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.