garden notes 32 pruning

I’ve been avoiding the subject of pruning. I know many people find it difficult. But here’s a start:

It always comes down to: don’t try to learn about gardening, learn about plants. Gardening is too often reduced to silly rules or instructions. But imagine if the contents of a flat pack all just joined cleverly together in your hands without instructions, so you didn’t need to spend about 75% of your time with your nose in the mystifying leaflet.

Once again at St John’s someone who knows nothing about gardening, doubtfully approaching some simple dead heading, said, do I cut them with a slant? Strange how often I’ve been asked this. It’s a subtle, irrelevant technique which people evidently still are taught, and the effect of it seems to be paralysing, it makes them anxious about doing the right thing but actually stops them learning anything. The idea behind it is that a cut made at right angles will allow drops of water to cling on, leading to decay, whereas a cut on a slant will allow water to drain off. But that assumes that the pruned shoot is vertical, because otherwise a cut at a right angle wouldn’t end up horizontal, but a cut at a slant might be. I associate the doctrine with a punishing kind of victorian and edwardian formality.

It’s just about looking, being able to see…. Most of us can’t see, say, birds and cars and footballers and politica systems and extended family melodramas and jazz and Pesach and antibiotics and James Joyce and Netflix and the United Kingdom and beautifully illustrated cookery books and butterflies and dragonflies and bumble bees and spiders and beetles and Zoom and dogs so we settle for a few things and turn a blind eye to others, scaracely even noticing, for example, what clothes the person yo’ve just spent half an hour with was wearing, or never realising that seeds – fruit, berries, pods etc. – all come from flowers, that a flower, stripped of its petals, is a little sex machine and the seeds are its babies. anything is possible when you read that in the 18th century, well after enlightenment was supposed to have illuminated, it was still thought that botany was a fit subject for study by young ladies because it was innocent, asexual, the lofty but intimate study of God’s creation and Love. But I suppose they were so caught up in the beauty of the clothes that they didn’t notice what was under the clothes.

I never can see without several replays whether that was handball or whether he was offside, but I can see the tiny bright glint of an orchid on a mountain meadow or I keep half or a quarter of an eye sometimes on the flashing motorway embankment looking to see which trees they are or a carpet of scurvy grass by the roadside, come from the sea, enjoying the salt that’s put down in winter which few plants can tolerate.

people think I know, but I dont, not very much. the troubles I’ve had with teucrium and stachys, without the skill or patience to work my way through a botanical key, the fact that I mostly remember the plant names I learnt in the more distant past but forget most of the recent arrivals, plants that were new to me, unless I really work at remembering. It needs to be something encountered frequently, so that it becomes an acquaintance. If a slug lays slime on it you should see those first signs and act before it’s too late. Then it becomes awkward or embarrassing if you can’t remember its name, like having a conversation with someone whose name you’ve forgotten, and hoping it will pop into your mind very soon.

If only I could have been a scientist.

It’s like the way it took almost everybody centuries to see that the earth is round and that it goes round the sun, not the other way round. sitting in a train in the station for centuries and thinking that you were moving when it was actually the train next to yours which has just set off. or the other way round.

all of this relates to pruning.

The difficult part of it is trying to construct a shape for a plant, when your chosen shape (often small, neat, contained) is at odds with the plant’s natural shapes, in the plural because this will change with soil, climate, aspect etc. What usually happens then is that your attempts to keep it small lead the plant to gather its strength and push out energetically in all directions, because pruning is usually a stimulus to growth, so you end up having to keep cutting it back hard. If you have to do this, and it’s a typical flowering shrub like a philadelphus or a shrub rose or a deutzia, don’t cut it like a big ball, or as if you were cutting back a hedge. You need to reach in and take out some of the big old branches as well as trimming back the exterior of the plant. Sometimes you might end up crawling along underneath a shrub to get at it. Underneath there might be tired old half dead branches which you can cut away. You will also then be able to dig out the sort of weeds which develop unseen and then move powerfully outwards or, like bindweed, grow up through the shrub. Cut back the shoots which have flowered to a new shoot or to an incipient bud in the axil between stem and leaf – that’s not very clear is it? especially as the leaf might well have gone by now. It’s like a tiny scar on the stem, where a leaf was. There will often be a growth point or a tiny bud appearing just in the angle between leaf and stem which is called an axil. It’s fairly important to cut to just above the axil. This is because if you leave a stub of a shoot above the axil, a stub without a bud on the end of it, it will die and look ugly and possibly become a site for disease. Do you see what I mean? A shoot without a bud on the end of it is like a path going nowhere, it serves no purpose so it just dies. Don’t worry about the slant, just prune nice and close to the axil.


2 Totally awesome contender for worst municipal pruning of the year. This one adds a new turn to the show: leave the cut shoots on top of the mangled skeleton of shrubs which is made up of a blend of the originally planted euonymus with ash and brambles sprung up in the middle so that they form a miniature compost heap on top which buries all the potential new buds.

3. I have a nice photo of the contender. I have a nice photo of a blackcurrant shoot, clearly showing the axil between leaf and shoot with a new little bud in it. But I am defeated by wordpress’s recent switch from what they call the Classic Editor to something called the Block Editor. Defeated and pissed off. I can’t see any way to attach a photo now. There is almost nothing I understand about the new system. I have tried. There’s a great long list of jargon: eventbrite checkout opentable syntax highlighter code pull quote masonry shortcode legacy widget (experimental) add to usable block. On and on it goes. Curious, I clicked on ‘legacy widget’ and it said: choose a legacy widget. I’ve looked on google and various ways are suggested to get you back to the classic editor, but wordpress seem determined to force people away from it. I found out about ‘plug ins’, there’s a way to choose the classic editor as a plug in, and wordpress demand that you ‘upgrade’ to business class for £270 a year to do that!

The way these things work now is that you can’t communicate directly with the organisation, you can just join a forum of usually pissed off and sometimes helpful people trying their best to understand or outwit it. And in a constantly changing world most of what you read in a forum will be out of date already. But you know all this already.

I have found a way to select a photo as a ‘featured image’, at the top of the post. And I think you can now see the shoot with the axil, just about, because what you get as a featured image is about a third of the photo. Can you see it? But there’s no way that I can see how to add photos to the text.

today – the day after – I suddenly found the old ‘classic editor’ with the ‘add media’ thing. 

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6 Responses to garden notes 32 pruning

  1. janeandallan says:

    All these changes drive me to drink.

  2. oldrib1 says:

    I think I spotted the contender for worst municipal pruning in Allen’s Gardens. Am I right?

  3. Myna Trustram says:

    I like the list of things you don’t see. I was clearing weeds with the Japanese knife trowel you gave me when I could no longer see it. I looked and looked, gave up, went back next day and there it was lying on the bare soil under the blackcurrant bush, right where I’d been working. Like a casually dropped murder weapon. I’ve lost it many a time before but only when I’ve wandered off to do something else and left it behind. There’s a difference between losing and not seeing. I don’t know whether my last response to your blog, about a month ago, has been lost or I just can’t see it.

    Now I know Emily Dickinson wasn’t writing about truth but pruning.

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —

  4. Sarah says:

    I enjoyed all of this, then got to the bottom and was none the wiser about how or what to prune. So you’ll have to come and tell me.

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