Pruning shrubs, trees and perennials in the Autumn

Guna RukšāneJaunrūjas Farm in Raiskums parish 

I will not start by listing all the work that needs to be done, but rather by praising the shrubby cinquefoil and hydrangeas – are there any other plants that flower from the middle of the summer until the frost? The flowers on a hydrangea bush go through a broad colour progression – from white to pink, then dark pink and finally brown. The wilted bouquets can also be left alone and look quite pleasing in the winter. While it is not necessary to prune a hydrangea (wild deer will do it for me!), then pruning a shrubby cinquefoil can even be very beneficial as doing so will make it bloom more abundantly the following year, especially considering these shrubs bloom during a time when not so many others do.

When the weather is clement, just pick up a pair of gardening scissors and get to work. An arborist once said, “You can’t cut off too much, only too little.” There are sayings that deserve to be put up on a wall. Another: “You can never plant a rose too deep, only too shallow.” (The site of the graft should be at least 5cm below the ground). A third is, “You cannot plant a tree too shallow, only too deep.”

But to get back to pruning – shrubs will grow more abundant crowns if you cut the crown down quite low. Many shrubs would grow disproportionately high and become increasingly sparse at the bottom if left alone. I still remember what I was told as a child about trimmed hair growing out thicker. I’m not an expert on hair, but you can, and should prune older and overgrown lilac, jasmine and other bushes if they only have inflorescences at the top. You can even be quite drastic and leave trunks only half a meter tall – you are guaranteed to have new shoots form a beautiful thick shrub after a couple of years, as long as you can endure the bare period. It is also easiest to contain mountain pines’ height by breaking off new shoots. This should, however, be done in early summer. Dogwood is so full of life! One year I had somehow missed pruning it in the autumn, and in the spring, when I saw how many branches had frozen, I cut it mercilessly and formed a round crown. Lo and behold, slowly and reluctantly, it gradually began to sprout shoots and by the middle of summer it had grown into a beautiful thick shrub. You also need to trim conifers if you don’t want them to grow into a dense forest. Some experts even thin out magnolias to make the beautiful flowers stand out better when they bloom. This is not pruning, however, but thinning.

NB! There are shrubs that can be pruned only after they are done flowering (spirea, forsythia), because they grow flower buds on one year old wood.

The first frost is just a signal to take care of your dahlias, gladioli and sensitive potted plants, which either have to be dug up, or brought inside for the winter – the real frost will still come. Perennials, like peonies, phlox, astilbes, also need to be pruned. Last autumn I left the leaves on my daylilies and Siberian irises wanting to see what would happen, because no one cuts their leaves for them in the wild. While the brown leaves were by no means pretty to look at in the spring, the young shoots vigorously sprouted through the tangle of leaves and bloomed as brightly as always. Perfectionists would find this completely unacceptable, but you could leave some unpruned perennials to grow untouched in a remote corner.

When all your plants have been neatly pruned there is nothing left to do but to start the covering process. Use what you have, whether leaves or peat, because in the same way that a person prone to be cold dresses warmer in cold weather, so a plant does not want to shiver in the frost. You can heap a lot onto roses, but it is not recommended to cover them before there is a proper frost (-10˚C), not even with spruce branches so that they don’t wither. Nowadays it is impossible to know whether it might not still be warm until Christmas. A few centimetres of mulch is sufficient for perennials, because they are perennials after all. No matter how much you might want to leave new trees uncovered, you have to take care of them until they grow to 2m. Catalpas, tulip trees and trees with stem grafts are especially vulnerable, and you will need to provide appropriate wintering conditions for them – you don’t have to cover them yet, but you can start assembling the materials.

Artistically inclined gardeners can shape their thujas into round balls, pyramids and even cubes, but others who love a more natural approach can merely trim the ends of the branches a little to create volume. Driving on the highway, Jānis and I noticed several round pines growing on the driveway up to Rasas. When we inquired whether it might be a new variety, we received the answer that they had been shaped by the owner Ēvalds Kaļva so as not to disrupt the linden trees growing nearby. Although the goal was quite pragmatic, the result was wonderful. It shows that you can trim, if not all tree varieties, then at least the common pine.

When the leaves stop falling they gradually have to be collected – the first go on the compost heap, and the last go on those flower beds that need to be covered. It was news to me that they can be used in the vegetable garden, because around here in Raiskums, they are usually still burned. It is rather windy at the moment, but they can be applied to the garden in the mornings as long as the leaves are damp – in this way they will act as a fertiliser and you won’t poison your surroundings with toxic smoke.

Finally, the only two flowers still in bloom are the autumn-flowering crocus and colchium. It seems that we have not yet realised that there is such a thing as autumn crocus and usually only talk about asters and colchium in the autumn – but blue or white crocus flowers can be such a joy! Although crocuses only open their flowers in the sun, which although rarely still happens in the autumn, they do, however, flower much longer than in the spring, when crocus flowers sometimes only last for three or four hot days.