Although pruning seems mundane, it shapes a garden

Erin Schanen


Pruning has always fallen under the category of a garden job, rather than garden joy. Much like weeding and edging, shrub pruning has been considered a task to be checked off before you can get on with gardening part of, well, gardening, like planting, dividing and designing. But all that has changed.

This change of heart came about halfway through a two-hour online lecture on pruning given by Fergus Garrett, head gardener at England’s famed Great Dixter garden. And if you’re wondering just how boring a gardener’s life must be to willfully spend two hours watching someone talk about pruning, well, then you’ve underestimated how desperate gardeners can get in winter.

Garrett’s approach is nothing like the checklist style of pruning that most gardeners are familiar with in which they identify a shrub and then look up instructions for what should be lopped off. Instead, he starts with the goal of pruning a particular plant and then sets about achieving that. Are you pruning to control the size, provide shape, encourage flowering, make the most of foliage color or rejuvenate an old plant?

In many cases those goals are achieved by keeping strong, young stems by fully cutting out some old stems right to the base and dispensing with spindly growth. Occasionally, very old, woody growth needs to be cut out to rejuvenate the plant and encourage new growth. This method is how Garrett and his team of gardeners have managed to keep 90-year-old hydrangeas on the estate blooming and looking the picture of health long after the shrubs natural life span has run its course.

No two gardeners will make exactly the same decisions about what stays and what goes. There is a degree of thoughtfulness to the process, and what emerges at the end of the efforts by Great Dixter’s staff from a tangled mess is a sculptural framework that achieves the goal of a gracefully arching plant or one that achieves a perfect vase shape.

It’s a bit like art. You can take a class that teaches you how to paint a landscape, what paint you should use, the way to add perspective and create light and shadows, but if you plunk five artists in front of the same vista, you’ll end up with five very different paintings.

I realize I risk romanticizing what may otherwise be a rather mundane garden task, but I’m learning that jobs like this help shape what a garden will look like. And only the gardener with the overall vision, the person who squints at a corner of the yard and envisions what it might look like in the future, can determine what that is. The way you prune is part of what makes a garden your own.

I don’t expect to ever create anything quite so beautiful with my hand pruners as the fig at Great Dixter pruned against a wall to resemble a sunrise no matter how much standing back and squinting I do. But with my new outlook on pruning I can at least feel like I’m channeling my inner Picasso a bit more.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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