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Editing The Garden       Karin Guzy
( published  in Perennial Notes, Fall 2004,
the quarterly journal of the Georgia Perennial Plant Assoc.)

            Editing is the top priority in our 19-year old garden.  My husband wonders when we stopped calling it pruning.  But this exercise in deletion is more than mere cutting back.

   After so many years of encouraging growth, it is hard to discard plants, shrubs and trees that have served us for so long.  But many older gardens suffer from oppressive enclosure and threatening overgrowth – a lack of fresh air.  They can only be freshened by opening up and cutting out and removing.  Although it sounds drastic, the result can be surprising.  If approached carefully, the removed elements are hardly missed but an atmosphere of newness can be restored.  If not newness, perhaps the result of what Barbara Allen teaches – “space breeds elegance”.

Once we started to remove the limbs of a huge ligustrum, we could see the one-sided growth of a lovely rhododendron that can now be better balanced.  More limbs removed revealed a nicely framed view of a small stream that recycles water to the pond.  When it was totally gone, the whole area was refreshed with a lightness and openness that enhanced all the remaining plants.  Only the cat will miss the ligustrum as her means of reaching the workshop roof.

With this success, we were encouraged to move on to the poorly positioned sweet shrub that leaned into the path for light. Limbing up the holly above it allowed the sweet shrub more light, and trimming it back cleared the path.  It can stay, but must be contained.

Three pieris had to go entirely.  The foliage looked dreadful, insects were a recurring problem and they only looked good briefly in the spring.  The limb saw made short work of them and we left the stumps to be removed later.  Much to our surprise, the stumps threw shoots and the new growth seems to have potential.

The curse of many gardeners is the inability to discard anything that shows signs of life, however feeble.  And plants with provenance, as they say, are even harder to part with.  The coreopsis, from my sister’s garden, that has never bloomed well and plays host to seedling poison ivy and spreads at an alarming rate, really must go.  The orange ditch lilies that came with the garden, and dominated much of a bed near the house, have been removed to make room for a new nectar garden. 

Even the inside of the house was brightened by the removal of 70 oppressive hollies that prevented light from getting near the windows.

Limbing up, cutting back, and removing entirely are all to be considered in freshening the garden.  Looking through pictures of your garden when it was new will serve as motivation when you feel weak.  How lovely it looked when you could see and appreciate each plant.  Didn’t the hosta look more elegant before the wild ferns took over?  Did you forget how beautiful the stonework was before it was obliterated by junipers draping over the edge?

In many cases severe pruning does no damage but spurs the plant into new fresh growth.   Many sites are available on the internet to address the pruning needs of individual shrubs, but they all suggest that annual light pruning is better than heavy pruning. Plan to keep shrubs under control with annual light pruning after you give them a significant rejuvenating haircut.

Perennials get out of hand too. We often hear that if you plant enough, the ground and weeds will never see the light of day.  When I am in new gardens, or many of the gardens that are chosen for plant tours, I often admire the restraint of the gardener that allows each plant to have its space.  After years of observation, I have come to like some mulch between plants.  I want to see and appreciate each plant.

Trees grow too, increasing width and shade.  Overhanging branches impede air flow and prevent light from reaching the shrubs and smaller plants that seemed so right when you placed them.  Limbing up larger trees may require some professional assistance, but the difference can remake your garden.

Take a new look.  Where can you open it up, let in the light, free a pathway and give your garden a facelift?