Learning Disability



In its last issue, the soon-to-be-missed House and Garden has a fun piece about the ineffably weird gardens on Lake Como.  The picture at the right is the one that really impressed me.  I have no idea how tall those Italian cypresses really are, but certainly too tall for me to climb that ladder with pruning shears for any sum of money.  Yet, apparently somebody is willing to do it, because according to HG, those cypresses are trimmed every single day.

That photo reminded me of how much I don’t do with my own Felcos.  Which in turn, reminded me of another photo, from Penelope Hobhouse’s luscious Flower Gardens.


I’ve long admired that Dutch garden on the right.  In fact, I planted boxwoods in my front perennial beds, hoping to achieve the same sophisticated contrast between the loose shapes of the perennials and the strict geometry of the evergreens.  Only in my garden, there is no geometry–because I can’t bring myself to prune the shrubs.  Because I know that if I start attempting to shape them into balls, they will wind up whittled into nothing.

I’m confident about a lot of other things, but I am not a confident pruner.  Part of the problem is that pruning directions in books always make my head spin.  Don’t talk to me about second-year canes and fruiting buds and old growth and new growth and laterals and leaders–and especially, do not talk to me about clematis groups with Roman numerals after them.  This is the kind of mechanical learning that no matter how hard I try, falls out of my head the instant I learn it.

Some of the fault possibly lies with the quality of the directions.  Possibly they were written by the same people who wrote the assembly instructions for my daughter’s tricycle.  The always witty Eleanor Perenyi complains in Green Thoughts about how infuriating pruning instructions are. 

But I think most of the fault lies with me.  It’s a learning disability.  I can’t make sense of anything that involves diagrams and step one and two.  When I was in college and had to assemble incredibly complicated equipment quickly for an organic chemistry lab, I would spend two out of three hours just trying to get the glass tubes lined up… and never managed to synthesize the chemicals I was supposed to synthesize.  So I did the only sensible thing.  I got a boyfriend in the class.

But now there is no boyfriend willing to do my bidding on the pruning front.  And my husband is very nice, but confines himself to chain-saw issues.   So I really just need to get intrepid and start mangling some plants. 

My New Dawn rose is only two years old, but it’s already getting out of control.  My grape vines, I don’t know what to do with.  My clematis always languish, except for sweet autumn, which the books assure me can be lopped to nothing or left completely alone, and I like that about it.  Still, it’s time for boldness.  Next spring, I’m going to take the pruning guides out into the yard with me and get them dirty.



  1. I’m with you, Meesheleh. . . . What’s with the roman numerals and old cane/budding cane new growth – yikes! But I like your idea of just getting the pruning sheers “dirty”.

    My mother used to say that if I wouldn’t cut things back, they wouldn’t grow properly. I don’t know that I’ll really learn that until I’m my mother’s age. But that’s a moving target. . . .

  2. There’s aesthetic pruning and there’s necessary pruning. I guess the only one I do with conviction is the “necessary” one (I do own a vineyard, after all) but it CAN be confusing. I guess I wish I could only remember when the best time to prune things really is, as it varies wildly per plant, and what’s great for the grapes will kill that New Dawn rose, etc.

    Keep those Felcos sharp, and don’t worship the geometric, and you should be just fine!

  3. The husband turns pale and the children hide when I come out of the garage armed to the teeth with felcos, loppers and bow or folding saw. I have taken down some pretty good sized trees because I get tired of waiting for husband to fire up the chainsaw. He only ends up sawing the stump off at the ground. Your New Dawn? Prune it any old way you want, ain’t gonna hurt it, at least that is the truth with my Dr. Van Fleet,the parant of New Dawn. (who has sadly succumbed to that nasty virus our wonderful govenrment has introduced to kill the multi flora roas and oh no it won’t spread to cultivated roses. Grrr.)

  4. There’s an analogy between learning pruning and learning computer skills. If I teach someone even a simple procedure, they’re going to do it once, and then they aren’t going to use that skill again for year, I don’t expect them to remember much.

    In our gardens, we pull out a pruning guide, prune one shrub, then wait a year or two when hopefully we remember to do it again? Not gonna retain much.

    If you are a professional landscaper and you see and solve the same problems over and over again — or like El you own a vineyard — things get pretty routine.

  5. I control my pruning with a kitchen timer. I set it for an hour, take it outside with me so I can hear it, and then whack away to my heart’s content. By limiting myself to an hour, I can only do so much damage. And when the bell goes off, I stop, whether I want to or not.

    I love the dutch garden, though. I might try it in my front garden, where I need a bit more structure.

  6. Pruning is my favorite chore, especially pruning for fall cleanup. And I love plants you can just cut down to the ground. But I’m a beginner, so there’s a lot of experimenting going on. We’ll see what it looks like (and if everything survives) in spring.

  7. I learned long ago that its pretty hard to kill something by pruning it too much. I have tried to kill shrubs by #1 pruning the “wrong” time of the year, #2. cutting off every last leaf, and curses! They live! In the case of the unwanted pineapple guava I not only did both of the above but also whacked at the roots. That was a few years ago.It is currently looking something like a very fat, very round “guava dog” or “deer”. Speaking of deer, they have taught me a thing or two about pruning perennials!ie; “do not be afraid to cut!” (or chew, as the case might be.)

  8. Have you taken a look at Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning? It’s my new favorite pruning book. The advice is very practical & clear. For example, on pruning crabapples, she advises, “you will not be allowed to remove all the crossing/rubbing wrong-way branches” because of crabapples’ tendency to send up water sprouts. B4 reading this book, I was committing the common mistake of thinning my crabapple too much in an attempt to eliminate the crossing branches. Pruning is akin to sculpting – like Michangelo freeing a statue from a block of marble, gardeners should try to envision the desired form of the tree or shrub and eliminate everything extraneous. Now, if I could just figure out what things are supposed to look like…

  9. Thanks for confirming that Sweet Autumn Clematis can take a heavy beating back – I was eyeing my monstrous one just an hour ago and thinking it needs a good and thorough pruning back. Is there anything as therapeutic as a good old pruning session?

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