Driving along Tuggeranong Parkway today, past the arboretum, I was marvelling at the rows of trees which, no matter where you stand (or sit if you are driving as I was), are in tight formation, marching like soldiers into the distance (a timely comparison on this ANZAC day) Beautiful order is something I do love. I like to line my plants up in the nursery, like with like, sorted and counted. I used to work in a retail nursery and lining up the plants was always my favourite job after choosing which ones to order. The plants arrival was like Christmas, the gifts came weekly rather than yearly and each week I could unpack and line them up on the shelves. Customers would come like naughty friends to play with my toys but at the end of the day I would get to line them up again. And when I go to market I like to line up my plants then too. I like them to present themselves in an orderly fashion, like good children dressed tidily looking ready for adoption.
Yesterday I was pruning a client’s Westringia bushes into neat ball shapes, that was the brief, and so that’s what I did. Now I do love the look of plants pruned that way but I must admit that as I was pruning them I had to apologise to them for causing them grief. For pruning plants, even the hardiest of natives, into tight balls or hedges, those formal, in control sorts of shapes, is dreadfully hard on them. Conditions around their roots need to be really ideal for them to do well with this sort of treatment and conditions on top not too harsh either especially immediately after pruning.
A formal garden can certainly pander to one’s neat freakishness and control desires and the symmetry and predictability can be soothing to the eye and heart (as long as one doesn’t have to do the pruning…………..though perhaps my eye and heart were soothed but it was my shoulders which were not). However have one mature plant decide to turn up its toes for whatever reason (the horse leaned over the fence and chewed it, or the dogs decided that was the plant to wee on) in that sort of symmetry and it would be enough to turn one pale. One might have to wait years to have that neat row restored to its former glory. Hedging of any plant causes a mass of new growth on the outside of the plant (pruning stimulates growth) and shades the inside branches excessively and the die back is evident through the middle of the plant. I know they say that natives last longer if they are pruned regularly, and that is true, but that does not have to mean hedging type pruning. Selective pruning to maintain a natural looking plant leaves the plant with far more strength to face the day, hot or cold than one that has a tight shell of leaves only on the outside.
Interestingly, although I love my plants to line up and pay attention at the nursery, in the garden I have no such desire. I toyed briefly with the idea of a formal garden when I moved to my current property but I'm glad I resisted. Although my shoulders get a full work out in other people’s gardens, in my own garden they do not have to stand to attention because, more than any desire I might have for control in my life, I love to see my plants flourish just the way they were designed to.