Monday, 22 August 2011

Judicious cutting - Not Dark Yet

Today I have spent some time letting light in to a small dark garden, at the small dark end of town, on this strangely dark August day.  You may think I’m going to talk about it not being dark yet, but getting there.  All I can say is, not yet, not yet.

So, we're letting in the light.  A large mahonia, probably one of those tall hybrids in the media group, and a viburnum bodnantense stretch up in front of a wall of conifers.  To the side (not pictured) a purple cotinus waves and bends its arms. It’s inevitable, at this time of the year, that some shrubs or trees which seemed to be an acceptable size and shape, and may indeed even have been pruned at their correct time (immediately after the flowers were over, in so many cases) suddenly seem quite irredeemably overgrown and in need of immediate drastic attention.  This is the time when “gardeners” who offer “tidy-ups” will come in and wave their hedge cutters about, creating a multiple blob effect.  Tidy yes, but letting in another sort of dark, the death of grace and natural beauty. 

So how to deal with these three shrubs, if I am to avoid my own harsh judgement?  The viburnum is an interesting case, it grows straight up, to about 9 foot, if it’s happy and strong, with its roots well down.  But it flowers best on older branched wood that has slowed down a bit.  You often find a mixture of both things going on, but if you remove all the old branched growth at this time of the year, there’ll be nothing ripe enough to flower well AND you’ll have stripped all the slightly japanesey character from your subject, leaving it looking like a bunch of tall leafy sticks.  If you take the opposite path and remove all the healthy straight shoots, you’ll be unable to renew the shrub and will be condemned to a cycle of growing and removing ever stronger, more desperate shoots , which will look ever more out of place against the increasingly aged branchy originals.  In any case, it should go completely against the grain of the sensitive gardener, to take out new growth and you may find your hands trembling as you do it.

So the way forward has to be, as you will have guessed, a bit of both.  It’s not very satisfactory, but I sacrificed the oldest, most japanesey looking growth, and the strongest, most erect and forceful.  I either took those down to the base if they were badly-placed or back to an outward-facing shoot, hoping for growth which will slow down, ramify and flower! flower! flower! We’re left with a shrub that’s a bit smaller but less confused looking.  May that be true of us all, in this time of obesity and bewilderment.

Now for the mahonia, a much easier case.  Have courage here, it’s a bit late to prune growth you hope will flower in the very early spring, or even autumn, but to be honest, I have rarely seen a mahonia look the worse for pruning, even when flowering time comes.  Inexplicable.  They just seem to like it.  So simply cut at the height where you would like the next set of fans of leaves to emerge.  It’s usually possible to hide the cut ends amongst the existing foliage.  If you want growth from low down, cut right to the base.  In general mahonias make all their leafy and flowering growth at about the same level on their ever-lengthening stems.  It’s up to you to distribute it up and down the structure, by varied cutting.

 People get strong feelings about mahonias, I take them with equanimity and a measured appreciation for what they have to offer (almost tropical looking leaves, drama, architecture, flowers in winter, shade-loving etc).  I do feel a stir of affection for mahonia japonica however, with the lemony flowers that look like tiny daffodils and smell of lily of the valley.  But less drama and VERY dark leaves.

Finally the cotinus.  This is a shrub that would be better left unpruned really, it seems to like to develop old wood and then takes on a naturally shapely quality and, in some clones, flowers like billy-oh.  Nothing to be done here but take out those branches of purple that were excluding the greatest amount of sky, and take them back as far as possible, to a joint.  In my own garden, I stool a cotinus (in the form Grace, which is less purple, more mixed), taking it to a stump every autumn.  I don’t want it looking like a great beached summer pudding.  This way, it grows very wavy stems of big leaves, never flowers and gets persecuted by thrips.  You win some, you lose some.

Would I plant any of these shrubs now?  They're redolent of 80s and 90s planting and you're unlikely to find them in the Garden Design Journal amongst the wildflower meadows, the land forms and the Cor-ten.  But I would plant the viburnum for the winter flowers - they screen by attracting and halting the gaze in the winter and their tall leafiness in summer can effectively background your massed grasses if you can get the sun to shine from the right direction.  The mahonia looks worst  when mixed with complicated colourful borders, it needs simplicity and other greens.

So back to our theme of judiciously cutting, in the near dark.  When I first heard Dylan’s beautiful song, Not Dark Yet, (No. 23, Time Out Of Mind version), I laughed aloud.  He speaks like a tactful Grim Reaper.  Then the layers began to unfold.  I don’t respond to each word and line, I listen to what I’m picking up and look carefully at it – it can change every time and with different versions.  But you probably know all that.

Now what I hear is the failure of verve and excitement which attends aging.  We're enclosed in a hot dark place where there's not even room to be.  But I also hear the value of whats left in there with us.  I focus on that, whether it’s a viburnum promising pink flowers in winter, a mahonia looking less jagged and threatening, or my own drooping flesh, my lined face and frequent sense of absolute pointlessness.  But Dylan reminds me, as he always does, that the truth may not comfort, but it does sustain.  Winter will come. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  Brandishing my loppers I keep on doing what I must, as best I can.


  1. Yesterday I trimmed the Tecomaria, which I had left to grow a little taller and hide the pond under repair. The pond is now happy, and I need to retrieve our view of it. Step down, by step down.

    Found you via the recommendation on Jean's Garden.

  2. Hello Elephant's Eye, thanks for commenting and reading. The Eye is the gardener's best tool!