Diarmuid Gavin: Spring cleaning - time to get pruning
It's the perfect time of year to prune your shrubs for summertime perfection
Our mild winter is making it easier to venture outdoors for the first of 2017's gardening. I've heard of people who are already cutting lawns, and shortly the veg plot can be coaxed into life. But there are other 'meaty' jobs which may also be tackled now.
February and March are an excellent time of year to prune shrubs to ensure they look and perform their best for the rest of the year. When many shrubs are leafless, it's easy to assess their overall outline, make decisions about their habit, and see exactly what you are doing.
Often we let shrubs do their own thing and only hack at them when they outgrow their space. So, why prune at all?
Some plants are self-pruning - I regularly collect small and light birch branches from my front garden, weak or dead limbs which have snapped off in the wind. Most trees will maintain a better natural shape if left to their own devices, and some won't thank you at all for pruning them. Rhododendrons and acers grow to beautiful natural shapes, which should not be tampered with.
However, other shrubs will only give their best with our intervention. To encourage the best flowering possible on deciduous shrubs (ones that drop their leaves in autumn) that flower on new wood, an annual shearing is advisable.
Established deciduous flowering shrubs - such as buddleia davidii (right), deciduous ceanothus, perovskia, ceratostigma, cotinus, hardy fuchsia, lavatera and spiraea japonica - should be pruned back now to two to three buds of previous season's growth and remove about one fifth of the old stems. This will encourage the shrub to produce vigorous shoots that will carry flowers in summer.
Any shrubs with flowers which are about to open, such as forsythia and kerria, should be left alone until after flowering. And don't go near cherry trees (the ones in my parents' front garden were butchered every year resulting in some very unnatural configurations) they generally don't need any pruning, but if you feel the need leave the project until mid-summer to reduce the risk of silver leaf disease.
Pruning is often necessary to encourage production of juvenile foliage that is attractive in mid-winter when the stems are bare. If you grow shrubs such as willow, eucalyptus and dogwood for their colourful stems, you can cut them back before leaf burst almost to ground level. This will keep their size in check and will encourage fresh, colourful stems.
Next you need to know how to wield your gardening instruments and how to make a good cut. Using clean secateurs, or loppers where the stem is thicker than a pencil, make a clean cut immediately above and close to a bud - about half a centimetre - as this is where new life will spring from. Start the cut on the opposite side of the stem to the bud. Leave no rough edges, tears or bruising of the stem - if you do, choose another position and cut again.
Pruning is also required for the removal of dead, diseased or dying branches, not only do they look unsightly, but they may spread whatever ails them. And if you like your hedges tidy and straight as a spirit level, it's time to get the clippers out. Older plants may also be rejuvenated by the removal of older, unproductive wood.
What else can you attack? Evergreens such as aucuba, holly, and ligustrum can be cut back hard if they are outgrowing their allotted space. Of the conifers, yew can be cut back hard but most of the others will not rejuvenate from old wood.
Delay pruning more tender evergreens such as choisya and pittosporum until later in the season. If they're pruned too early a late frost can cause damage to soft new emerging shoots, buds or leaves.
Take care when cutting back cherry laurel, their large leaves can get clipped in half and then they are left with an ugly black healing cut. Take the time to remove the whole leaf in this instance. Deciduous foliage shrubs and hedges such as beech can be trimmed to size.
Some vigorous pruning adventures at this time of year will save you hacking away at plants when their growth has doubled. And you won't be diverted by the other growing season tasks such as weeding and feeding.
The result of your Edward Scissorhands activity can mean that you've generated a lot of clippings. Most can be composted or more woody material may be mechanically chipped into small pieces and used as a mulch around the base of your planting.
Alternatively, they can help keep you warm. I've just spent a few days in a rather cold country house and it was the recently pruned twigs that made the kindling that led to our blazing log fires!