I’m well into the March pruning season now – have so far tackled dogwoods, coppiced eucalyptus, hebes, mahonias, hydrangeas, buddlejas and an overgrown berberis (that one was as truly horrible a job as it gets). I have yet to take the secateurs to a deciduous ceanothus or two, a cotinus, a small field of hypericum, and several pyracantha. I’m sure I’ll spot a few more before I’m done.
It took me quite a while to realise that pruning is an art form (and I’m not talking about the really arty stuff like cloud pruning or topiary – just common or garden keeping your shrubs in check pruning). One injudicious snip and the balance of a shrub is ruined – usually if you chop off a branch you weren’t intending to you actually end up starting again, as you then have to re-balance the shrub to make amends for your mistake.
So when I’m pruning I take my time. I do an awful lot of standing back and pondering with my head on one side, à la van Gogh (told you it was an art form). This is because once you prune out one big-ish branch, if you take a step back and look at the whole shrub, it suddenly becomes glaringly obvious which branch is now sticking out like a sore thumb and needs to be pruned out as well. Eventually – hopefully – you get to an equilibrium, where all the branches are evenly spaced, there’s plenty of air and light in the centre of the shrub, it’s not too tall or too wide, and looks just right (if considerably slimmer than when you started).
Of course there are shrubs which provide a little light relief to all this nailbiting judgement malarky – cornus, buddleja and coppiced eucalyptus you can just gaily slash back to a bud somewhere between 6″ – 36″ above ground level with no thought to aesthetic delicacies. But treat all shrubs with such reckless abandon – as, I find, most white van gardeners do – and you end up with a stubby stump of brushwood which does no aesthetic favours to anyone and won’t help the health of the shrub, either. Take three, or even four times as long over doing it, and you’ll have not a pruned shrub, but a work of art. It’s a creative business, this gardening lark.