When the majority of people and gardens are young, they can get by on natural beauty and freshness. Nothing matches the dewy allure of humans in their twenties and perennials in their first few years. But when maturity sets in, good grooming makes all the difference. My grandmother and lots of other grandmothers have said so, and, like so many other pieces of grandmotherly wisdom, it is true.
I thought of this a few weeks ago when I visited an absolutely exquisite mature garden. It was less flower-filled and considerably more formal than mine, stocked with well-grown shrubs, trees and plants, all separated by rivers of finely crushed stone. Everything in sight was well disciplined and clipped or pruned to perfection. Even an eagle-eyed garden club maven would have been hard-pressed to find weak or dead branches or a spent flowerhead. Yew, box and other shrubs were shaped so that each added its own shade of meaning to the whole, and the landscape was further enhanced by selected garden ornaments of stone and cast concrete. Near the garden’s center, a perfect Japanese climbing hydrangea or Schizophragma hydrangeoides, spiraled up a large tree, complementing but not overpowering it.
I was simultaneously enchanted by the horticultural accomplishment and depressed when I thought about the state of my own landscape. By the time I got home, my hands were itching to take up the clippers, loppers and pruning shears.
And I had so many wayward plants to choose from. At the moment, the elephant-size flowering quince is covered with a bridal veil of sweet autumn clematis. It is lovely and fragrant at this moment, but the “bride” underneath it is a real bridezilla. The coral bark willow–Salix alba subsp. vitellina ‘Britzensis’—grown in tree form, has shot skyward in a completely undisciplined fashion. It demands to be made into a tidy, rounded tree as soon as possible. ‘Britzensis’ stands cheek-by-jowl with a tree-form abelia; its canopy so full that it droops, making lawn mowing into a series of avoidance maneuvers.
By the looks of it, the mature holly trees will bear an abundance of red berries in time for winter use, but in the meantime, their bulk overshadows everything around them. Hollies are a pain to prune—literally and figuratively–because their leaves are so prickly, but a little pain is a small price for the extra sunlight that will beam down on smaller plants once the job is done. I will resign myself to the fact that the holly will ruin at least one pair of garden gloves.
I would love to start on the butterfly bushes and the roses-of-Sharon right now, but they are blooming and I am sentimental. The butterfly bushes, or Buddleia davidii, are attracting scores of silver-spotted skippers, swallowtails, monarchs, red admirals and other flying creatures too numerous to mention. I love the butterflies more than I hate the untidiness of the shrubs, but those shrubs are on notice. When the flowers fade, they will be lopped back by two thirds and there will be no room for argument.
The roses-of-Sharon do not attract many butterflies, but the local bees feast on them every day. I will put off pruning them until the annual show is over. That may be quite awhile, since these hibiscus family members bloom for many weeks, with buds opening in sequence.
Just as I never understand why people fear public speaking, I fail to comprehend the average gardener’s fear of pruning. The well-off coddle their fears by hiring someone else to prune, even though many of those “someone elses” will charge eye-watering amounts of money for the privilege of committing acts of butchery on the shrubs. The less-well-off often kick the horticultural can down the road and put off the job until the shrubs and small tress are totally out of hand. At that point they either commit their own acts of desperate, frustrated carnage or remove the shrubs all together.
I abhor waste and taking out shrubs because they are overgrown is wasteful. Pruning requires a little time, the correct tools and a modicum of common sense. It is not rocket science.
If you are one of the fearful cohort, or if the business of life has kept your away from the pruning shears, there is no need for guilt. You don’t have to do it all at once. I am pruning back the willow a bit at a time, secure in the knowledge that eventually it will look civilized. Don’t worry about what the neighbors think about the gradual pruning process. If they are aware of your overgrown shrubs at all, they will probably be grateful that you are taking steps to restore order in the yard.
Besides, if your shrubs are the only aspects of your life that provide fodder for neighborhood gossip, you are probably either extremely virtuous or terribly dull. Liven things up by neatening up your landscape.