Posts Tagged ‘pruning practices’

A year ago I wrote a post on dappled willows (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’), comparing one rigorously maintained specimen and one planted-and-forgotten specimen. Two takeaway points from that post (I hope): 1) plants in a garden usually require at least some maintenance — more or less, depending on the genus and its role in the garden; and 2) willows really want to grow.

Here’s a photo illustrating the second point. This willow — I think it’s an old weeping willow (Salix babylonica) — clearly had started to break apart, and had apparently become fairly hazardous. Its owner whacked the entire top off, and the willow responded with this explosion of shoots. Willows grow fast and grow weak, but they’re vigorous enough to continue growing even if they break up, fall over, are pruned to the nth degree, or are cut down, which is what makes them such great coppicing plants. But that’s a topic for another post…In the meantime, enjoy the photo, which I took in a New Hampshire seacoast town.

Cartoon character or tree? Weeping willow growing into a new form after having been topped.

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About ten years ago, I noticed a mild fad rev up in the gardening world; all the garden centers around here started carrying Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, usually trained into standard form with a 3-4′ high stem and a pompom of foliage at top. Hakuro Nishiki, also known as Dappled Willow, is a fast-growing, twiggy large shrub/small tree with variegated white and light green to pink leaves, and it lights up a garden with its foliage, which is profuse and almost aggressively healthy-looking.

I’m fond of these plants, though they certainly need to be placed with care. They like full sun, but can deal with some shade. Because they grow so vigorously, it’s a good idea to commit to pruning them every year or so, to keep them in bounds. Actually, I can see how sculpting them in various ways each year might be an interesting exercise — not something you’d want to do with most plants, but this one seems malleable enough to allow some experimentation.

I have written earlier about L. and A., my excellent clients on the North Shore, who enjoy developing and fostering their landscape. Several years ago L. bought a Dappled Willow for her perennial garden. It’s not a standard form; instead, she’s keeping it pruned low, to keep it in scale with other elements in the garden. Here’s a photo of it in leaf:

This plant is about thirty inches high and wide, and is kept as a mounded shrub with pruning.

And here’s a photo of how L. prunes it to keep it contained to this form:

Every year L. cuts this Dappled Willow back hard, to keep its vigorous growth contained in a form that works for her perennial garden.

I have wondered what these plants look like unpruned, and last week got to see one. If the willow in L.’s garden looks like a contained explosion, this one looks as if the top blew off the container:

Perhaps the owner of this plant didn't realize what level of attention Hakuro Nishiki was going to require annually.

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We’ve all seen photos of grand mixed and perennials borders on old country estates (Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West, Beatrix Farrand),

Sissinghurst White Gdn

Vita Sackville-West, Sissinghurst White Garden. Photo by bestfor/Richard on Flickr.

and of sweeps of perennials, grasses and shrubs by the contemporary designer Piet Oudolf and landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.
Generous expanses of grasses and perennials at Chicago's Lurie Garden. Plantings by Piet Oudolf; photo by queenjill on Flickr.
They’re dramatic and luxurious-looking, and it’s easy to envision being right there, surrounded on all sides by space and uninterrupted swathes of glorious texture and color.
Sometimes the only space available is quite a bit smaller and more constrained. This past weekend I was walking down a suburban Boston street and found this planting, in which a narrow bed — bounded by fence on one side, driveway on the other — hosts a garden that shows off in every season.

This plant bed can't be any more than three feet wide, but there is a lot going on in it.

In this climate, plantings that flank a driveway have to be tough. Snow gets shoveled and plowed on top of them, and sometimes it’s best to stick to herbaceous perennials that will die back to the ground and be unharmed by wayward plows.
This garden has a fairly simple palette — Hydrangea, ‘The Fairy’ Roses, Korean Chrysanthemums, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and a carefully pruned collection of crabapples — that works well here. Even if the hydrangeas and roses get clobbered by the plow they’re likely to recover; the sedums and chrysanthemums can be cut back to the ground, and the crabapples are trained to hug the fence, out of the way, making what could have been a winter drawback into a fine asset.
It’s refreshing to see this kind of resourcefulness in what often seem only to be incidental places on a property. This strip isn’t a place in which you’d want to (or could) lounge away the hours, but it shows how varied and texturally exciting even a small space can be.

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The Hamamelis planting in the last post raises the issue of mass plantings, which have long been a favorite of many landscape architects.

I remember a mass rose planting, no longer extant, in a very public location in downtown Boston. One time I went out to do a little guerilla pruning in it with an administrator from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. (Hmm. Perhaps it doesn’t really count as guerrilla pruning if the person you’re working with has the influence to make sure the cuttings are taken away by staff, much as she wanted it to seem as if she was doing the pruning sub rosa, so to speak.)

Rose thorns.  Ow ow ow.

Rose thorns. Ow ow ow.

While were able to clean up the specimen roses in the planting, the mass-planted rugosa roses were another question — it was impossible for us to navigate through the thorns to remove the several years’ worth of dead wood that had accumulated. It was quite clear why they so drastically needed maintenance, and equally clear why they’d had so little. I believe that this planting has been torn out.

