, its very sharp dead leaves it scatters across neighbouring borders and its attractiveness to rabbits which love its green bark.
Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ Lavender Yes Yes Yes Grey Violet 300 This aromatic herb has long been used to create low hedges and will grow on most soils, though it prefers a free draining one, where it gets plenty of sunlight. It never makes a very dense hedge and resents being cut back into dead wood. Probably at its best when allowed to grow as an informal border edging and just clipped over once the flowers fade to keep it tidy.
Ligustrum ‘Aureum’ Golden Privet Yes Yes Partial Variegated green and gold White 300 400 to 450 with 200 between rows The gold verigated form of privet makes a good bright hedge. Semi-evergreen, only lossing its leaves in the coldest areas, it is tolerant of most soils and aspects. It will come back from being quiet hard pruned and will make a hedge anywhere from 1.2 to 1.8 m high. Buy plants 300 to 600 mm high and cut them back to 225 to 300 mm on planting
Ligustrum ovalifolium Common Privet Yes Yes Yes Variegated green and gold White 300 400 to 450 with 200 between rows Once a byword for suburbia privet has fallen out of fashion these days but is still makes a good hedge. Semi-evergreen, only lossing its leaves in the coldest areas, it is tolerant of most soils and aspects. It will come back from being quiet hard pruned and will make a hedge anywhere from 0.6 to 3.0 m high. Buy plants 300 to 600 mm high and cut them back to 225 to 300 mm on planting
Lonicera “Baggesen’s Gold” Yes Yes Gold 300 A gold form of Lonicers nitida. It can be used with the plain green form to create some interesting effects.
Lonicera nitida Yes Yes Yes Green 300 A very popular fast evergreen plant which can make a very dense hedge 1.2 to 1.35 m high. Its fast growth does means it needs regularly clipping, up to four times a year, but it is very tolerant of being cut hard back. It’s not terribly hardy and can damaged by cold winters so it is best where there is some shelter.
Photinia ‘Red Robin’ Yes Yes Partial Green with red shoots White 450 to 600 This evergreen New Zeland shrubs has started to become popular for hedging and makes a good hedge from 900 upto 1500 mm high. It is adaptable happy in most soils and situations it is best cut back once the red foliage starts to turn bronze, so getting the bright red shoots in spring.
Prunus lusitanica Portuguese laurel Yes Yes Yes Partial Green White 450 to 600 Can make a neat and close evergreen hedge with glossy dark green leaves. Its relatively large leaves mean it is best trimmed with secateurs though shears cut ones can still look very smart if you lack the time and/or patience.
Rosmarinus officinalis Rosemary Yes Yes Yes Grey green Blue 300 to 380 Its open habit make it better as an informal hedge but makes a sented hedge up to about 900mm. Though tolerant of most soils it does best in a warm sandy soil and can bea bit tender. Avoid cutting into old wood and ide3ally plant in spring.
Taxus baccata Yew Yes Yes Yes Green 450 to 600 The classic dense evergreen hedge and probably the best. Oftern over looked on the grounds of its much exaggerated slow growth it is reconed a Yew hedge can out last a brick wall. They tolerate most soils and situations including heavy shade and will make a hedge in 10 years if clipped regularly to encourage dense growth. A native plant is is very toxic to both humans and other animals. Its achilles heels is it will not tolerate waterlogging and so when planting it drainage should be installed in all but the most free draining soils.
Taxus baccata Aurea Group Golden Yew Yes Yes Yes Variegated green and gold 450 to 600 A gold variegated form of the classic hedge material. They tolerate most soils and situations including heavy shade and will make a hedge in 10 years if clipped regularly to encourage dense growth. A native plant is is very toxic to both humans and other animals. Its achilles heels is it will not tolerate waterlogging and so when planting it drainage should be installed in all but the most free draining soils.
Viburnum tinus Yes Yes Yes Yes Green White 600 Makes a good hardy evergreen hedge, V. ‘Eve Price’ is a particularly good dense form. Grows well on both chalk and non-chalk soils and tolerates both shade and maritime exposure.

 

Note: All measurements are in mm

Spacings are for guidance only, wider spacing will use fewer plants but will take longer establish. Normally use 450 mm to 600 mm tall plants, larger plants can be spaced further apart.

All the plants in this list will tolerate lime and grow in any reasonable garden soil.

