Returning home to coastal Connecticut from drought-stricken Southern California, I’m struck once again by how lush and verdant this well-watered corner of southern New England is, especially in mid-June, the height of the growing season.
That happy fact brings my outdoors on a lengthy evening mid-week to tackle a related and recurrent backyard chore: pruning the bountiful growth of the shrubs, bushes and small trees that populate the property. Properly spaced and prudently tended, these plantings make up the bones of the classic suburban landscape. Among other attributes, they create a beautiful, shady backdrop for the flowering annuals and perennial plantings, provide screening from the street and neighbors and offer a wealth of food and shelter for all kinds of backyard birds and critters.
Left unchecked, this under story of big bushes and small trees would in a few short years overtake the property, turning it back into the state I found it 10 years ago: An uncivilized briar patch of brambles and brush and vines, all scrambling to crowd each other out.
The dynamic — some would say romantic — tension between chaos and cultivation in the garden was perhaps best expressed by Vita Sackville-West. As Sarah Raven writes in “Sissinghurst,” her biography of her mother-and-law and the garden she created from the ruins of an Elizabethan estate in the south of England, “Vita loved her borders to be packed. She hated the sight of too much mulch, criticizing Edwardian rose gardens with their ‘savagely pruned roses of uniform height, with bare ground in between, liberally disfigured by mulches of unsightly and unsavoury manure’.
“An enchanting garden like Sissinghurst is, I would say, at its most beautiful at precisely the point where its informality is about to tip over into chaos. I am with Vita and her desire for sprezzatura — a studied nonchalance, a balance of formality of structure with informality of planting.”
So tonight I browse across the yard with clippers in hand to help guide the growth of yard’s shrubs and bushes, pruning, tidying up the property and freeing up time for the coming weekend, Father’s Day.
Like parenting, pruning generally follows fairly well-established guidelines, in terms of where to cut, how much and when. I start tonight’s session with one of the more straightforward pruning tasks: Cutting the old-wood stems from the hydrangeas that bloom big and bold each summer. The bases of the plants — I have three in the perennial garden — are thick with fat green leaves emerging from the bloom buds. But rising from each plant are dozens of old-wood stems from last season, a thicket of stout, two-foot tall hollow shafts that end sharply with cuts from when I dead-headed the big blue flowers last fall.
Just the other day my son proudly showed off the scars he’d collected over the years; one a lasting scrape on his kneecap from falling off his bike, and another a puncture wound on his calf from trying to jump over a neighbor’s oversized hydrangea while playing some game of tag with with an older boy, which I’m reminded of as I snip off the dagger-like pickets of old wood.
A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor’s hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.
Tending a backyard, a garden or a compost pile is very much a paternalistic exercise. My goal to raise a yard that is sturdy, strong and resilient; one that is a product of its environment, yet individual, a unique creation that I can be proud of having nurtured along and to seasonal fruition, one that is not a danger to itself of others.
Though I prune with some impunity, to tidy things up around the edges, or remove a limb hanging over the house or power line, the backyard is shaped in its own image. It’s still thick with invasives that planted or took root long ago and that through pluck and perseverance, have become tolerated, even accepted, permanent residents of the local landscape. “It’s my nature, and I’ll do what I want,” the backyard continually reminds me, if not insists. I’ve grown to admire the scarlet show of the burning bush in autumn, and the edgy show of its angular branches in winter. The white blooms of the privet in spring are fragrant; the birds feast on their purple berries as they ripen over the winter. The yew and japonica alongside the house, likely planted by the first homeowners 50 years ago, have grown thick and massive. Each time I prune their tops and side branches that scrape against the shingles I have to take care not to disturb the two or three bird nests hidden within them.
These naturalized citizens of the backyard are especially profligate in their growth, in branching out toward the sun, in sending up suckers from the trunk, in seeding, by self and with help from birds. Regular weeding and pruning keeps them in check, and through the year I gather armful after armful of stemmy dead twigs and sweeping new branches. Hard to say what I pick up more after: My 15-year-old son or the plants, bushes and trees of the backyard.
