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Gardening In Caithness
With Mike Clark

Lettuce Not Ignore Winter

Amateur gardeners think this is a quiet time of year.

In fact, I know many people who honestly believe that their garden should be closed down in October, and opened up again sometime after Easter.

Sorry to be offensive folks, but youíve not quite grasped your plot.

Mother Nature never sleeps.

A little bit of glass, a little bit of polythene, a sheltered corner - yes, even here we can all find a sheltered corner, if we look for it from a plantís eye-level - can extend our short gardening year.

None of us should ever buy lettuce.

Even here in Caithness, with nothing more than a basic plastic cloche for protection, we can all, potentially, grow lettuce all the year round.

I make no apology for this anarchistic claim, which could put Lidl out of business.

I am simply reminding you, that you can grow your own, and it will taste better than any of the imported supermarket stuff.

None of which has anything to do with pruning, but winter produce may well be the subject of a future article.

Meantime, in what is the traditional pruning season, I want to dispel some myths.

Itís a Snip

I hate books on pruning.  I have a pet - and probably very cynical - theory, that on the basis that big books sell for more money than little books, gardening writers conspire to perpetuate the myth that pruning is complicated. And write big expensive books on the subject.

The simple fact is this. The Pareto Principle very loosely applies to pruning. And I would prove it if I could remember exactly what the Pareto principle was. But if Pareto applied an 80/20 rule, then this is pruning on the Mike principle. Which is better at 90/10.

Ten percent of garden plants are a bit complicated to prune. Say, clematis and apple trees, for example. And pruning books make a meal of this. And ignore the fact that 90% of garden shrubs can be pruned without damage, by following a simple, basic rule.

When it has finished flowering, prune it; unless it flowers in late autumn or winter, in which case prune it in spring when the frost has passed.

That wasnít too scary now, was it?

And if you accidentally use this rule on some poor specimen in the 10% category, donít lose too much sleep. It is highly unlikely you will do any terminal damage. You may lose flowers for a year, or a little vigour. But plants are survivors. They wonít die if they can help it.

So why do we prune? Nature doesnít.

Well, maybe nature does. In the wild, a spindly young plant throws a shoot up to reach the light. And along comes a rabbit, and nips off the shoot. What does the plant do? It throws up half a dozen more vigorous shoots from the base by way of replacement.

And thatís the first reason why we prune. To encourage thicker, denser growth. This is particularly true of hedges. I have a pretty long fuse, but I can get stroppy to the point of abusive with people who adopt the wrong approach to growing a hedge.

Do not, DO NOT (Grrr, Grrr) let the hedge grow up to the height you want it to be, and then keep taking the top off. You will regret creating a hedge with a few thin stems, gaps your neighbourís Rottweiler could get through sideways, and a fluffy top.  No, harden your heart.  Cut your hedge back by half in the first year (There are exceptions, but remember were working on the Mike 90/10 Principle).  Cut it back by a third in the second year.  And in the third.  And so on until, despite your savagery, it attains your desired height. Why? Because every time you cut back a leading shoot, several dormant buds will produce replacement shoots, and create the thick, impenetrable hedge you always craved.  Yes, it will take a few years longer.  But you canít hurry nature.  If you want an instant hedge, buy a fence.

Other reasons to prune? Well, these garden plants are ones which we have adapted from the wild to become garden ornaments. We want flowers. You have to understand a plantís instinct to survive. Procreation is the name of the game.  And a plantís response to any sort of stress, is to produce flowers, and thence fruits, and thence babies.  So cutting bits off a plant is to put it under threat, and its natural response is to procreate before it dies (of course itís not going to die, this is horticultural gamesmanship). Therefore it flowers with all the enthusiasm it can muster.

We also prune to maintain a plantís health.  Because we have interfered with nature. We have cross-bred and hybridised, forever seeking better flowers, fruit, colour, whatever.  But with scant regard for the plants natural resistance to disease.  And disease, especially air-borne fungal disease, thrives in enclosed or congested places.  So although we want vigorous growth, we must also retain an open shape to a shrub to allow air circulation. Hence the need to remove congested growth and keep the heart of a plant open.

Have I fallen into the trap I so despise?  Have I rambled on and made it all sound complicated? Just in case, let me quickly get back to basics.

Cut out all dead wood, back to healthy growth.

Always prune to a centimetre or so above a bud. Because new growth will come from a bud, and any stem left above that will die, and provide an entry point for disease.

Alleviate congestion in the centre of the plant by removing any shoots which cross, or rub against other shoots.

If pruning to restrict size, on most plants (90/10!) you can cut back as hard as you like, but always follow 2. above.

Remember that the most vigorous new growth will come from the first bud below your cut. So you can determine where you want the plant to grow from.

If your plant is congested, prune to an outward facing bud. The new shoot will grow outwards instead of inwards.

The most common mistake is not pruning hard enough!

Donít let them frighten you!

I wanted to simplify this subject for you. Iíve just read back over it, and confused myself.  But Iíll let it stand. And if youíre none the wiser after reading this far, tell me and Iíll try again.  I know itís simple really, itís just explaining it thatís complicated!

And if I have learned anything at all from my commercial gardening life in Aberdeenshire, and more recently in Caithness, it is this.

Ignore all the good gardening booksí advice about autumn pruning.  In our climate, it is always safer to prune in Spring (but 90/10, remember).  At this time of year, confine your pruning activities to taking off vigorous growth by a third or so, to reduce wind-rock.  And finish the job in Spring.

This particularly applies to plants such as roses and buddlejia, which have soft stems, and are therefore prone to winter frost damage and die-back.

Still confused?  Email me, and Iíll do my best. (One at a time, please!) For the time being to bill@caithness.org marked for the attention of Mike.

And whatever the weather this weekend, ignore your garden.  Go to the pub.

Your garden loves you, and will wait for you.


© Mike Clark 2002.

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