How to prune a rose bush

Equipment:

  • Secateurs
  • Long armed pruners (parrot bills)
  • Strong gloves

Before you start:

  1. You are going to get scratched even with gloves on.
  2. Use good quality tools which will give a clean cut and are safer to use.
  3. Cut the stems just above an outward pointing bud. You will see these if you look carefully just above the scar left where the leaves fell off.

Summary:

  1. Traditionally done in mid-winter.
  2. Remove damaged or diseased stems.
  3. Remove any crossing braches.
  4. Remove any very weak stems.
  5. Shorten the remaining stems to one third of their length.

 

  1. Traditionally done in mid-winter.

Traditionally this is done in February in the United Kingdom when the plants are fully dormant but unlikely to be forced into growth too early and be damaged by frost.

  1. Remove damaged or diseased stems.

Any stems that are diseased, pay a particular look out for coral spot, clearly are going to be a danger to the long term health of the plant and must be removed. Make sure you cut out all of the diseased parts. Damaged parts are never going to be viable in the long term but also they provide an easy site of entry for diseases.

  1. Remove any crossing braches.

There are two reasons for this, first you want an open branch structure which is more stable, shows the plant off well and allows the free movement of air through the plant which discourages diseases like mildew. Second where branches cross through the bush soon or later they will end up rubbing against other branches as the plant moves in the wind. This will quickly damage the bark and provide an easy entry point for pests and diseases.

  1. Remove any very weak stems.

These are never going to give you a strong bush which can carry a good show flowers.

  1. Shorten the remaining stems to one third of their length.

By shortening the remaining stems by a third you should balance way you remove with what you can expect the plant to put on in the next growing season.

How to cut back over grown shrubs

Before reaching for the pruning tools you need a clear idea of what you are hoping to achieve and in the context of this post it is a healthy plant which fits, both physically and aesthetically into its location in the garden. When you have finished you want something which does not overwhelm the area around it or look unattractive to the eye.

Pruning is not the easiest of things to teach, partly because of the different requirements of different plants but equally because it is as much art as science. To start with a few preliminaries:

  • Plants don’t always respond well to pruning – not all plants will come again if you cut into old wood, this includes nearly all the conifers but also a number of others.
  • Those that do, don’t always do as you expect – often a plant will respond to pruning by producing a mass of soft shoots rather than one or two useful ones.
  • Once you’ve cut it off you can’t put it back – so if in doubt delay cutting and then take off a bit at a time to see how it looks
  • Think ahead to prevent accidents – you would be amazed at the number of people who actually cut off the branch they are sitting on!
  • Make sure you are suitably equipped – as you will never make a tidy job using poor/blunt tools.
  • Plan first, act second – have a really good look at what you’re tackling and how your cuts are going to affect the plant before you do anything.

The first step is to remove any dead and diseased material, the second remove crossing branches and the final one is to shape the plant.

Any dead or diseased parts of the plant are going to be no benefit to you or the plant and if not yet diseased it probably soon will be. Yes that branch may be in just the right place for what you wanted but if it not healthy it’s never going to look right and will end up causing problems further along the line so cut it back to healthy growth just above a bud or close to where it branched off a larger part. If it’s a larger branch do it in three stages to prevent it damaging the rest of the plant when it breaks away from the plant. Work methodically, starting with the larger branches so that any damage caused by removing them can be cleared up as you go.Branch pruning

Once we’re left with a collection of healthy branches we can turn our attention to any which are crossing through the bush. This is not a hard and fast rule as the first but  there are reasons for it. First such branches almost always end up rubbing against one another as the plant moves in the wind. This causes the bark to be worn away at these points and it is the bark which acts as the plant’s main defence against diseases getting in. This means that sooner or later these places will be where problems are going to occur. The second reason is that plant diseases tend to benefit from a still moist atmosphere and this is more likely to occur in a tangle of branches than a nice open structure which the air can move  through freely. Finally it tends to be more visually pleasing not to have a lot of branches crossing through.

Now we can come to shaping the plant and this is much more a matter of personal taste.There are though a few things to consider. If by nature it’s a big plant and you are going to cut it down a long way , then it will quickly re-grow and you will soon need to repeat the process. Should you allow it more room or is it simply not in a suitable place? If you are trying to lower the height of the plant, remove the tallest branches completely low down where they divide and allow the shorter branches which are left to form the new top. Nothing looks worse than just choosing a height and cutting everything off in a level line at this height, but you regularly see this done and often by people claiming to be professional. Once done the plant is very unlikely ever to recover aesthetically.