At Naumkeag in Stockbridge, MA, a similar deal. Fletcher Steele designed a beautiful mass Pyracantha planting on a bank below the drive, but neither I, an intern at the time, nor anyone on The Trustees of Reservations permanent staff had the asbestos legs, hands, or arms that would have made a good pruning job possible. (The common name for Pyracantha is Firethorn.)

Pyracantha has a stunning berry display, as well as some of the wickedest thorns you'll ever come across, mostly hidden under the berries and leaves (one is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photo).

Pyracantha has a stunning berry display, as well as some of the wickedest thorns you'll ever come across, mostly hidden under the berries and leaves (one is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photo).

The best we could do was to snip down the most obvious vertical and horizontal shoots to keep the whole thing in bounds, and just let the plants fend for themselves. I’m not sure that planting is still there, either, though in the name of historic authenticity, it may be.

However and wherever a mass planting is used, it makes sense to understand not just the look of the plant species used, but also its habit, its limitations (thorns, for instance, or a tendency toward brittleness or over-enthusiastic suckering), and the opportunities you may be closing off in using it — not least of which might be the willingness of maintenance staff to take care of it, if it’s a difficult species.

Masses can help shape space, which is what we aim to do. At the same time (perhaps I’ve said this before), it’s not a bad idea for landscape architects to get out there themselves and work with as many plants as possible in person — to do some planting, do some pruning, do some moving — to understand how these vital design elements really work in the landscape, and what it takes to keep a design looking the way you want it to look.

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A while ago I wrote about the skillful rejuvenation of an elderly Taxus hedge by Hartney Greymont. The hedge started out looking well past its prime, but since Hartney’s arborists worked on it and a growing season or two had passed or two, it has grown into the healthy lushness that we had envisioned. Mark Bolcome of Leahy Landscaping and I discussed the rejuvenation when we were working on my North Shore landscape refinement project, and he offered to share photos of a Taxus pruning he’d recently done.

Those photos arrived recently, and here they are, another example of how working with mature plants can benefit both the plants and the landscape hosting them. Mark took this undifferentiated mass of green, discovered that it was two different species of Taxus, and pruned the plants to express their particular habits. Nice job, eh?

Arborizing the central shrub elevates its crown and showcases the rich cinnamon-red stems

Arborizing the central shrub elevates its crown and showcases its rich cinnamon-red stems

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Sometimes it takes a horrific sight to make you appreciate what you have. Here in Massachusetts, we have some of the finest arborists in the country, and usually, tree pruning is done with skill and sensitivity. The trees on utility rights of way sometimes suffer from poor amputations, but by and large even if utility cutting is done, it’s at least done cleanly.

My sister writes a weblog in Kansas, called Wonky Wheel, in which she writes of this and that. She and her husband live on a county-maintained dirt road, and last week the roadside trees got slashed back. She posted this observation and set of photos (only look if you have a strong stomach) about the tree mutilation happening along the road.

I’ve mentioned Cass Turnbull and her Seattle organization, Plant Amnesty, before in this blog. Plant Amnesty is an outfit dedicated to educating people about woody plants and their care, and especially about good pruning practices. Its mission is “To end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs”. Maybe there could be PA branches in every state, with special attention paid to utility and public rights-of-way maintenance pruning…

It would be great if the kind of hacking that happened in Kansas last week could end. A tree can take only so much stress.

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It seems that about every time Landscape Architecture Magazine reviews a designed landscape the reviewer writes a single line about how a place is poorly maintained, and so difficult to assess properly.  

In the latest issue of LAM, an extensive article about three Thomas Church gardens describes how Church often could be seen out on one property, in his work clothes, pruning the shrubbery well before the clients had even eaten breakfast.  So great!  I have known other LAs — and I do this myself — to make site visits with a pair of Felco clippers in hand, so that the opportunity to refine the habit of a shrub or to nip back a wayward branch doesn’t pass by. 

When did landscape architects move away from this sort of care-taking of their designs?  We lament the poor maintenance our landscapes receive, but behave as if we have no say in the matter.  Perhaps we don’t have final say — but we sure can lobby.  And we can show, through our actions, what a difference even small caretaking gestures can make in a place.  How can we be stewards of our work, and the environment — and how can we model that ethic for our clients — if we don’t do the most basic maintenance tasks at least occasionally?  

Several years ago my bike route to work took me along Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. The edge of Cambridge Common was populated with an assortment of largish shrubs growing in the planting bed between sidewalk and curb.  The shrubs — a mix of forsythia, flowering quince, barberry, and privet — had the desperate look of plants that want to grow into their natural form but get sheared every year.  The City of Cambridge DPW did the work.  

It occurred to me that I could give a pruning workshop to my fellow LAs in the office, and we could set up a volunteer cleanup effort one Saturday to work on the Cambridge Common shrubs.  Good civic initiative, good training for the design professionals, good PR for our firm (we did a lot of public work in Cambridge anyway). 

