THE TRUTH ABOUT...Pruning

PRUNING is one of those processes that is illustrated in gardening books with extremely neat line drawings. A well-behaved bush will be depicted, spreadeagled against a wall, or standing tidily in the middle of the border. Its branches will be uniform and growing in perfect symmetry. The neat lines of this work of art show which bits to cut off. Piece of cake.

There is, however, a very good reason why how-to-prune guides are so rarely depicted with photographs. This is because bushes are not well behaved and do not grow neatly. They sprout madly in all directions, and trying (a) to locate the Main Stem or the Secondary Growth, and (b) fighting one's way into the greenery to chop it off is an extremely fraught process, unfit to appear in the pages of nice, sensible gardening books. This is particularly true if prickles are involved. (The time spent remembering where the gardening gloves were last seen, and unearthing them from the back of the cupboard under the sink where they were last used to grip hot pipes in a plumbing disaster, or the cellar where they proved a useful anti-splinter device while chopping logs for the fire may seem like a waste, but it really isn't. Really. It is more than cancelled out by the time not spent searching out the tweezers and Dettol.)

A sharp and shiny pair of secateurs is a fearsome-looking weapon, as is a pruning knife; a small pair of blunt nail scissors simply won't hack it (in any sense). Likewise the kitchen scissors and the Sabatier carving knife are unsuitable and will never be the same again if used on branches.

Having looked at the diagrams and failed to connect any part of them to the actual growing thing in front of one, a good starting-point is to chop off anything that is obviously dead (brown, withered, dry. etc). A good continuing-point is to chop off anything that is in the way (blocking the way into the back door. etc). A good finishing-point is to chop off anything that is too big. Do it at the wrong time and the plant will bleed to death (the horror, the horror). And, erm, that's it for pruning. Alan Titchmarsh on Gardener's World recently said, "Pruning! The very sound of it can make strong men tremble." And if it makes strong men tremble, what chance do the rest of us have?

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