XXXUrban gardener, Cleve West: Mass wisteria

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The Independent Online

Fresh from college, with hopes for a successful sporting career now as likely as England ever winning the World Cup again, it was time to enter the real world.

Devoid of direction, apart from a little art training, I was lucky to land a job for a fine art publishing company in London representing the likes of David Hockney, Frank Stella and Howard Hodgkin. It was February and one of the first jobs I was asked to do was prune a large Wisteria sinensis that filled a big south-facing wall of the Portobello Road studio. Looking back, this was to be my first ever gardening chore. I'd like to be able to tell you that I took to the task like a fish to water. The fact is, I hated it. It was cold and apart from some hasty (and rather ill-tempered) instructions fired at me from my boss (with far more important things to worry about, like who had left an egg sandwich wedged in a consignment of limited edition posters that had just turned up in New York), I had no clue of what good I was doing apart from rescuing pipes, gutters and tiles from the probing tentacles of this unruly climber.

Later, in August, I was asked once again to reign it in, but in a more measured way to let sunlight reach the main stems. This was to encourage the formation of flower buds the following year (as was a liberal sprinkling of a potash-rich fertiliser where the trunk bulged out of old York stone). I never saw the results. Gymnasium management tempted me back to sport for one last (and futile, as it turned out) effort. It would be some years before I'd tackle this task again, this time under the kind guidance of my friend and mentor, Pat, whose ancient wisteria attached to the back of the house welcomed you with outstretched arms and scented early summer with its delicate perfume. By then I'd come to appreciate the magnificence of a good specimen - ones with gnarled trunks and branches that could seemingly travel anywhere given enough sustenance and care - and how they lend real character to a building, structure or frame. Ted, a landscaper who taught me how to lay slabs and build walls, would proudly show me a beautiful white-flowered variety entwined with a free-standing arbour that doubled as a shady sanctuary for a small collection of bonsai trees when the heat of the summer became too intense. Isolated away from the warmth of the house it took its chances and would occasionally make a sorry sight after a late-spring frost.

Free-standing wisterias in pots or planted directly into the ground are interesting, but the scale of the leaves and flowers often make the plant look slightly ridiculous - like a long-haired Saluki or Afghan Hound. There's something about the marriage of wisteria and architecture that is quite overwhelming in its appeal. The symbiosis is complete when both house and plant have aged together over many years. It's as if the framework of the wisteria somehow represents the structure of the house itself, its searching branches seeming to breathe life into bricks and mortar.

The leaves that come after the wisteria has flowered shroud this bond to a certain extent. The framework, lost beneath a blanket of foliage, quietly but purposefully explores the potential for new pastures to grip. It's a survival technique. Wisteria in the wild forests of China need to grow quickly from the shade of woodland into the canopies of trees where sunlight can ripen stems enough for them to set flower and, therefore, seed.

There is no real need, therefore, to prune wisteria, but its association with buildings and structures makes this a practical requirement. The bonus, of course, is that pruning encourages flowering spurs much like it does with fruit trees. Cutting back stems to about 30cm in August allows light to ripen the wood. Enough leaves must be left on the plant, though, to nourish it. The plant benefits from another prune (back to two or three buds) in February, to encourage the spurs that will produce the flowers they are valued for. While wisteria is good for most soils and will withstand a fair amount of drought, it's worth giving wall-trained plants extra attention by way of mulch and extra water during prolonged dry spells in late summer.

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