A hack at work Posted on July 25, 2011

‘Pruning’ is too polite a word for what I am doing in the garden at the moment. ‘Hacking back’ describes it more accurately – and it is one of my favourite annual jobs, comparable with weeding, and with the same essential purpose: to rebalance the growth of the past weeks and months in favour of less vigorous plants that I prefer.

I am usually as sentimental as the next gardener, but this is no time for soppiness. People say ‘I can’t cut that, there’s a flower on it’. Let it alone and you’ll have fewer flowers next year. Stragglers go in the buttonhole while I get hacking.

I set out with my favourite Japanese secateurs in my belt and with some particular plant in mind. This morning it was a philadelphus with long new shoots shooting up vertically from its drooping, flowered-out branches. They were pressing down on and shading out whatever grows below.

I haven’t finished with the first philadelphus, cutting off all the old stuff and bringing light and air to a young golden Cotinus, a stylish
but slow growing Trochodendron araliodes and a thicket of epimedium, when I remember another. Then I remember a deutzia, which needs exactly the same treatment to rescue the geraniums underneath. Zigzagging with my barrow from one to the other I suddenly realise that it is two years since I tamed a Mahonia ‘Charity’, now sending its shoots soaring like palm trees above a hapless Viburnum davidii. I clamber into the thicket; the half-inch Mahonia trunks snap easily under my secateurs, revealing their bright yellow wood.

I pass a corner where Viburnum tinus is thrusting its dull and dusty branches out through a pretty white-variegated privet, a form of lonicera nitida I can’t find in the books. It is worth spending time choosing its best feathery sprays to show off against the dark background. A vine maple is invading and shading out the bottom of my Syrian juniper, J. drupacea; more branches join the heap on the barrow.

It is not a methodical process. I look about me, sometimes in the middle of a bush where I have never stood before, and lay about me with my blades. I’m afraid hacking back is the proper expression.

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