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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the October 2017 issue

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Steffie Shields recommends care for attractive shrubs and small trees..

Mild, autumnal day with a gentle breeze? Make the most of each window of opportunity, head outside. Grab pruners, shears and loppers, and maybe a handsaw, from the shed or garage. Now is the dormant time, after this summer’s vigorous growth, when judicial management is critical. We are about to spend more weeks, if not months, looking out of the windows at little-changing views. Eye-pleasing form will bring contentment.

Take a long look at the shape of every single tree and shrub in the garden. Even if, rather than stiff formality, you aim for a natural or wild look to your garden, check what needs clipping and cutting back, and which crossed branches or die-back ‘deadery’ needs amputating. I prefer thoughtful trimming with hand-tools, rather than wielding large electric or petrol-driven hedge trimmers, which tend to leave a municipal-looking edge. Having said that, a handheld battery-operated trimmer less than a foot long makes light work of shaping lavender and topiary box.

October is the perfect month to sculpt away excessively long shoots, including on evergreen hedges. Egg-shaped hollies make a change from spheres. However, if in doubt if this is the right time to prune, visit gardens that are open; ask advice from gardeners and old-hand nurserymen and women to check which early-flowering deciduous shrubs prefer a decent spring ‘haircut’ directly after blossoming.

All shrubs respond well to careful management. Most deciduous shrubs like forsythia, buddleia, berberis and philadelphus need thinning and old wood removing. Cut out any weak or diseased growth. You might find it easier to see the shape by waiting until their leaves have fallen. I like to rejuvenate a venerable shrub by taking away a third, every three years or so. Cornus respond to complete ‘coppicing’ by cutting down almost to the ground. Shrub roses respond to being halved, once old wood is cut out. Also, take a few hardwood cuttings then and there as you scoop the cut debris into the green bin, just in case, as both future insurance and investment, or to share with friends. Now is also the time to ‘shred’ young trees by removing their lower branches to encourage straight trunks and uniform growth, as if each tree has a tuft! Centuries ago the poet Milton swooned about ‘tufted trees’ amongst towers and battlements, aspects that please both the home owner and the neighbours.

Enjoy controlling and improving the look, a stimulating change of focus from weeding and dead-heading herbaceous borders. You know you are doing good! Here a trim to correct lop-sided growth, there a snip to let in light, open a tidy new ‘peep’, or create the effect of a natural arch to frame a feature with both artistry and precision, a liberating chore for both you and your shrubs. Invigorate those significant trees and particularly young shrubs which need formative pruning to provide ornamental form to become backbones for the garden.

For some years now, I have been shaping a cotoneaster brought in by some bird to turn it into a small red-berried ‘lollipop’ tree behind a border. Another serendipity nearby, a yellow tree peony needs moving away from under the cherry tree. As I make slow progress round the garden’s bounds in coming weeks, assessing shrub by shrub, hard-pruning the bay tree, ivies, vines and climbing roses, the practical satisfying mantra of my landscaping hero Capability Brown will come to mind, spurring me on: “Keep all in view very neat”!

Every gardener can be an artist, enhancing the view, while ‘putting the garden to bed’ for winter. Pruning closely follows planting new bulbs and plants as my favourite job in the garden. While you are about it, lightly trim shrubs in pots, including their roots if they are pot-bound. Notice too if any offspring need transplanting and settling in before the hard frosts. Once the seasonal trim is done, assess the space you have created. Is there room for a new feature tree or shrub? Time for feet up and some online catalogue research and inspiration for 2018. I must replace my Cornus kousa which sadly gave up the ghost. Then again, I am sorely tempted to purchase another favourite of the late, great TV gardening guru, Geoff Hamilton, the katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Or should I add two to make a fabulous grove? 

Perhaps these photographs of some of my choice, small, showy trees and contrasting, richly colourful and handsome bushes, might give you some ideas to refresh your garden in November or to put on your Christmas wish-list. Oh, and as you start raking falling leaves, do not forget to mulch your newly shredded young trees and shapely shrubs!

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