The blight of the blob!
When it comes to pruning shrubs, the go-to shape for anyone who loves to waft a hedge trimmer, is the blob! No matter the shrub, give it the short back and sides treatment and hope for the best, right? - in the trade we refer to it as ‘balling up’. While clipping everything in this way can help to keep shrubs under control, it doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in them.
Now is the time to prune any shrubs that flower in late-winter or spring. Pruning, trimming or cutting back just after they have finished flowering, will give the shrub time for new growth before the year is out, on which next year's flowers will be. Leave the job too late in the year, and you’ll risk cutting off the developing flower buds.
The first thing when you come to prune anything, is to remove anything that is dead, diseased, or damaged (the 3 D’s). Any rubbing crowded or badly positioned branches can then also be removed. If you can, cut back to a visible outward facing bud, or if you’re cutting a whole branch off, go down to the base and cut it just shy of the ‘collar’ at the base of the branch. The collar will then grow over the fresh cut to seal it off. Use sharp secateurs for anything up to pencil thickness, loppers for up to thumb thickness, and a pruning saw for anything thicker.
When it comes to form and shape, there are various options to consider besides the ‘blob’.
If you have dense shrubs but want to open up the garden to let light through and open up vistas, consider lifting the canopy instead of cutting them hard back. Mature shrubs often have beautifully unique stems and trunks within them that can be revealed by carefully removing all the lower side-branches. This works well on a larger scale with big shrubs such as Rhododendrons, Camellias and Ceanothus (californian lilac), and can also look great with smaller shrubs like Philadelphus (lilac), Forsythia, and Pieris, letting light down to the ground creating new opportunities for shady planting and spring bulbs.
Many shrubs can have really attractive natural forms, that you can keep fresh and open by following the basic pruning steps, and then removing a few branches each year to let light and air through.
If, like me, you are a fan of a tightly clipped blob (topiary), just make sure you choose the right shrubs for it. Dwarf Rhododendrons with smaller leaves (formerly known as Azaleas) can be clipped just after flowering every year, to create tightly defined shapes. This is a traditional practice in Japanese landscape gardens; a practice known as ‘karikomi’, where they are clipped into smooth flowing shapes and mounds forming abstract landscapes. They hold their definition through the year until they burst with blossom yet again the following spring. Other spring-flowering shrubs that can be ‘blobbified’ are Viburnum tinus, Ribes (flowering currant), and Ceanothus. There’s nothing wrong with blobs, and a well-chosen and well-blobbed blob is actually hard to beat!