Even the native shrubs and foreign ornamentals I prize as specimens need their growth guided by saw and shear. The rose of sharon I planted as sprigs near 10 years ago require reining in each spring, or else will flop over with the weight and drama of their late-summer blooms. Same with the fragrant lilac that grows outside the back door.
Early each spring I snip the flowering tops to capture their aromas in a vase indoors, but still it grows scraggly. A thunder shower passed earlier in the week, causing a main branch of the old lilac to droop over the limestone step of the stoop that leads to the kitchen door. I lop off the limb and trim the suckers at the base and add the lot to the brush pile I keep in the back corner of the yard, tucked under a maple tree beside the street.
Made up of all the branches and yard trimmings I drag to the curb for disposal, twice a year or so the messy sprawl grows to rival my pile in size. The tall trees that lord over the property shed bark, twigs and limbs with every storm, and after each I sweep the yard clean of the wind-blown debris. Today’s brief squall also brought down a thigh-thick stump of a branch from a maple beside the driveway. I could have sawed it down before, but left the snag aloft. It was riddled with holes made by the woodpeckers that picked at it for grubs. I drag it off to the brush pile as well.
I’ve thought keeping this refuse on site, perhaps by creating a second compost pile to serve as a starter for the next year. But backyard space is limited, as is my time to spend harvesting and recycling all the more readily compostible organic matter that my suburban yard produces each year. I could use the leafy branches whole as the bottom layer of next year’s pile, but know I’d be picking the woody stems out of my pile all through the next season, cursing as they tangle themselves in the tines of the pitchfork. I suppose I could chip the sticks and branches by purchasing or renting a shredder, though that’s a commitment and expense I’ve never been able to justify.
(I’m fascinated to learn that some English gardeners save the clippings from English yew (Taxus baccata) to donate them to companies that produce Taxol, an anti-cancer drug. “The potent medical effects of Taxol weren’t discovered in the West until the 1970s, though native American Indians had been using the bark of Pacific yews (Taxus brevifolia) for generations to treat ailments as diverse as rheumatism, scurvy, and lung and bowel complaints,” writes Sarah Raven.
Would that I could. I do whittle away at the brush pile through the fall and winter by breaking some of the the limbs and dead wood over my knee and burning them in the small firepit in the corner of the back patio. We make a special bonfire each January with the crackly remains of the Christmas tree. I add the ashes to my pile or cast them across the yard.
But when the stack of limbs gets big enough to cause me worry about it becoming an eyesore, I borrow the neighbor’s pull-behind trailer, a ramshackle contraption of plywood and rust, and haul the tangly mess off to the town yard refuse center behind my SUV. I make couple trips a year, usually one after this pruning of spring growth and another, in the fall, to tidy up the yard after a season of fulsome growth. Then there’s the occasional Nor’easter, a limb-snapping early snowfall or other weather calamity that requires a special cleanup. Nature culls as much from my backyard as I do.
The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.
But, yes, I prune. It’s a discipline, and disciplinary. After ordering my son off the trampoline in the backyard and inside to study for his final exam of the school year — which, coincidentally, involves writing an essay on Lord of the Flies, I tackle my biggest pruning project of the day, and the year: The long row of forsythia bushes that extend from each side of my driveway and along the street. (The main difference between gardening and parenting? The limbs you seek to prune don’t talk back…)
The hedgerows serve to give my yard privacy, especially in summer, when the green screen is thick enough to snag wayward frisbees and tennis balls. In winter, the hedgerow harbors flocks of sparrows, which use the bare branches as jumping off points for the nearby bird feeder. And in spring, its bare branches burst with electric-yellow flowers. But what was then a fairly uniform mass of plant has grown into a spiky riot of green shoots that angles every which way. It’s like the hair on a cartoon figure plugged into an electrical socket.
Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.
