Now it's the second half of February I feel free to cut down all the herbaceous stems left standing over the winter so that the birds could eat the seed heads, and in hopes of getting some of those mornings you see photographed in magazines when every stalk and withered flower head is rendered miraculous by frost. Or else heavy dew shining magically on the spiders' webs. We had maybe half a dozen such mornings. But now bulbs are coming through and the ground level buds of this year's herbaceous plants swelling, all waiting to be trodden on, and the sooner I am on those beds to do my work and off again the better. The only problem is deciding what to do first.
I took a deep breath, steadied my nerves and reduced the shrub rose 'Sally Holmes' hard. I've been psyching myself up to do the deed for months. 'Sally Holmes' is a modern shrub rose, with clusters of creamy white shading to soft pink, single flowers produced in successive flushes through the summer, with good hips if you aren't too enthusiastic about deadheading the final flush. In the past couple of years she has not performed as well as she used to. I tried taking her down fairly drastically once before and she did not like it and I vowed not to do it again, but then I began to remember how Christopher Lloyd wrote that you would not kill a middle aged rose by hard pruning, on the contrary it could be rejuvenating. And I remembered the Systems Administrator's story of the SA's father performing drastic surgery learned on a pruning course at Wisley on the straggly hedge of the rose 'Elizabeth' in the front garden of their new house. The neighbours were horrified by the Wisley chop, and the next year 'Elizabeth' had never performed so well.
I have not one but three plants of 'Sally Holmes'. When I bought them I didn't grasp that they would grow quite so large, well over six feet tall and as much across. Still, in a large garden you don't want the planting to be too bitty, so I am happy with the group of three. The trouble was that after years of dead heading and taking out dead wood, the framework of branches was an awkward muddle of twiggy growth going in all directions above bare trunks. As plants they were not beautiful, and they weren't flowering as freely as they once did. My researches unearthed one contributor to an internet forum who said that as 'Sally Holmes' tended to flower best on new wood, owners who were continually removing most of the recent growth to limit its size could be left with few flowers. I haven't been doing that, but in the past couple of years mine haven't made all that much new wood. Growth, they say, follows the knife. I shall feed my plants very generously when I top up the Strulch and keep feeding them through the season.
That kind of pruning takes concentration. I normally listen to the radio while I'm working on the borders, but I can't while doing major pruning, it is too distracting when I am trying to decide where to place every cut and how much to take off. A lot, was the answer. A couple of hydrangeas next to the clump will be relieved to no longer have a stray arm flung across their heads.
It was so emotionally draining that when I finished I stuck to cutting down herbaceous stems in the island bed for the rest of the afternoon. Tomorrow or the next day the Buddleja davidii 'Black Knight' are for chop, and I shall have to steel myself to cut down the dogwoods and willow grown for their coloured stems, and worse still pollard the orange twigged lime. I am not a naturally enthusiastic pruner. I like plants to grow, and it seems so ungrateful to lop their efforts off. Some people enjoy it, causing ructions between couples where one (often though not always a man) loves chopping things down, and the other (frequently though not invariably a woman) is for a fuller, more natural look. But it has to be done. Our back garden is over twenty years old and in danger of getting dark and woody. It needs a ruthless hand on the saw from time to time.