Root out your best tools and tackle the evergreens that will benefit from a spot of creative pruning, trimming, thinning or shearing
Creative pruning by Jake Hobson. Photograph: Jake Hobson
I ’ve been indulging in a spot of skirt-lifting recently. The subject of my attentions? A largish specimen of Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) that showed signs of middle-aged spread; plump and portly, its dense thicket of evergreen foliage was blocking light, obscuring a lovely view and hindering easy access to a flight of stone steps.
Not any longer. Instead, inspired by creative pruning expert Jake Hobson’s talk at the recent GLDA seminar earlier this spring, I decided to take matters – and secateurs – in hand.
Off went the laurel’s lower “skirt” of branches, to a height of 4-5ft above ground, revealing twisting, sinuous limbs that lend a satisfyingly sculptural quality to this part of the garden. My Portuguese laurel is now a svelte, groomed and boldly architectural specimen, unrecognisable from its formerly undistinguished self. Its slender branches frame views rather than obscure them, allow light in where once there was only shade and give me a satisfying sense of space where once there was just leafy clutter.
As Hobson explains in detail in his book The Creative Art of Pruning , the Portuguese laurel is just one of the many types of specimen trees and shrubs (as well as hedges) that can be aesthetically transformed by judicious use of a secateurs, clippers, shears, or long-armed loppers. Evergreens are especially suitable for this treatment. Not only obvious candidates such as box, yew and bay, but many others including holly, myrtle, cotoneaster, evergreen oak, Scots pine, photinia, eleagnus, Phillyrea latifolia, osmanthus, azalea and Chinese privet. And not only into the more traditional shapes so typical of European topiary – balls, lollipops, spirals, cones, pyramids, cubes, various animals, fantastical or otherwise – but also into more irregular, organic, free-flowing shapes influenced by the horticultural traditions of the East.
Hobson himself spent several years working in a nursery in Osaka, in Japan, training in the art of “Niwaki”, a skill that uses a particular set of careful pruning and training techniques to artfully sculpt individual garden shrubs and trees, with unique results. “Put simply,” he explains, “the traditions of European topiary involve man’s order and control over nature, while in Japan, it is man working with nature, in producing or recreating a quintessential , idealised version of it.” These stylised trees and sculptural shrubs all have remarkable poise and presence, while pruning also serves another very useful purpose by constraining their size and spread, keeping them in proportion to the scale and design of the gardens in which they grow.
Niwaki-style pruning techniques aside, many evergreen garden trees and shrubs will benefit from a spot of creative pruning, trimming, thinning or shearing. Low-growing, spreading bamboos, for instance, can be clipped into sculptural drifts, the canes of taller varieties “crown-lifted”, while cordylines, yuccas and palms look all the more sculptural if any browning foliage is cut away from the lower half of the trunk. Even the Chusan palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, can be made more beauteous by the use of what Hobson calls “the use of a sharp blade and a creative eye” to carefully cut away the trunk’s sheath of hairy fibres and reveal the handsome, smooth stem underneath.
How and when do you creatively prune? This depends on the plant in question, but always start by studying its existing network of limbs and branches and then carefully considering the final shape and silhouette that you hope to create. As a general rule, most evergreens can be structurally pruned in mid-spring; some (box, yew, camellias, hollies, laurels, Viburnum tinus, Choisya ternata, pieris, aucuba, euonymus) will tolerate very harsh pruning, but others require gentler treatment. Lighter maintenance pruning/ trimming is generally best carried out between spring and late summer. For detailed advice, see rhs.org.uk. Try, also, to use the very best tools that you can afford, which will help make the job of pruning a pleasure rather than a chore.
Now based in the UK, Hobson’s years in Japan inspired him to set up an online company supplying a large range of high-quality Japanese cutting tools including the hand-forged Tobisho secateurs and topiary clippers, the Okatsune shears and other useful horticultural equipment (niwaki.com). Finally be brave, be decisive, and don’t be afraid to make the occasional mistake. Pruning may be part science, part art, but most plants are far more forgiving than you would think.
The Art of Creative Pruning by Jake Hobson (£25, Timber Press) is available from timberpress.co.uk and bookshops.
Saturday, March 29th, 2.30-4.40pm: Howth and Sutton Horticultural Society Spring Show and plant sale, Pobailscoil Neasain, Moyclare Road, Off Warrenhouse Rod, Baldoyle (near Sutton Dart Station), Dublin 13.
Saturday, March 29th, 10am-4pm: “Learn To Grow By The Sea”, one of a series of one-day courses at Cluain na dTor seaside nursery and gardens, Falcarragh, Co Donegal, given by owner and expert horticulturist Séamus O’Donnell (€65 including organic lunch, seasideplants.net.