Back in the day, I was a pretty serious gardener. I led a garden group at a large suburban church and cared for my own plants. My schedule during the past few years has nixed that.
In many ways gardening is exactly like painting. All the same skills, just different materials. My favorite garden task is pruning, because it’s sculptural. It also gives you great return for your effort.
A neighbor stopped today and told me, “I need to do something with my trees, but I’m afraid I’ll cut off too much and kill them.” A lot of people are afraid of pruning. Some general plant knowledge is helpful. Many yew hedges have been ruined by inexperienced gardeners cleaning out the growth from the bottom, but other species love that.
Plants are just like art supplies—once you understand their properties, you can have a lot of fun bending them to your will. Your aesthetic—rather than some predictable tome on how to create lollipop shrubberies—can guide you.
Several years ago I planted a line of shrubby trees running from the corner of my house to the sidewalk. This was for songbirds, who are vulnerable flying across the lawn-deserts of suburban neighborhoods. An American dogwood, a Kousa dogwood, a Cornelian cherry and a Styrax Japonica give them coverage and food. At the sidewalk is a specimen tree, Pinus bungeana or Lacebark Pine.
Because I wanted them to become an interlaced hedge, I kept them in their “puppy coat” for a long time. Now I worry that the next owner will think they’re weeds and yank them out. It is important that they finally assume their adult forms.
You don’t generally expose the trunk when trimming pines. Lacebark Pine is an exception, because its beautiful bark needs sun to develop its true colors. I pruned and thinned much like my hairdresser does my hair. The goal was to make it look more “natural” and less like a Christmas tree, even though the natural shape of a young Lacebark is like a Christmas tree.
The American dogwood has had anthracnose since we bought this house, but it is unbearably lovely in spring. Judicious pruning and watering have kept the disease in check, but this year a large section of trunk came down. Walking around it, I can’t see how it can be salvaged. So tomorrow, out comes the chainsaw.
All good things come to an end.