Spalding Guardian Gardening 12 August
This seems to be the time of year when many of us suddenly notice that that tiny conifer which looked just right for its position when we bought it has surreptitiously turned into a garden-dominating monster.
We are faced with two choices; we either remove it, or we try to resize it to be more garden-friendly.
Removing it can cause both emotional and practical problems. We remember how it used to look and we are loathe to imagine its returning to the garden in a plastic bag of compost from the recycling centre. Also, removing it entirely can be hard labour, leaving the area in need of a complete makeover.
The alternative would seem to be an altogether better option. The problem is, whereas most shrubs will tolerate a hard prune almost amounting to horticultural cruelty, most conifers, with the exception of yew, will not recover if cut back into old wood. It is not impossible to keep a conifer down to size, but the job needs to start early in its life and must be done at least once a year if you are not to end up with an eyesore.
Adrian Bloom, that champion of low-maintenance beds of conifers and heathers in the Seventies and Eighties, actually recommended in his catalogues that conifers can benefit from a regular light trimming and shaping from an early stage. This both keeps the size down to something more like what you were hoping for, and encourages dense and well-coloured foliage. But the trim must follow the natural lines of the conifer in question to be successful.
Sadly, what you are more often likely to see, if you garden-gaze like I do, is a mutilated specimen with its top horribly chopped off flat, or a tree that looks like a victim of some terrible hedge trimmer massacre. Pruning conifers is an art; you need to study the shape and habit before pitching in with sharp objects. To achieve a still attractive bush takes time and hand tools – secateurs and sharp shears; you seldom achieve pleasing results with a hedge trimmer.
Fortunately, most conifers are very forgiving – leave them alone for a couple of years and they will often recover enough to look tolerable again. But then you are back to square one; in allowing their bad haircut to grow out, they are once more too big for their purpose.
Often an over-sized conifer is best removed at the outset. If removing the roots will cause too much havoc, cut it off level with the soil, and if this leaves a gap, put a tub of something pretty or architectural there until you decide the way forward for that part of the garden.
Buying conifers requires careful homework – do your research before you plant. How many of us bought Juniperus pfitzeriana as a baby because it had a nice habit that looked just right to soften a path edge, or was recommended by the supplier as being a good rockery plant, only to discover that in a short time it had taken over most of the garden. I know I did!
Some years ago, I bought a lovely white paeony at Wisley Gardens. It flowered well for about three years, but then stopped producing buds and has never flowered since. What’s wrong with it?
From your photo, I think the plant is too deep in the soil. Paeonies are very fussy about depth, and if the fibrous roots immediately underneath the base of the stems are not just below the soil surface, they will gradually stop producing flowers. I suggest that, rather than replanting, you insert a fork below the root ball and gently ease the plant up till you can see the roots if you poke about gently in the soil – you may need to do this several times between now and the winter. If you are lucky, you may get an odd flower next year, but in cases like this, it usually takes the paeony a year or two before it starts flowering satisfactorily again. Feed with bone meal in the autumn and fish, blood and bone meal in the spring to give the plant a boost.
This piece originally appeared in the Spalding Guardian