Saturday 30 March 2013

Pruning a flower arranger’s garden

A trip to Jacky Barber’s
Have I forgotten anything?
When I took early retirement, Jacky was my first client. She owned a small aquatic plant nursery and a three acre garden. With no other help she required some ‘intelligent horticultural muscle’ (why me?). She employed me one day a month to control her weeds, prune, (I hated the massive prickly ‘Kiftsgate’ rose that climbed high in a tree) and help her with projects. One of my first tasks was to spray weeds in a giant herbaceous border. I carefully sprayed the extensive rosebay willow-herb. She later gently informed me it was the refined white cultivated variety!

An early project was to create an arc of  five huge mixed shrub/herbaceous borders in an existing grassed one-acre paddock. I have to tell you she had the heaviest clay you can find. At the end of the road a potter called Rollie, makes the finest of pots from the same clay! We marked out large simple elegant shapes with bamboo canes, then vertically slit the agreed edges and sprayed with glyphosate. There was no cultivation. A few weeks later, plants were inserted directly into the dead turf. Jackie’s secret  weapon was that she had a special supply of five-ton loads of mushroom compost from a local farm. What a fantastic mulch to lay on the surface. Mushroom compost is a mixture of well rotted manure, peat and lime. Two years later she had the most fantastic mixed borders you can imagine. Not to mention wonderfully fertile, slightly elevated  soil.

Jackie came to horticulture via flower arranging. She holds a Chelsea gold medal and with help, creates fine floral displays in Ripon cathedral. Ten years ago Jackie downsized to a tiny garden in a small village near Ripon. She moved just down the road! Before moving in, she had in her head, already  planned every detail of her new garden. Even before, the concreted front garden was restored.
She once paid me the compliment of telling me that I had a floral arranger’s eye when I pruned. That is the real secret of pruning. I love to be presented with a group of overgrown shrubs, they become my canvas to create a picture. We go up to Jacky’s to prune every two years, not as a client but now as a dear friend. It is always a wonderful day. Brenda and myself return home with lots of plant ‘goodies’ after a very fine meal. From my point of view its the best kind of pruning when all my debris is immediately cleared-away by two hard working ladies.
I always admire Jacky’s indoor decoration. Only a flower arranger would put a plant in the shower!
We arrived at 10.30, had a quick coffee and planned the campaign as we moved to inspect the garden. Jacky had listed nine tasks and I added six more. The first question was should the cercis with dieback stay or go? We elected for it to stay and with just two cuts with the saw it was reprieved.
New life for the cercis
A clematis and a climbing rose  had clearly been having a battle on an obelisk and the clematis was winning. Fairly dramatic cutting back of the clematis and a little thinning of the structure of the rose will restore the balance. A few further climbing roses and a shrub rose were starting to become densely crowded. About 25% of old growth was thinned away. A very nice strong growing hydrangea in a tub was getting somewhat crowded at the base and was interspersed with a few straggly shoots. About 20% of the shoots were cut away with felco secateurs at the base of the plant. I was starting to get in my stride.

A few nick-nacks and a very fine shed
At the front Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Fire‘ required a decision. Should it be thinned out, or cut back which is normal practice at the end of March. We elected to cut back. Unlike most other coloured stem cornus it was not necessary just to cut back hard. This variety tends to have suffficient new shoots already emerging from the ground that the best option was to cut the main plant completely away.

Before and after. Will a repeat operation be needed next year?
Who but a skilled flower arranger would have the imagination to stand her pot plants on a Singer sowing-machine stand.
Three wall shrubs in front of the window were getting out of hand and threatened to shade the room. Unfortunately the ceanothus had made such a thick stem it was past training back and had to be cut away. Fortunately there was enough whippy growth left to tie-in and start to retrain. An adjacent, yellow shrub jasmine had become far too big for the garden.This was cut back hard so it will rejuvenate from the ground.

Getting too big around the window

Job done. Distinct spaces have been created for the wall shrubs. Often, you cannot prune a plant in isolation without consideration of its neighbours. The agapanthus has breathed a sigh of relief!

