Gardening: Clear-cut pruning
Tidying up your plants isn't nearly as daunting as some people believe, says Marie Staunton
The tiny Sophora prostrata 'Little Baby', is ideally suited for a small patio garden, conservatory or a balcony. Yellow flowers appear in spring and it is evergreen.
Pruning isn't easy. It's a nerve-racking skill to learn if you're new to gardening. The problem is categorising plants into those that should be pruned in winter and those that prefer a tidy-up in spring. Making things more complicated, there are roses that have their own rules.
Let me tell you from experience, it's very hard to kill a good thing. So panic not, I will endeavour to make the art of pruning easy to understand and without too many rules to follow.
If the plant flowers in spring and you need to give it a prune to whip it back into shape, wait until the flowers have faded, then do it to your heart's content. If it flowers in summer, wait until autumn/ winter, then get stuck in.
Believe it or not, some plants need no interference. The magnolia is one such. Unless a branch has broken, you can put away the secateurs.
The one plant that is unforgiving if you prune at the wrong time is the cherry tree. It should not be cut back in autumn/ winter as it is open to infection. Wait until the flowers have faded and the leaves have pushed out before embarking on early summer surgery.
Pruning fruit trees can be a bit daunting, but understanding the difference between a fruit bud and a leaf bud will stand you in good stead. A fruiting bud on an apple tree looks furry and is a little chubby, while a leaf bud is shiny and flat. Whatever you do, don't cut out the fruiting bud.
Each year, new growth is put on by all your fruiting trees, bushes and canes, and it is up to you to trim them back to ensure a good shape and plenty of fruit.
Wood made during the full growing season from spring to autumn will be a lighter colour, which makes it a lot easier to identify. These stems should be taken back by about half of their growth. All you have to remember is to cut to an outward-facing bud, and the new growth will head off in that direction from next spring.
If you prune back to a bud that faces into the plant, you will end up with crossing stems all over the place. If you have raspberry canes and are wondering just how to prune them, take note of when they bear fruit.
Summer-fruiting ones should have the whole cane removed after you have harvested the fruit -- cut that cane right down to the butt.
If, on the other hand, you have an autumn-flowering one, leave it alone until February.
Bush fruit such as gooseberries need to be treated differently. You are aiming for an open-centred bush that lets in plenty of light and has good air circulation.
When it comes to herbaceous perennials, the rule is, if it's brown, cut it down, and if it's green, leave it be.
Barbara Cunningham, the head gardener at Malahide Castle in Dublin, gave me that fine bit of advice when I was a student. It has stood me in good stead ever since.
Penstemon and woody salvia will continue green throughout the winter, so in February, just as things are heating up, take them back to roughly 15cm from the ground. This way, they will be reinvigorated for the coming season.
Generally, even if we get a few weeks of bad weather, we are now over the hump and can look forward to spring with great enthusiasm.
Q Is this the right time to prune my wisteria?
A It's the perfect time. Take all the side shoots back to a couple of buds. It sounds drastic, but it will flower much better if you do. Wisteria likes hard pruning, so fear not, it will recover well and produce those wonderful lilac or white panicles that look so beautiful in early summer. I have a preference for the sinensis varieties because they flower before they come into leaf. This means that the flowers have no competition and can show off to their heart's content.
Q Why do I have to prune to an outward facing bud when I prune roses?
A If you don't want crossing stems, which give way to poor air circulation, it's always best to prune to an outward facing bud. The new wood will grow in the direction the bud faces, so it makes perfect sense to prune to encourage outward growth rather than inward growth.