DEFINED FORMS AND PLAYS ON VOLUME CREATE LANDSCAPES WITH DEPTH AND TEXTURE
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Even though this summer has been particularly slug-infested, rain-drenched and deer-ravaged, the looming end of the season always comes as a shock. The best part of the end, though, is that it puts us right back at the beginning. The ever-hopeful gardening cycle thrives on renewal. I always consider autumn the instigation of spring because there will be nothing to look forward to then if you don't think and act now. Fall is the perfect time to reshape your garden. That can mean anything from carving new paths to bringing in fresh light by climbing up trees and turning an ordinary, if not dismal, woodsy-looking shrub into a thing that at least approaches beauty.
With the exception of the fabulous autumn bloomers—beautyberry, vitex and lespedeza, to name a few of the best—there is no better time to invigorate your garden with creative pruning. Not pruning to get rid of dead, weighty or crooked branches, nor is it the sort of pruning you do to invigorate growth, but pruning to individualize and revamp your garden.
The most obvious of the ornamental pruning techniques is, of course, topiary—the Edward Scissorhands-y, often elaborate technique by which trees and shrubs are clipped into statues or form mazes and patterns. An art unto itself, topiary is rooted in and identified with the English and sits high among their gardening obsessions.
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I find myself much more enchanted by (and capable of) Niwaki—the Japanese technique of sculpting garden trees. Both require nimbleness, perseverance, dexterity and, most of all, patience. But while topiary is a design style that is imposed upon overgrown (purposefully) trees and shrubs and usually takes the form of globes, domes, obelisks or—most delightfully—animals, Niwaki is about making the best of what you've got without necessarily being an artist or having the patience of a saint. It has everything to do with coaxing from the tree its natural and essential characteristics and emphasizing them.
Creating the "floating cloud" look is an especially popular Japanese practice that can be achieved by merely eradicating all the interior leaves and eliminating branches until the tree's structure begins to make a picture and the foliage takes shape at the end of the branches. While topiary is more or less confined to boxwood, privet and yew (dense evergreens that produce small leaves and needles), the coaxing of hidden beauty out of a scraggly hemlock by giving it a haircut or turning a drippy weeping cherry or birch into a Giverny-like umbrella are relatively easy tasks accomplished by the persistent evening-up of the down-drooping irregular branch tips into a sort of "Dutch Boy." Plants as dissimilar as azalea and bamboo happily take to being flattened, orbed and tiered—oaks, pines and willows, too. There are some garden classics that respond giddily to plucky pruning and make great tree forms like the now-blooming hibiscus syriacus or 'Rose of Sharon.' Clipping off all the lower branches and thinning out the uppers can turn a boring, inelegant shrub often into an impressive small tree. This is the easiest mode of decorative pruning and it's called, aptly, "standardizing."
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Specific-crazy and detail-mad, the Japanese have a whole host of implements, such as special tripod ladders, and a huge array of special knives, saws and scissors. But you really only need a Felco, a good clipper, time (it can be extremely relaxing and a great project) and a jog of your own imagination. Long gloves (often called rose gloves) are essential for reaching deep into the main trunks of well-established trees and working your way out.
Whether it's deer-ravaging that needs to be camouflaged, some tired old trees to rejuvenate or an overgrown herb garden (especially rosemary and thyme) to re-imagine, don't be afraid. Most anything you cut off grows back, anyway, and those missing branches will suddenly become such an enhancement that you will begin to see your whole garden differently. Whether you think of it as pruning or living sculpture—happy autumn snipping.