The important thing is to take your time and regularly step back to get an overall view of the job as you go. Whatever plan you start with you will have to fine tune it as you go as the job progresses and new ideas occur.

How to tackle an over grown garden

The first stage is to have a really good look around your garden and decide what you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem  as a kitchen  or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide a hidden eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so it’s best to get it done as soon as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arborculturalist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious!

One common problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quite a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quite nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sell-able at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.

Tiding up to see what you’ve achieved.

Once the overgrown trees and shrubs have been cut back a lot of rubbish will be left; which we need to do something with. Its only once you’ve tidy up your hard work can you really get an idea of what you have achieved and the sense of space you will have created. There a several ways of dealing with green waste: take it to the tip, put it in a skip, re-use it, grind it up or make it into compost. All these have their advantages and disadvantages and in practice most cases will need a combination of some or all of these.

 

Large Yellow Skip
Large Yellow Skip

The easiest solution with small quantities is to cut it into manageable sized pieces and take it to the local tip in the car. If there’s a lot, and when cutting back its surprising how much rubbish you will create, a skip might be a better solution. The green waste you produce will be very bulky so you will probably need a large skip and over sized skips are sometimes available for this very reason. You will need to explain you are only putting green waste in, and make sure that is all you do put in, as then you should get a better price. It may seem a waste just to throw it away but these days garden waste doesn’t just get buried in the ground. Its ground and shredded up, and made into compost for reuse. The advantage is that it’s done on a big scale so the machines doing the shredding and grinding will happily swallow things like tree stumps which are very hard to recycle any other way. Also as the material is coming in from a wide range of sources so the compost doesn’t get overwhelmed by one type of material, an important consideration when making compost. Finally the process of making the compost is a commercial operation so it is carefully managed to make a usable and therefore re-sellable product. The main disadvantage is that if you what to benefit from this compost you have to pay to buy it, so you can end up paying twice; once to get rid of it and once to get it back.

Log car
Log car

That considered you may well feel you would rather recycle the rubbish yourself and this has its advantages. You are not paying someone to do the work and you can be more flexible in the way you use the material. This is though going to take imagination, space, hard work and patience on your part, the results can far outweigh these. First off have a really good look at what you have and start planning how you could make use of it. There is no point in chopping everything up and then finding you could do with some big pieces of wood for something. This may well mean you have to adapt your plans; but this often turns out for the better.

A simple use of small branches is as an edging for informal parts of the garden and these can be built up to form low retaining walls and steps if needed. If you only have a small amount the branches can be cut into equal lengths, say 600mm long, and heaped up to provide valuable shelter for wild life and most importantly the things they feed on. Thin pieces of stick can make simple summer plant supports amongst hardy perennials and in the vegetable garden. Traditionally garden peas were supported by “pea sticks” which they could climb up to keep the plants off the ground. If you are in the fortunate position of having more substantial pieces of tree trunk; these can make very impressive garden seats. Alternatively they can be made in simple but very effective pieces of play equipment.

Log car
Log car

 

Autumn Tidy Up

A leaf on a lawn covered by frost
A leaf on a lawn covered by frost

With the arrival of dark mornings thoughts turn to tidying the garden up for winter. The first frosts will soon finish off the annuals and tender perennials, while the hardy perennials die back for the winter and the deciduous trees and shrubs will take on their autumn colours before dropping their leaves.

Any tiding up will invariably create a collection of rubbish and gardening is no different. It’s often said “one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure” so what treasure can we find before glibly throwing everything in a skip. Not everything is going to be re-usable; if you come upon what might be asbestos sheets, then only option is to contact your local authority for some specialist advice. That aside in most cases the limiting factor is your imagination.

Once you get rid of the bits of broken glass and rusty metal, which only the most artistic gardeners will be able to find a use for, you are left stones, rubble, lumps of wood, leaves, weeds and  other bits of greenery, and soil. As a rule its best to keep any topsoil you find surplus to you immediate needs. Small amounts of topsoil often come in handy for filling stump holes and the like but, due to its weight small quantities are hard to come by and expensive. Even if you have nowhere to store it, you can lose it by spreading on to the borders. If you think this is going to cause problems consider 50 kg of topsoil (the same weight as 2 bags of cement) will cover a patch 1.5 m by 1.5 m with a layer only 10 mm thick.

