Humane Massacre – pruning Philadelphus

In addition to the pewter teapot and his broken watch, my Great Uncle Hamish left me a piece of useful advice. “Son,” he said on his deathbed (it was a very Victorian scene in a draughty castle complete with weeping servants..) “always prune your shrubs from the bottom up.” (*Note)

He expired before he could say more, but I later found a note in the teapot which said “P.S. Take out whole branches, and lots of them. Nothing worse than a haircut” Uncle Hamish was not an admirer of municipal-style light pruning.He’d have had trouble with this Philadelphus though.

There’s no real need to prune  Philadelphus at all, unless it starts looking constipated and producing less than the normal amount of flowers. But this one is surrounded by smaller plants, and will smother them if unrestrained. Also, it took a bit of a hit from last winter’s snow, and some heavy cutting back will restore its shape and stimulate new growth, at least that’s the theory, and it usually works.

Young Philadelphus shoots are usually a distinctive red colour – a helpful guide to what to avoid cutting. But they are also fragile. So pulling out large branches from the middle is not a good idea.

So, despite Uncle Hamish, I have to work from the top down and the outside in, removing the old wood gradually in small pieces until I get as close to the base as possible. Who knows, I might even manage to reach the fern, the hawthorne seedling and the young ash tree that have taken up residence in the interior.

All the snow-battered old wood on the right is for the chop. Philadelphus flowers best on second year wood, and it won’t miss the older stuff.

.At this point I have thinned out much of the old wood in the centre of the shrub and cut back in from the sides. At last I can get into the centre with pruning loppers and cut the stub ends of the thick stems.

Meanwhile, the heap of cut branches grows. Not long ago I wouldn’t have dared take this much out in one go. Now, I’m much more reckless. Uncle Hamish would approve.The final result. The bush is about half the size it was. It looks a bit bare, but the new growth will get much more light and air.

(For the next step, a year later, see this post)

Note*: Uncle Hamish was not hinting at an illicit relationship: ‘Son’ is a universal form of address in Scotland for any male under 50, except in Glasgow, where ‘Jimmy’ is used instead. Top

Update 22/06/12

As I hoped, the hard pruning has done the philadelphus no harm at all. Last year’s young growth has produced a healthy crop of buds – and new growth is breaking from the old wood I cut back.  I may do a little more tidying once it has finished flowering, but probably there won’t be any need

12 thoughts on “Humane Massacre – pruning Philadelphus

  1. Dear Kininvie,
    Starting today I am noting a variety of possible words for my deathbed scene. It’s my hope that I have a little time to get it right and to memorize the winning phrase. (As far as I know I’m not dying of anything yet but I don’t drive all that well.)

    I did appreciate very much your Uncle H’s incisive remarks, very important, useful, memorable… I have a friend who plans on “I told you I was sick,” and then there is the one attributed to Oscar Wilde, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”

    This project will keep me busy for a while so if my garden goes to ruin it’s your fault.

    • Dear Linnie,
      I am concerned about your driving. How can you achieve a suitable deathbed scene if you are in an auto wreck? (is that the right US term?). Perhaps you should pre-record your final words, just in case.

  2. Oh Kininvie, I don’t worry excessively about the driving-death idea.
    After all there has only been one time when I actually rolled a vehicle onto its top.

  3. Hi, it took me awhile to download your post, then i realized it could really be very difficult also to garden in your area with those growth. If i am in that area i might just let them be, and just grow little ones in containers.

  4. What a fabulously funny deathbed scene description. I could see you would delight me with your plants and knowledge but now I find you will have me laughing as well, I’ve signed up to get your posts by email so I don’t miss a single thing.

    Your Uncle Hamish would have approved of my extreme makeover of my Mother’s shrubs recently. She asked if I’d prune the neglected ones, knowing full well I prescribe to his view, then looked out of the kitchen window in horror at the huge piles destined for the compost heap in the field. We have this scene every year where she acts like I’ve ruined her garden, but when things grow back better than ever and flower wonderfully she forgets that I had any hand in it. Ah well.

  5. Hi – Firstly, Thanks for the tips on making my soil less fertile. Secondly, I’m glad you showed your woody philedelphus because I have inherited bushes like that, the worst cases are hebe and winter primrose which have dead-looking branches which grow leaves and flowers at the ends. I regularly give them a light pruning (mainly to impress the neighbours). I don’t see any young growth at their bases. Before I start taking out whole branches …. please could you elaborate on Uncle Hamish’s gardening credentials ?

    • Uncle Hamish was an excellent gardener of the ‘robust’ school (He had to be robust to put up with the icy gales that howl round Castle Tavish). He went by the principle of survival of the fittest – if it was good enough for Darwin, it was good enough for him….

      There’s an easy way to test his methods without doing too much damage: Depending on the size of your shrubs, cut out only one or two of the oldest stems – leaving a couple of inches – or at least a bud node or two if they are visible. If they produce good strong shoots from the remaining hard wood next Spring, then you will be OK to go ahead with the remainder. If not, confine yourself to cutting out the weakest spindly stuff thereafter….
      Most Hebes are pretty tough customers and should respond well. I can’t speak for your winter primrose – ‘cos I’m not sure what it is. Do you have a Latin name?

        • Ah, I always puzzle about what to do with winter jasmine. I assume you have it growing on a wall? Sure it will come away from the bottom if you cut it back – but you may not want that, as you will have to tie in the new growth if it’s not going to flop. Also, if you cut it too hard now, you won’t have many flowers this winter. I have mine on a wall and tend to treat it like a hedge – i.e. go over it with shears just after it has finished flowering. But it’s gradually going back and I think I’ll have to do something radical in the spring. I’ll let you know….

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