A cut above: The best tips and tools for pruning

There’s no avoiding it. If you want to get the most from your plants, now's the time to prune
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The Independent Online

Be prepared! What follows is a relentlessly practical piece about pruning. You will need secateurs, and perhaps also a neat bowsaw (mine's made by Bahco) and a pair of long-handled snips. If you are pruning climbing plants, it's prudent to have a ladder standing by as well as a ball of twine. I've noticed that professional gardeners put the ball into one of the capacious pockets they always have about them and lead the twine (always from the middle of the ball, not the outside) round their necks, leaving the loose end dangling free to be cut whenever they need it.

In some cases, it pays to feel a little ill-tempered before you start. Especially if you've got an overgrown clump of mock orange staring at you. You know it's taking up more room than it's worth but you just haven't had the will to tackle it. Now is the moment. Mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius) has very little to recommend it outside its too-brief June flowering. Its foliage is coarse, its habit lumpen, but it is saved by its glorious smell.

Like hazel, mock orange sends out new shoots from the base, gradually widening with age into a substantial clump. But the old growths gradually become more twiggy and, in terms of flowers, less productive. So, each year, you need to cut out some of the old stuff. If you haven't been doing that, start by cutting out roughly a third of the old growths now, and do the same next year and the one after. In three years, you will have renovated the entire clump and it will probably be time to start again.

Cut out the stems you have chosen to get rid of as low to the ground as you can. Do not barber over the top of the whole clump. That does not count as pruning. It is butchery. Pruning is a kind of sculpting. You do it to persuade the shrub to give you more of what you want, without losing its essential nature in the process. Barbering reduces a garden to a series of blobs, neat perhaps, but robbed of the essential differences of form which distinguish one plant from another.

What we want of a shrub differs. With mock orange, it's more flower. Sometimes, quality of foliage is what you are after, leaves on new shoots generally being bigger and better than those on older growths. That's why paulownias are often cut down each year (do it in March). Left to itself, a paulownia will grow into a tree 8m (25ft) tall. Stooled down each year, it'll send out shoots to about 2m (6ft) with leaves much larger and lusher than on a full-size tree. But you won't get any of the lavender-coloured flowers.

With ornamental elders (Sambucus nigra and its varieties), gardeners want good flowers and leaves. If you treat it like mock orange, you can keep both. On established clumps, cut out some of the old growths each year, aiming, as with mock orange, to renovate the entire clump within three years. Smaller specimens need not be cut back so hard but there will probably be one large twiggy branch that could go. Cutting it off will stimulate the shrub to produce new shoots from the base. Those probably won't flower this year, but will next. The dark, lacy-leaved elders such as Sambucus nigra 'Eva' grow wonderfully well in dampish, rather heavy soils, in semi-shade.

Buddleia is another shrub that's often left for too long to its own devices. Then it gets far too tall, flowering way above your sight-line and leaving you gazing into a clutch of ungainly upright stems, with little of the new growth that produces the biggest and best flowers. You'll almost certainly need a saw to do what needs to be done with an overgrown buddleia.

Cut the whole thing down, leaving each stem no more than 45-60cm (18-24in) long. It will quickly throw up new shoots and because it does not perform until late summer, it has enough time to produce flowers as well as foliage on this new growth. When you have brought an overgrown buddleia to heel, you can prune it every year in February or March, cutting back the old flowered shoots to within a couple of inches of where they started.

Deciduous cotoneasters, such as C. bullatus, can be cut back quite hard now too, though the technique here is rather different. You don't knock the whole thing down to the ground, but rather choose the branches that are most in the way (perhaps one that's leaning over a path, or sitting too heavily on the head of a neighbour). Having chosen them, run your hand down to the point where the offending branch joins onto a bigger one and make your cut there. If you are clever, and have regard to the overall shape of the shrub, your cuts will not show. But you will have gained space and perhaps freedom for a neighbouring plant that is not tough enough to fight its corner. Evergreen cotoneasters, such as C. dammeri, should not be cut back until April.

Laye winter is a good time too, to tackle some of the stuff that scrambles over your house walls. Later on, there'll be too many other things to do. Russian vine (Fallopia baldschuanica) and various kinds of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus) have a habit of sending new tendrils under soffit boards and into the roof space. There, in almost total darkness, they can grow to a prodigious length. It's a weird feeling sticking your head through the trapdoor into an attic and seeing these pale, etiolated growths crawling over the old furniture, tents, and boxes of books that all attics seem to attract.

Get the ladder and cut off all these growths, aiming to keep a clear space of at least 45cm (18in) between the top of the creeper and the eaves of the house. This is a job that needs to be done every year as the vines grow fast. And while you have the ladder out, clip creepers neatly round any windows that they frame. The same goes for ivy. If you are lucky you will now be able to have a bonfire – nothing is quite as deliciously cathartic – to get rid of all your prunings. Otherwise, it's a dreary round trip to the tip. You still need a reward. Perhaps a quick detour to the garden centre on the way back?

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