Jackie lectures and demonstrates on willow weaving. Fortunately she needed no help here.
There were just a few jobs left. A couple of small trees needed a little formative pruning. We agreed together which branches to remove. A quick burst of my petrol driven hedge trimmer- thankfully it started on the first pull - was need to cut-back a few clumps of epimedium tight to the ground. It will make soft new foliage and quickly make a fine display of compact delicate flowers. Many gardeners do not realise that the fine ground cover Hypericum calycinum responds to this same Spring treatment. Rather than being a scruffy embarrassment to a garden it becomes an absolute star.

Jacky’s garage wall
It’s such a beautiful place to work. Jacky’s garden is open under the NGS Open Garden Scheme in July


  1. Roger - for an inexperienced gardener like me, this is a useful blog. Pruning shrubs takes a bit of confidence, I think. Looking at your before and after pictures is much more useful than just reading instructions. Thank you.
    Weaving willow is an artform - what Jacky has created here is lovely!

    1. I think gardening books tend to give over precise instructions which tend to put you off trying. Confidence and common sense and following a few simple concepts helps.

  2. Certainly a garden full of interest - and not only of the plant variety.
    My Cornus "Midwinter Fire" has put up some new shoots from ground level, for the first time, this year. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that I pruned it really hard last year...?

  3. Almost certainly Mark. In 2010 Winter I thought I had lost two shrubs after extreme cutting back (The cold killed the top!) I thought I had lost them but that summer they sprouted from below the ground. Unfortunately the second leg of extreme cold at the turn of the year finished the job!

  4. Jackie seems like someone a gardener would love to work for. I was interested that you mentioned mushroom compost. It is my preferred compost, however other gardeners have told me if used over several years it will raise salt content to toxic levels.

    1. Yes it is wise not to use it too often because of the lime content and the soil will become too alkaline. It should not be used at all for acid loving plants. Lime is reputed to help clay soils develop a more open structure. I do not set much store by the normal explanation of lime's direct benefit on soil structure but the fact that mushroom compost is wonderful for earthworms is one of the factors in the improvement of Jacky's soil.
      The stuff about it raising salt concentration is rubbish!

    2. It is certainly not rubbish! Mushroom compost should always be used with caution as it is definitely rich in soluble salts and other nutrients and, used undiluted, can kill germinating seeds and harm salt-sensitive plants. Many mushroom compost recipes use horse bedding straw, chicken manure, potash, gypsum, urea, ammonium nitrate and lime. Rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and other members of the heath family could also be injured by the higher levels of salts. Having said that, in normal garden use, SMC is a very good soil improver.

    3. Thanks Jarred, for your hard hitting repost which I deserve. I should have least put a smilie in place when I used the term rubbish in my answer. Your point needs a detailed answer.
      I still maintain that year on year use of mushroom compost does not lead to a salt build up outside because of the very fact that the winter rains wash out surplus soluble mainly nitrogen materials. Other soluble nutrients, with rain, will be both washed deeper into the soil and absorbed by organic matter and clay.
      I do agree with you however that spent mushroom compost is a heady nutrient rich brew and is therefore full of soluble materials -salts. Especially, if unlike Jacky’s it has ‘stewed’ in a bag standing in a garden centre when the organic content will further degrade and provide a whole lot more soluble nitrogen. The urea and chicken muck you mention will be particularly bad.
      I am totally in agreement with your statement that young plants should NOT be grown in it and am quite sure that you personally will be aware that the material is spent compost that has grown mushrooms, it is NOT a compost for growing plants as some gardeners seem to imagine.
      There is a circumstance where I am in complete agreement with you about repeated use leading to a salt concentration problem and that is when mushroom compost is used to manure soil in a greenhouse. Many gardeners do not understand the significance of the absence of winter rain in the greenhouse. When professional growers used to use soil in their glasshouses they used to winter ‘flood’ their soils. Not literally a flood, but copious amounts of water to the soil to wash excess salts out of the profile. I do this before I plant my tomatoes at least every other year.

  5. You certainly have plenty to keep you occupied garden-wise don't you?

    Are you sure that the shed isn't a summerhouse?

    1. Thats's the beauty of Jacky's practical mind, its used as both a summerhouse and a winter shed- and you can probably see through the glass she is overwintering a large agave in there as well!


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