At this time of year, a session or three of creative pruning can totally transform a tired garden. “Don’t look at a boring blob of a shrub and automatically pull the trigger,” says Matthew Wilson, garden designer and panellist on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. “After all, if it’s been in your garden for some years, buying that amount of maturity would cost hundreds of pounds.
“Instead, think, ‘What can I do to bring fresh life into this plant?’ With creative pruning, unlike traditional pruning, there is no horticultural diktat telling you what you must do so you don’t lose fruit or flowers. What you can achieve, though, is a fantastic new feature in your garden for nothing.”
PEEL BACK THE LAYERS
Wilson gives an overgrown hawthorn in his garden, as wide as it was tall, as an example. “This autumn, I removed up to half of the branches in the centre, so now, instead of a shapeless green mass, it’s a rather cool and interesting-looking tree. The shape was already there. It was just a case of peeling back the layers to reveal what had got lost over the years.”
In a small garden, an overgrown shrub casts dense shade. “By clearing the stems at the base and taking out foliage, you’re letting in a lot of light, making space for perennials to grow at its feet and making the plant more sculptural. A typical London shrub which tends to get big and shapeless is Viburnum tinus, but you can make it much more interesting by lifting the skirts, opening out the framework and making it multi-stemmed.”
Wilson decided on a more drastic solution for an overgrown Viburnum tinus that was blocking the view on his home turf. “I cut it down to the ground 18 months ago. It missed a flowering season but now it’s a dome-shaped shrub, covered in flowers and nearly 5ft tall.”
Aucuba japonica is a classic Victorian Shrub. “If you trim it up — lift the skirts, take the lower branches out as well as the lower foliage — you reveal lovely glossy stems.”
CHANGE THE SHAPE
Then there’s firmer intervention, says Wilson, which is when you dramatically change the shape of the plant. “In my garden, there were a lot of raggle-taggle box bushes, probably planted 20 years ago. Instead of digging them out, I took two approaches.
First, on several box bushes planted close together, I clipped them roughly into a cloud shape.” Wilson stresses you just need to think of billowing clouds, and snip accordingly. “Cloud pruning is a process, not a fait accompli. Get the shape first, then refine it gradually over a few seasons.”
Tabletop topiary is the second, slightly more radical approach. He used it on several large bushes, planted at intervals. “Using a hand saw to cut out the centre, which soon regenerates, I lopped off the top of each bush and then cut back the foliage to get a flat top. Then I planted smaller box cubes beneath them. The result, on different levels, reminds me of the Giant’s Causeway, and looks terrific.
“Tabletop topiary, using yew and box, makes an effective counterpoint to billowy perennials, annuals and grasses, because there is the contrast with leaf colour and leaf shape, as well as the horizontal with the vertical, the solid with the diaphanous.”
It’s about throwing architecture into the garden, he adds. “It’s especially pertinent right now, as we’re going into winter, when structure becomes more important. I’d rather achieve that with plants than buy in an architectural feature.”
If you’re really smart with your secateurs, you can make plants that usually do one thing, do something completely different. “In the gardens at East Ruston, in Norfolk, there is a grid of trees that are underplanted with ivy, but instead of growing up the trees, the ivy makes a knee-high evergreen bush around their bases. You do this by taking the tops out continually, so it grows like a shrub instead of a climber.”
THE GROUND RULES
There are a few ground rules to creative pruning, says Wilson. First, you need sharp secateurs, a pair of loppers and, for thicker wood, a bow saw or Grecian saw. After pruning, give the plant a quick-uptake foliar feed of seaweed and iron in a hand-held sprayer.
“If the plant has an interesting structure naturally, go with the flow. Look into the centre of the shrub and stand back every so often, and keep looking. Let it dictate your moves. That way, you’re bringing out the genius of the plant.”
CREATIVE PRUNING MASTERCLASS WITH MATTHEW WILSON
Matthew Wilson will demonstrate creative pruning techniques on different shrubs in a masterclass at the Palm House, Clifton Nurseries, Clifton Villas W9 on Thursday October 27, starting at 6.30pm, with a welcome prosecco and canapés at 6pm. Afterwards, enjoy a 20 per cent discount on all plants and garden merchandise, before the evening ends at 8.30pm. Tickets are £10. Book here or call 020 7289 6851.