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Posts Tagged ‘shrub pruning’

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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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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One last word on forsythia renovation: the root stock on older plants — as long as they’re healthy to start with — will have enough energy to push out new, vigorous growth in a hurry. The photo of the renovated, blooming bank of forsythia in my post from April 7 (Radical Renovation) shows rampant growth one year after the whacking back. It looks a little wild, doesn’t it? The plants needed to get their photosynthetic little solar collectors (leaves) up in the air and positioned to do their work as quickly as possible, and every single stem is competing for dominance.
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This photo, taken last week, shows how that initial wild growth settles down. After such a frantic rush to grow out, and also to reproduce (plants experiencing extreme stress often will have the best flower show; in reaction to the threat of death they flower heavily in attempt to replicate themselves), the stems on this bank of plants have relaxed into the plants’ typical habit. The flower show is more subdued, too, and a bit more balanced than earlier.

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In just a few days we’re going to be seeing forsythia blooming everywhere. Forsythia is one of those workhorse shrubs that crystallizes sunshine for a few days, and then fades into a medium green mass of space-filler for the rest of the growing season. Some people hate it, some love it. It grows vigorously, given full sun, and can spread widely if given the chance. It also can handle radical renovation, which is the wholesale cutting down of all its stems to the ground in a single pruning session.

This kind of pruning doesn’t suit all plants, but for many cane-growers like forsythia, it’s just the thing. Here is a photo of some forsythia shortly after it had been whacked down, in the spring of 2006. I have no photos of it before the operation (didn’t know it was going to be cut, so never took pix), but remember it as an enormous thicket, at least seven feet high (and that’s with the stems arching over each other).

Stems cut down nearly to the ground

Stems cut down nearly to the ground

Cutting the plants back in early spring (even before bloom) gives them a chance to recover and reestablish growth through the entire growing season. The next photo shows what the same bank of forsythia looked like in the spring of 2007, one year later.

The same shrubs, one year later

The same shrubs, one year later

Astonishing, isn’t it? Though the stems of the plants had been almost completely removed, there was more than enough energy in their root systems to regenerate this much growth in one year, and to set that many buds.

This method does draw heavily on a plant’s stored resources, so it’s something you’d want to do only every 12-15 years, tops. Not every plant can handle this kind of treatment, but it’s dandy for forsythia.

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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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