I proposed the idea to a firm principal, who sounded interested and told me he’d talk to the Big Cheese about it.  Later in the week, he called me in to his office and said that the BC had nixed the idea; in fact, she was actively discouraging about it.  “She told me that because we’re landscape architects, we don’t want to be seen working on maintenance jobs, even if they’re voluntary,” he told me, and that was that.

The longer I work in this profession, the more I disagree.  We need to be showing the rest of the world that caretaking is important, and modeling the idea to our clients that we, and they, are responsible for fostering the places we make. Getting out of our offices and into the landscape might just give this profession more of the credibility it seeks, too.

Rant over.

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Just a quick little post, to mention the idea of working with plants to achieve a design idea. An email arrived last week from a client when I was out of town, telling me that bees had started swarming all over the Teucrium we’d planted near the new spa on her property.  She’d had the gardener remove the plants and heel them in elsewhere until we could come up with a better location for them.

When I returned home, I drove over to see the offending plants.  Sure enough, they were in full bloom, and bees covered the blossoms.  

Here’s the thing:  bees like and need flowers.  They’re indifferent to people, unless people harm or seriously threaten them.  They don’t really want to sting you, and if a bee is on a flower, it is not going to leave the flower to harm you.

That’s impossible to convey to a worried client, so the Teucrium on this property will stay away from the spa.  One suggestion I wish I’d been around to make before the gardener moved the plants, though:  flowers are not generally the point of Teucrium in a landscape, generally, and certainly aren’t in this landscape.  It would have been an easy thing simply to snip all the flowers off (sorry, bees), so the plants could stay in place, remain unstressed, and continue to do their job as part of the overall design.*  Sometimes the low tech solution is the best one.

*Teucrium chamaedrys (Wall Germander) is an attractive little broadleaf evergreen that grows between 1-2 feet tall; it makes a good edge or low hedge plant, especially in protected areas in Zones 5-9.  The white or pink or purple flowers are small and pretty, but not the main feature of this plant; nipping them off would do no harm to the plant, and would more likely only make it bushier. (Some gardeners take this approach with Stachys lanata (Woolly Lambs’ Ears), which have great big fuzzy leaves and gawky-looking flower spikes — they cut the spikes off early in the game, letting the leaves hold the spotlight through the season.)

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I’m looking out at the corner of a yard that once was filled with Norway maple saplings.  Most of the saplings are now gone — felled by saw, Roundup, and hatchet — and the few that remain lie in a thick horizontal bundle, their stems cut almost all the way through.  This bundle, which should leaf out in a week or two, will then sport a lush, dense cloak of leaves, and will provide cover for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks.  

Sapling hedges like this have been used in Europe for centuries; the National Hedgelaying Society of Britain tells us that Julius Caesar mentioned laid hedges (sapling trunks are partially cut and bent over, or laid, in a row, and then staked and woven together) in 55 BC Flanders.  England’s Enclosure Acts of the 18th century, which legislated the development of private property from what once had been common lands, spurred the use of laid hedges in that country, and the laying of hedges became an art.  A well-laid hedge will keep cattle and sheep enclosed in a field, will provide cover for all sorts of small animals and birds, and will define clear, unmistakable, and impenetrable boundaries to a property.

This Norway maple hedge doesn’t have the intricate weaving of a professionally laid English hedge, but it does harness the plants’ own vigor and arboricultural properties in the same way.  Cutting each trunk channels the tree’s energy; tipping back the tree’s leaders and laying their trunks down horizontally changes the flow of growth-suppressive hormones and growth-supportive sugars so that the now-vertical side shoots can develop.  Maintenance now involves my going out once or twice a season and tipping back the side shoots that want to grow higher than the others, a task that takes all of five minutes for this twenty-foot long hedge.

I laid this hedge to see what the effect would be on this invasive-tree riddled area, and on the invasives themselves.  What I’ve learned is that a laid hedge makes an effective barrier (this one screens the compost heap from view quite nicely), that the trunk-cutting reduces vigor enough to keep the plants thriving but not taking over, and that — so far — I can maintain the trees in a juvenile state, and so prevent further seeding of the species.  

We don’t see much hedging in this country.  Perhaps it has to do with the abundant availability of wood for fence-making when the first settlers arrived from Europe, or the need to use up in stone walls the generous supply of fieldstone that pushes up from New England soil every spring.  A neat hedge usually requires the planting of saplings in a line, and then two to five years of waiting for the saplings to reach hedging size.  Fencing and stone walls are faster means of enclosure. 

It does seem to me, though, that with the march of invasive species, and in this case, invasive tree species, through the landscape, we would do well to come up with ways not just of eradicating those species, but in some instances, of managing them.  In this instance, the Norway maples in the yard were outcompeting everything else.  By removing some, and then enlisting others to make a small hedge, we’re able to redirect the nature of this particular corner of the yard to a more useful end.  Although the Mother Norway Maple just feet away still shades that corner (and still showers it with seeds), I’m hopeful that I’ll soon be able to plant some shade-tolerant species there that can deal with those stresses.

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