pruning shrubs

holly foliage and a few berries

Holly Hell

I have at least three sizable English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) on my modest patch of land. Maybe more than three; they may be multi-trunked or actually two or three plants growing close together. A next door neighbour who moved away some years ago told me his place was surrounded by a holly hedge at one time. Knowing how birds spread the seeds around, I’m betting my plants are descended from that hedge.

Many people really like holly. Gardeners in cold-winter areas bemoan not being able to grow it and wish they could. Having lived and worked with these plants, I’m not so sure.

“Worked with” means pruned them, handled the prunings, raked up their dead leaves or encountered them while weeding or planting.

Hollies can become small trees — if by “small” you mean 25 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide. They have a habit of branching low on their trunks, and unless one makes a point of crawling under and removing the lowest branches, they get up to all kinds of mischief. I have found thin, whippy branches 6 to 8 feet long hanging down and rooting where they touch the soil. Left to themselves, they would become new holly bushes, thickening the thicket, so to speak.

Hollies are, of course, broadleaf evergreens, so a large plant casts considerable year-round shade. Other plants growing near the hollies are susceptible to being shaded out of existence or engulfed by ever-expanding holly foliage. Unless the gardener has space for such expansion, and wants a tall, impenetrable hedge, it’s necessary to prune and trim every couple of years to keep the plants within bounds. The good news is that hollies can endure severe pruning, so a gardener doesn’t have to fret about doing it wrong. Lop away!

And now the bad news — holly leaves are intensely prickly. Each leaf has several spines along its margin. Even fallen leaves are a menace to the leaf-raking gardener wearing thin gloves or no gloves at all. Burrowing into a holly thicket or crawling under low branches to cut out any with rooting ambitions is an exercise in masochism, as is gathering up and lugging the cut branches. I have little pink prickle marks all over my hands and wrists — and I was wearing gloves!

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Skeletonized holly leaf, with spines intact!

Despite all this, hollies are undeniably attractive, in a dark, prickly way. The red berries borne on the female plants add a festive zing (and, of course, birds love ’em and distribute the seeds far and wide). A gardener without a holly bush who wants one should probably acquire a named variety rather than go with the species, which tends to be overly vigorous. Many cultivars are available, offering a range of sizes, colours (including variegated) and degrees of hardiness.

A large holly can support climbers such as clematis, whose blooms — especially the lighter colours — look good against the dark foliage. One of my hollies hosts a Clematis armandii, which looks wonderful when in full bloom. Of course this complicates the pruning business considerably, so a clematis that can be cut down every spring, such  as one of the Viticella types, would be a better choice.

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Clematis armandii and holly

 

 

 

Sawdust In My Eyes

Pruning time again. This year I have a Master Pruning Plan. In the front garden: magnolia, barberry, cotoneaster, photinia, snowberry, Oregon grape. Those last two are the most challenging, being ferocious suckerers. It’s not so much a matter of pruning as of deciding how much to cut down and dig up.

I’ve already done the easier ones, if one can describe as “easy” sawing a 2-inch thick magnolia limb at an awkward angle with sawdust blowing into one’s eyes, or balancing on one leg while zubbing away at an old barberry trunk, with spines poking into one’s scalp. And who would have guessed that barberry wood — and therefore its sawdust — is bright yellow?

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Pruning saw blade with barberry sawdust

The cotoneaster received the harshest treatment. It had grown amazingly the past decade or so, until it was obscuring a good deal of the house, including the number. I removed two major stems (2 inches diameter) that had lots of branches shooting off at weird angles, entangled with several seasons’ worth of clematis “Polish Spirit.” This is one of the C. viticella cultivars, reputed to be tough and vigorous, best managed by cutting down every year. I used to cut mine quite high, so as to encourage growth through the cotoneaster, and the last couple of years I didn’t cut it down at all. The lowest parts of the stems (a huge mass of them) were half an inch in diameter. I whacked the whole works back to less than a foot from the ground. Really hoping that “tough and vigorous” description is true, and new shoots will emerge in spring.

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Old Clematis stems

There is still a lot to do — shaping a tall Rosa glauca that had been bullied by the cotoneaster into an unbecoming lean, and, of course, doing battle with the snowberry and Oregon grape. Then there’s the back garden — trimming overgrown hollies and getting dead wood out from under the vigorous new canes of a huge climbing rose. Must acquire Kevlar suit.

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Post-pruning scene — stonework visible again!

Pruning Again — More Agony

I hate pruning. Well, not all pruning. A bit of genteel snipping is fine, but I hate sawing and lopping perfectly healthy limbs from perfectly healthy plants, turning them into skeletal remains, like this:

March 20, 2014

The sad fact is that this Photinia (which I grew from a piece trimmed from someone’s hedge), got a lot bigger than I expected — almost 20 feet tall. It would probably have been nearly as wide if not for semiannual efforts with a saw. Even so, it grew into a huge presence, hulking over a corner of the front garden. OK, planting it there was a mistake, but having admitted that, I still had to do something. I decided on hard pruning, a process that reduces a leafy shrub to a set of bare stumps. The idea is that with the springtime rush of growth, new sprouts will emerge and eventually the plant will look full and leafy again, just not as big.

This is more than a matter of faith. My next-door neighbour has a photinia that was subjected to exactly this treatment because it was muscling into the driveway. Five years ago — a set of bare stumps. Now it looks almost as big as it was before. Moreover, the Royal Horticultural Society says that photinias respond well to hard pruning. So that’s what we did. It has certainly changed the view in that direction.

March 20, 2014

I have mentioned in other posts a helpful practice in the municipality I call home to haul away “garden waste” once a year. Friday, March 21st is our day, so this week the garden has been a beehive of activity with saws, loppers and secateurs. In addition to the unfortunate photinia, a smoke bush has been trimmed (a nice easy job) and some frighteningly vigorous hollies have been barely held in check. (Hollies are horrible to prune. Nothing genteel there; a kevlar suit is in order). As a finale, three drooping branches were removed from a fir in the back garden. That spot has been opened up, prompting hopes that my never-blooming Chinese witch hazel may actually manage a few blooms next winter.

March 21, 2014

Awaiting pickup tomorrow is this rather formidable pile of “garden waste.”

Brush pile almost as big as the Land Cruiser!

Brush pile almost as big as the Land Cruiser!