The Backyard Naturalist – The Trouble with Shrubs
I wouldn’t like to say my garden is unkempt, and I wouldn’t like to say it suffers under the fits and starts of my ambitions and inattentions. I would like to say my garden is independent, and that the plants there thrive on benign neglect. If I’m being honest, though, my neglect veers troublingly close to malignant, so the plants that are still vigorous eight years into our time in this house are survivors indeed. I don’t water anything after I first plant it, and I have never yet successfully overwintered any perennial bulbs like dahlias or gladioli. I try to keep to native species that manage quite well on their own, thank you very much.
In late winter, before the daffodils are up, I spend a lot of time gazing out the window at the shrubs in the yard, wishing I were outside and not grading chemistry lab reports. At those times, I suddenly feel a spasm of interest in reading up on how to care for the shrubs, to maximize their flowering, or prompt the vigorous growth of new shoots. For most of my plants, it’s either too late or too early to be messing with them, so I go back to grading chemistry reports.
Fortunately for me, most of my shrubs and vines seem to do just fine under this desultory care. The native honeysuckle and wisteria tumble over their arbors in a glory of bees come summertime with hardly any attention from me. When I remember, I slice randomly at the more unruly tendrils at the start of summer, but sometimes even that is more than I can manage. Several of my shrubs need no pruning at all. The juniper tree by our solar panels is a cautionary tale, with a 2-foot limbless band marking where deer chewed it one hard winter.
Of course, other shrubs rely on pruning at the right time to achieve their full potential. I know this information exists for each species, but I find it all overwhelming, trying to remember which ones should be pruned before winter, and which after; which will flower on new growth, and which on old.
My strategy is to go out in spring and aggressively hack back a whole bunch of shrubs, and the ones that do well under this regime get to stay and flower. I base this technique on a wondrous segment I saw on PBS one Saturday morning. A woman who works at a botanical garden somewhere in New England was out with snow still on the ground, explaining how to prune smoke trees. These are the ubiquitous deep-purple-leaved shrubs that put up a diaphanous haze of flowers in summer (hence the name). They are tough plants, but can get leggy and strange looking if left to their own devices.
The woman was mercilessly and breathlessly hacking the plant down nearly to the ground. “Stooling,” she called it, and she said it would give the shrub a lovely round shape come summer. The interviewer asked her how she was deciding where to cut, and she said, “Who cares? Just cut it back as hard as you can. You won’t get any flowers off it this season, but as a leafy shrub it’ll come up great.” My heart thrilled to watch her, and I headed out that day to stool my own smoke tree, hearing her voice in my mind, “Honestly, what’s the worst that can happen?”
She wasn’t wrong; that summer the burgundy leaves pulled the eye like a pool of spilled ink in the green expanse of the yard.