Casual Gardener: Why it's not hip to be square

RSPB Northern Ireland's Caroline Marshall bemoans the desire to keep winter gardens neat and tidy...

Throw caution and your hedge trimmer to the wind

HAVE you noticed that a lot of evergreen and deciduous shrubs seem to be cut into rectangular and square shapes at this time of year? Why is this? Is it the desire of humans to have things ordered, neat, tidy and angular? Does it facilitate the speedier delivery of the ‘winter garden tidy up’? Does it make for a more aesthetically pleasing sight from the conservatory? Is it a lack of imagination on the part of gardeners and landscapers? Or is it the quickest way to do the job and get back indoors for a warm cup of tea and a well-deserved rest in front of the ubiquitous antiques show?

Whatever your actions or thoughts in relation to ‘square shrub’ epidemic, we really are missing out as gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts. We can all appreciate the desire to have a crisp clean straight hedge on a property boundary, but – as the Disney song says – sometimes we should just "let it go".

Throw caution and your hedge trimmer to the wind and let the shrubs within your hedge escape your horizontal and vertical constraints.

People wonder why their lilac rarely produces scent-laden flowers in spring. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that in your haste to tidy the garden in winter you cut off all the flower buds.

Spring-constrained Escallonia and hardy fuchsia hedges never get to display their pink, red and purple flowers, provide nectar for insects and set seed for birds. Spring and early summer sliced privet hedges in cities and towns never get to emit the heady high summer scent from their creamy white flowers. Autumn-attacked holly can’t provide us with festive shiny red berries to decorate or homes nor food to tide blackbirds through a harsh winter.

Viburnum tinus will be better for wildlife if not pruned

Out with the hedge plane, in the more open areas of the garden there is a desire amongst some to constrain nature to cubes and cuboids. Viburnum tinus, whilst a valuable evergreen for the garden in its own right, can provide much more for our vases and for wildlife if you lay off the autumn prune.

The sunny yellow Forsythia spring riot will not manifest itself if cube-cut in winter. Imagine cutting back the Sarcococca confusa in the large pot at your front door in late autumn and depriving yourself of that honey-rich scent as you open the door on a still January evening.

When visiting the garden centre, we choose plants because they are in full bloom and look or smell enticing to us and/or because they attract wildlife close to our homes. When we, or the landscapers we invite in and pay to maintain our gardens, cut things at the wrong time, we lose the visual spectacle, the nasal indulgence and deprive wildlife of its sustenance.

Before you yield the shears against the shrubbery, take a step back and ask yourself when that plant flowered. If it has flowered and set seed, by all means give it a prune but stay away from the square sides and opt for a more natural open shape.

If your plant has big fat buds and should flower soon, step away and let it do its thing for a few months. If a gardener or landscaper helps out with your larger garden tasks, talk to them and remind then to prune after flowering.

Our gardens will be more floriferous, curvy, colourful and odorous and bird and insect life will take up residence in numbers.

So put down the loppers and shears for a few months after flowering. Breathe deep, let it go, let it grow and enjoy the wildlife!

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A blackbird in a winter garden. Picture by Ray Kennedy

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