How to prune and train plants to create striking winter sculptures

How to prune and train plants to create striking winter sculptures

The garden in winter, stripped of its splendor and exposed to the world, can be a bare place. But there is a beauty in that. Whether silver-plated seeds from summer flowers, the net-like remains of the pumpkin plant or the freshly cut hedge, what is left over in winter says a lot about the bones of a garden. And a garden singing in the dark months is quite a balm for the winter blues.

There are many plants that glow in winter and entire books on the subject. However, the best gardens depend not only on winter blooms and berries, but also on the structure of the plants. This is often accomplished through pruning and training to create a shrub or tree layer that shapes the garden. The obvious choice here is box and yew. The cool, clean lines of boxballs and low hedges, the whimsical peacock topiary, or the austere, dark backdrop of a yew hedge around a border are all classics for a reason.

There is another type of winter pruning – that of deciduous shrubs and trees. Gardener Jenny Barnes, whose work can be seen at Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens in Northamptonshire and Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire, among others, is known for her exceptional work that takes rose pruning to a whole new level.

Her careful eye and incredible patience enable her to bend hikers and climbers into undulating organic forms that coil and arch like snakes or twine around walls in rococo forms. Sometimes she takes several roses together to weave them into huge balls in the border.

The results are remarkable, not just because of the devotion, but because they are fleeting; to enjoy over the winter before the summer leaves give them a shaggy hairstyle. All these manipulations have other advantages: every time the stem is bent, hormones are pushed up from the bottom of the stem, resulting in more flowers.

Jenny Barnes' meticulous work with roses creates giant spheres at Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens

Jenny Barnes’ meticulous work with roses creates giant spheres at Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens

This tedious work — requiring each stem to be tied multiple times to manipulate the shape — “isn’t for everyone,” says Barnes. “It takes a lot of patience: it hurts, it’s cold and it takes forever, but I believe anyone can do it.” She has a few tricks for those willing to try: Don’t overload the plants . “As you double, the bottom layer gets shaded in the summer and dies off,” she says.

Rambling roses are preferred “because they offer the best flexibility and lots of lashing growth so there’s a lot to work with,” she says. “Climbers can work, but you’re more limited, especially if it’s the David Austin variety with very thick stems.” Soft new growth is best, so it may make sense to prune an older Rambler hard in the first year to keep it growing to maximize new growth.

“If you’re afraid of pruning, you really don’t have to be, you can’t kill a rose by pruning it,” she says. If things don’t go well one year, just be more frugal next year.

Barnes begins the process by removing any leaves that remain on the rose so she can see the full structure. Next, she prunes back to two buds any stems that are the size of a knitting needle or less. Then start untangling. “You have to let the roses guide you,” she says. “Each trunk will tell you which direction it wants to go.” Leave plenty of space between each trunk, Barnes says, and snip off any side shoots: “You end up with something very taut and smooth, but still sculptural.”

Roses can require patience, but the end result can be achieved in a day or two. Pruning fruit trees to reach the same artistic heights takes a lot longer, around a decade, but it’s worth it for something that can accentuate winter’s bare bones while still hitting the bucolic nature with all those fat buds of summer indicates. says Sylvia Travers. “It’s like giving a garden really good cheekbones,” she jokes.

Travers oversaw the building and planting of the Paradise and Kitchen Walled Gardens at RHS Bridgewater in Salford, where many of the walls need to be covered with fruit.

“It’s still a bit of a dark art,” she says. “Many people dabble in growing vegetables, but growing trees is still a mystery to many.” Travers, who is a tutor at West Dean College in West Sussex, wants to change that. “There’s a tremendous amount of skill, but also satisfaction, in this type of pruning.”

Travers insists that the end product cannot be bought and must be created in the garden. Fruit trees can be “fanned” against walls, fences and trellises, where branches fan out from a low trunk; “trellises” where the branches are horizontal; and “cordons,” in which branches are cut off very close to a tall, straight trunk.

Box balls and low hedges add structure to a garden

Box spheres and low hedges structure a garden © Del Buono Gazerwitz Landscape Architecture/Marianne Majerus Images

There’s also the simpler ‘crotch’ that Travers suggests to start with – a short trunk no more than 50cm tall with a single long horizontal branch on each side so that it forms a low fence. She is excellent for smaller gardens and will bear fruit within two or three years of training as a damsel.

She also recommends a “Belgian fence” where a trellis of intertwined trees forms a diagonal trellis — “actually quite easy to achieve, but this is belied by its seemingly complex appearance,” she says.

However, if you want to be considered a serious gardener, then, according to Travers, you need to opt for a “statuary” trellis: “the classic walled garden.” But don’t forget the simpler fan shape, which works best for stone fruit that “doesn’t trellis well”.

This shape also works for berries. “If you have a low wall that you can’t do much with, especially if it faces north, you can try gooseberries,” says Travers. The one she loves the most — she says it’s not for the faint of heart — uses the French Lepage system, where the end result is a tree line that looks like a wave or shell pattern.

Books can teach you a lot, but this type of pruning is really best learned from a master. Travers teaches day courses in fruit growing fundamentals and education at West Dean College. Classes start in early January – perhaps a perfect New Year’s resolution to learn the art of the cropped shape.

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