Shrubs in Autumn
Shrubs in Autumn

 

The green material will make good compost so long as care is taken when making it, and you have a little space for a compost heap/bin. Any woody material, like rose prunings, are best off shredded if they are to breakdown in a reasonable time. If you do not have the space, or time, our local authority will have a green waste composting service which will do the work for you and provide a quality controlled produce you can buy back from them when you need it.

It you have a lot of trees and shrubs you a likely to find, come autumn, you have a lot of dead leaves in the garden and these make an excellent soil improver in the form of leaf mould. Its worth considering that evergreen plants also shed lots of  leaves through the year, just take a walk through a conifer wood one day! Leaves tend to rot down more slowly that most of the green waste that goes into compost, so it’s often better to separate the leaves out. The leaves can be heaped up into a simple container made of course wire netting supported by posts or canes, just consider how you will get the leaf mould out again. As the leaves of different plants will rot down at different rates is best if the tougher leaves are shredded to help them brake down, and some people recommend adding some grass cutting to help the process along. The heap should not be allowed to dry and will need turning at least once. After a year you will have a very useful soil improver but ideally the heap should be left for two years.

Cutting back – the plan

Before reaching for the pruning tools you need a clear idea of what you are hoping to achieve and in the context of this post it is a healthy plant which fits both physically and aesthetically into its location in the garden. It must not overwhelm the area around it or in the end look unattractive to the eye.

Pruning is not the easiest of things to teach, partly because of the different requirements of different plants but equally because it is as much art as science. To start with a few preliminaries:

  • Plants don’t always respond well to pruning – not all plants will come again if you cut into old wood, this includes nearly all the conifers but also a number of others.
  • Those that do, don’t always do as you expect – often a plant will respond to pruning by producing a mass of soft shoots rather than one or two useful ones.
  • Once you’ve cut it off you can’t put it back – so if in doubt delay cutting and then take off a bit at a time to see how it looks
  • Think ahead to prevent accidents – you would be amazed at the number of people who actually cut off the branch they are sitting on!
  • Make sure you are suitably equipped – as you will never make a tidy job using poor/blunt tools.
  • Plan first, act second – have a really good look at what you’re tackling and how your cuts are going to affect the plant before you do anything.

 

Plants which should not be cut back into old (brown not green) wood include nearly all conifers. They resent being cut back beyond their green foliage, except for Yews which can grow away vigorously from old wood. Botanists insist Yews are conifers but try as they might, from a gardeners point of view, Yews are not very good at being conifers.  Most deciduous shrubs respond well to being cutting back but more caution should be used with evergreen shrubs and it may be better to spread the work over a number of seasons. Some such as lavender is not worth trying so it’s a case of live with it or replace it.

Thought should also be given to a shrub’s value be it sentimental or otherwise. With any attempt to drastically cut back a plant there is always the chance it may not be successful so consider “what if I lose it” and moderate your actions likewise. For example on the one hand a choice tree peony which is slow and relatively unusual would receive the minimal of cutting back while on the other hand a Berberis, a very good garden plant, which is readily available and grows quickly can be cut back very hard safe in the knowledge it will probable quickly recover and if not it is easy to replace.  I’ve seen Berberis cut down to ground level and recover.

Taking over an established garden – where to begin

Most people when they buy a new house find they are taking over an existing garden and this will present certain challenges; you have after all bought their house not their tastes. It is therefore inevitable not everything in the garden you are going to like and/or want. It is reasonable to assume on first moving in that the garden will not be your most pressing concern, so we need to start by prioritising. The first thing to consider is what is the time of year, mid-winter little is happening in the garden but in the height of summer any lawn will beg rowing fast so you are going to need to cut it once a week and if there is a pond it needs to be kept topped up and any filter maintained. The rest of the garden should survive alright with the exception of any plants in a greenhouse. If its summer and you’re pushed for time the easiest thing to do is to take them out of the greenhouse, up them with any other plants in pots and keep them watered.

The next stage is to have a really good look around your new garden; you should have plenty of opportunities to do this while escaping the paint fumes. What do you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem  as a kitchen  or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide a hidden eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so its best to get it done as seen as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arborculturalist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious!

One common problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quiet a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quiet nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sellable at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.