The untrammeled growth juts out into the street, blocks the street sign and thrusts upward into the lower branches of a young oak that I planted as an acorn in the wood chips on the lawn side of the hedge. I trim the forsythia with a pair of shears, selectively picking limbs to trim by hand. It requires extra effort, but I like the exercise for my hands and arms, and it keeps the hedge prim and proper in a natural, free form sort of way, not scalped roughshod by a mechanical trimmer.
I strive for a light touch to pruning, favoring a more natural, almost jungly yardscape. My backyard is no poodleized version of a topiary garden. Like my 15-year-old son, I keep most of the plantings on a long leash, and allow them to grow on the wild side, while trying to maintain some sense of order. Put another way, my backyard ideology is a mash-up of Father Knows Best and any of dimwit dad sitcoms you now see on TV. It’s a nature vs. nurture struggle for control that has played out over the centuries:
“The image of man’s dominion over nature is deeply rooted in Western thought,” I read in a paper by Eleanora Montuschi, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “Order of man, order of nature: Francis Bacon’s idea of a ‘dominion’ over nature.”
“It first appears, in different forms, in the Book of Genesis. It also reappears as one of the leading images of the emerging ‘new science’ in the 16th century…. Over the ages, Western thought has been variously concerned with the image of the ideal garden. At the same time, it has been rather eclectic in its illustration of what constitutes such an ideal. If we look, for example, at the planning and construction of gardens in the 17th and then 18th/19th centuries, we will soon and vividly appreciate these differences in conception.
“Starting from the 17th century, gardens were then designed as geometrical spaces. Plants and bushes were cut into triangular, spherical, conical, and pyramidical forms. Sometimes they were shaped as animals or human beings. In other words, nature was altered by imposing specific forms over her spontaneous ways of expression.
“Instead, in the 18th and nineteenth centuries, gardens were conceived in view of complying with nature. Nature was to be allowed to express herself in her own forms: she was at most to be ‘perfected’. An idea (or ideal) of cooperation between man and nature replaced the idea of human calculated planning and imposition of an external order on nature. Man was to improve on, not to transform, nature – that is, he was simply to respect whatever form nature might happen spontaneously to suggest.
“According to the former ideal, man is encouraged to think of himself as a conqueror of nature, as someone who succeeds in imposing an order over natural wilderness. According to the latter ideal, man appears rather as an ‘executor’ of a pre-given natural order, an order which at most needs to be brought to completion.”
That about sums up the duality of gardening and parenting: striking the balance between being a control freak to maintain order and letting things develop with a gentler guiding hand.
Nature, like a child, will always find a way to express itself, fully in “her own forms” and in keeping with the soil in which its offspring is nurtured and under the sun that shines upon them. The day I asked my son, “Do you want me to tell you what to do, or do you want me to let you make your own mistakes?” and he answered, “I’ll make my own mistakes,” was the day I realized I could no longer much “prune” him. And everything (I don’t recall what, exactly, mistake we were talking about) turned out fine.
Pruning, like raising a child, is about guiding growth in the right way, with a fair amount of culling in a never-ending pursuit for some sense of order and control. It’s also about knowing what not to cut. A plant doesn’t talk back to you when you prune it, which appeals to the parent-gardener in us all. An ill-treated plant will let you know when you’ve done it wrong. I still miss the thriving butterfly bush that I incautiously pruned at the wrong time of year; the next season it sprouted just a few meager branches, and this year refused to come back at all. Sometimes Father doesn’t know best. Earlier this spring I dug out the stump and added it to the brush pile.
Pruning, and parenting, is about letting go, and recognizing that not everything will fit into a neat package, or my pile. The truth is messy, a writing professor once told me, as is raising a child or tending a garden. The tangled stack of brush I leave at the side of the curb is ample evidence of that.
But both child and garden tend to work out as long as you keep serious problems from taking root, prune when necessary to help guide growth, ensure sufficient food and water — and always add as much compost as you can.