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Gardening: Three pruning approaches for light and space

18 December 2020

Renovation pruning in front of “The Brewhouse”

Renovation pruning in front of “The Brewhouse”

THIS Advent has afforded most of us more time for reflection than usual. For me, this has been against the backdrop of a new garden to work on. It is a historic place, bounded by walls, behind the Sub-dean’s canonry on the north side of Tom Quad, Christ Church, Oxford.

If asked for advice on designing or redesigning a new garden I always start with the question “What are you hoping your garden will provide?” I began to direct that query towards myself when, after three months’ sorting things out indoors, I gathered material for an Advent wreath back in November.

There was certainly plenty of winter interest. A huge specimen of the evergreen shrub, Cotoneaster “Cornubia” was festooned with bunches of scarlet berries; a mahonia promised to be in flower by Christmas; and the lovely variegated ivy Hedera algeriensis “Gloire de Marengo” reached far and wide with its large three-tone leaves held on red stems. One of the pleasures of being in the garden in winter is a sense of dormancy and having time to stop and study. I have an old test-tube rack on my desk, and, in the vials, I place cuttings to reflect on indoors, too. As I write, the sherbet-lemon scent of the winter-flowering honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima and the almondy notes of Viburnum farreri connect me with our new garden.

An original engraving of Christ Church College, Oxford, by David Loggan, from his Oxonia Illustrata, published in 1675

Gardening, for me, has always been a meditative practice, and this is heightened in the hallowed grounds of Christ Church, a stone’s throw from where, in the eighth century, St Frideswide established a community that later became an Augustinian priory named in her honour. The space feels monastic aided by “The Brewhouse”, that juts at an odd angle into one corner. Built in the early years of the 15th century, just outside the St Frideswide precinct, it pre-dates the founding of Christ Church and was used for brewing as late as 1900, although its original purpose is a matter of speculation.

I want this garden to aid the sub-dean’s ministry, both in providing him with an outdoor prayer space but also by enriching the hospitality that we can offer to new friends as well as old. One thing that I have learned over the years is that a garden is nothing if it is not shared.

I had an idea of destination, but the starting point was a mature garden that has been cared for with both light and heavy hands over many tenures. Gardening is all about maintaining a balance, and intervening to halt the march of succession which would, ultimately, lead to mature woodland. The degree of your intrusion dictates the sort of garden that you will have. In recent years, the space had served well as a playground for young children, with hiding holes and dens accessible only to them and the college tortoise.

Renovation pruning in front of “The Brewhouse”

Competition for light drives the evolution of plant populations. To give a leg up to plants limping on in gloom and give a fighting chance to the plants that had moved with us — some lovely leaving presents and rooted cuttings from our last garden — I needed to let in the light.

I liken work on an overgrown garden to editing a text. It is all about taking away the elements that don’t quite work. Certain plants need to go, despite having some good attributes that may be desirable in another context. We have to be ruthless. First for the cull were some self-seeded saplings in awkward spaces: an ash, elders, and a sycamore. They were small enough to dig up. More mature unwanted trees require an arborist who after felling can use a stump-grinder or “plug” the stump with a special cartridge containing a herbicide.

Much can be achieved by removing branches of mature shrubs rather than the whole plant. The best time for severe renovation pruning is late winter or early spring. Midwinter is not ideal, as pruning tends to stimulate new growth, which can then be scorched in very frosty weather. I have taken the chance with some hardy shrubs in this garden, which, being walled and in the centre of a city, is blessed with a fairly benign microclimate compared with a typical Cotswold garden.

It is important when reducing the spread of a shrub to reduce the height, too. This keeps the proportions both pleasing to the eye (not too hedge-like) and also stable and wind-resistant. Of course, there is an exception to this rule. Cloud pruning is another option, where the height of a shrub is maintained, but the main framework of branches is revealed by removing lower side branches and twigs to give a tree-like profile.

It is acceptable to reduce the height of a mounding shrub without reducing its spread. I am combining these three basic approaches to pruning to add interest to the profile of a border and open it up to allow views through and light down to ground level.

If letting in the light is the key to adding more interest in some areas, obstructing it will be my tool for dealing with unwanted plants in others. At some point, wild garlic has been introduced into the garden, and, while its leaves can be useful in the kitchen, it is extremely invasive. A small vegetable plot is infested with the pungent white bulbs. Since they are in active growth at this time of year, it is a good time to fork over and remove as many as possible. In doing this, I went on to find a tangle of brittle white bindweed roots. Neither weed will be killed by a domestic composting system; so they need removing from the site as green waste.

Since it is nigh-on impossible to find all the bulbs or roots, I then covered the area with porous landscape fabric, which lets water through, so that it doesn’t puddle, but not the light. This will be left in situ for a year, and this will at least weaken the weeds. It can then be removed, and the area can be sown with grass seed. Regular mowing of the resultant sward will finish the job. New beds can then be cut out and planted up, safe in the knowledge that the ground is clean.

A large rectangle covered in black woven plastic is not an attractive feature, but it serves well as a holding area for plants in pots waiting for a new home, including dormant clumps of herbaceous plants dug up from beds under review. There are also boulders, slabs, and so on that seem to be a by-product of clearing a neglected garden, and all of which I am keen to recycle.

An engraving by Loggan in Oxonia Illustrata, published in 1675, shows a geometric patchwork of gardens to the north of what was then the Great Quadrangle, now Tom Quad. Some have formal plantings, while others appear more like orchards. Just as the configuration of the canonries has been chopped and changed over the centuries, the gardens have been annexed and divided. The sub-deanery garden, accessed by a short tunnel now dubbed the grotto, is an odd shape with no wall or path parallel or perpendicular to another. Add to this curvy borders that have been tagged on piecemeal from time to time, and you are left with a quiet call for simplicity. To create a sense of calm, some layers need stripping away, and the borders need straight edges aligned and in tune with the surrounding architecture.

As a sculptor shapes a chunk of rock into a piece of art, it becomes both simpler and, imbued with the vision of the creator, more expressive at the same time. So it is with taming a garden. My Advent has been about making sense of a very special place.

Forthcoming Events

15 May 2021
Send My Roots Rain: a poetry retreat
With Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Rachel Mann and others.

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
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