Thursday, 22 September 2011

Do the Right Thing

On the right, the forsythia the spring after we moved in, with
our friend Mark expertly logging the ash tree he’s just pollarded.

Someone once said (I think it was the apostle Paul although I’m fairly certain these weren’t his exact words) that it’s all very well knowing what you ought to do, but quite another thing actually doing it, when all you want to do is the exact opposite. I don't recall any stories about the saint being a great horticulturalist, but the notion holds true in the garden too. Over the past few weeks our forsythia hedge has taken on the silhouette of a lunatic banshee’s hairdo, and against my better judgement, I’m struggling to resist the temptation to give the thing a good trim and restore a little order before winter sets in.

We inherited this hedge with the garden, along with some pitifully skeletal borders, a lumpy area of grass with a collapsed greenhouse buried beneath, three large and unruly dog roses, a horizontal, lightning-struck apple tree stubbornly clinging to life, and a substantial plantation of stinging nettles. Not to mention the strange mound at the end of the garden (I’m always slightly wary digging here in case I unearth someone who incurred the displeasure of a previous resident, but so far we’ve found nothing more sinister than house bricks). So this small stretch of hedge, no more than four metres in length, was the cheeriest thing in the garden, especially in spring when it is one of the first things to burst into flower – a vivid splash of golden yellow on arching, leafless stems. At that time of year I can forget the fact that it’s been planted in far too small a space – this relative of the olive tree needs room to flourish – and just enjoy the display. But, on the understanding that it must spend the winter months bereft of foliage in a state of twiggy undress, for the rest of the year I want a nice, well mannered hedge. The problem is that, since forsythia flowers on the previous years growth, the ideal time to give it a good cut back is immediately after flowering: any pruning after about May will reduce the material on which the next year’s floral display depends. I am reluctantly coming to appreciate that, with this plant at least, I cannot have both the spring display, and a tidy, compact hedge. The two things are mutually exclusive.

I know this to be true, but needless to say, continue to snip away far later into the year than I should. I fear this year I have already transgressed – perhaps one afternoon in July – but as I stand in the early evening air, the hedge in question gesticulating at me rudely against the twilight sky, I utter a small prayer for strength, take up my shears, and go and vent my frustrations on the hedgerow on the opposite side of the garden.

Two years and two months later, the same view of the garden as in the first
picture, with the hedge now providing a good backdrop to the new planting