Tag Archives: pruning

When Less is More

December 5th, 2016 | 25 Comments »

Is less more? I associate the familiar phrase with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the founders of modern architecture and a proponent of simplicity of style. But when I went to confirm this, I found to my surprise that the phrase was first used in print in Andrea del Sarto, a poem by Robert Browning.

Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

Regardless of its origin, the phrase is well worth remembering — and well worth applying in the garden. Pruning, dividing, getting rid of whatever is too much — doing this can improve a garden enormously.

So we’ve been working to make less of the garden at Glen Villa these last few months. Not by shrinking the size but by removing the excess. A section along a path through the woods, for instance, has gone from this…


We cleaned up this section in the woods for the first time about ten years ago. I'm amazed at how quickly things grew back.
We cleaned up this section in the woods for the first time about ten years ago. I’m amazed at how quickly things grew back.


to this.


Amazing what happens when you clear out the brush.
Amazing what you can see when you clear out the brush.


The view on a grey day is not as appealing, perhaps, as a picture from earlier in the season, but the site will be better nonetheless for the severe hair-cut we’ve given it. Why? Because the growth that originally protected the seedling evergreens we planted was threatening to overwhelm them.

Over several days last month, the area was trimmed down and the brush chipped up, exposing those rapidly growing trees to full view.


Beside the chipped path the pines have room to grow.
This view looks in the opposite direction from the two photos above. The piles of chips are now spread on the path, leaving room for the trees to grow.


Next year we will do the fine-tuning to make this area more attractive, but in the meantime, we left that area to do a quicker clean-up closer to home.

This particular clean-up shows how easy it is to become accustomed to things as they are.  A friend walking around the garden in late October suggested that the view of the waterfall could easily be improved by removing a single tree.


Tall trees block the view of the waterfall.
Our visitor pointed out, quite rightly, that trees were blocking what should be a view of the waterfall.


Taking down one tree improved the situation but still left the waterfall hidden.


Notice the rock on the left side of the photo, now visible.
Notice the rock at the foot of the cedars on the left side of the photo. Taking down the first tree exposed it to view. Removing dead branches on the other side of the stream opened the view even more.


Taking down two more trees completed the job. The enormous boulder that gives the waterfall so much of its character is now clearly visible. (So thank you for the suggestion, Jordan!)


The improvement is striking — particularly now that the waterfall is operating again as it should.


Our final clean-up job is almost complete, and what a difference it has made! Some 15 years ago, we planted a group of hawthorn trees by the entry to Glen Villa. Over time, their canopy had become thicker and thicker. And anyone who is familiar with hawthorns knows how daunting their thorns can be. So while pruning was clearly necessary, we always put off doing the work.

In 2011, the trees looked like this.


Spring growth is just beginning to show on these trees.
I took this photo to remind myself that the trees needed to be pruned. And that was five years ago.


The trees in full leaf looked as bad as the leafless ones, possibly worse. Their canopies were so crowded that the shape of the tree was totally hidden.


This is a cropped version of a photo I took to show the cleaned-up area under the spruce trees on the left.
This is the best photo I could find of the trees in leaf, and it is a cropped version of a photo I took to show the cleaned-up area under the spruce trees on the left. Obviously I didn’t want to photograph something I found unappealing.


Now the hawthorns look thinner.


A grey day makes the spirits droop.
A grey day can make the spirits droop and make me wonder if pruning these trees now was the right thing to do. But if not now, when? On a sunnier day, or in a different season, the job would be put off again. Or so I suspect.


One tree remains to be pruned, and that will take place this week, all going well.


Unwanted branches hide the shape of the tree. Removing them makes the form stand out more clearly.
I think it is easy to tell which tree still needs to be pruned. Do you agree?


Have we taken out enough? too much? Next year will tell the tale. But the size of the piles says that we need to prune these trees more often.


This is only one of four piles of brush.
This is only one of four piles of brush.


The shape of the tree that is revealed once the pruning is done makes the job worthwhile.


The shape of the trunk becomes clearer once unwanted branches are removed.
I think a more shapely tree looks better. I also think we may need to prune almost as much again next year. I hope I’m wrong.


If cleaning up cupboards and drawers gives a certain satisfaction, then cleaning up trees and woods gives even more. The trick is knowing when to stop. Because once you start looking, areas just waiting to be thinned out appear as if by magic. My friend John Hay spotted this one last weekend, and cleaning up here is the next job on the list.


Clearing the undergrowth and selectively removing scrubby trees should reveal a stunning rock formation. Thank you, John!
Clearing the undergrowth and selectively removing scrubby trees should reveal a stunning rock formation. Thank you, John!


As satisfying as a good clean-up can be, though, less is not always more. Sometimes it is simply less.


No prizes for guessing who pruned this hosta.
No prizes for guessing who pruned this hosta.


Are you in the midst of a clean-up, indoors or out?

Pruning: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

September 22nd, 2014 | 3 Comments »
Pruning shrubs has always been one of my favourite garden occupations. It's satisfying to clear away the dead wood (literally) -- and when the work is done, you can see what is there. It's a practical activity as well an aesthetic one. My aim may be to shape a shrub so that it looks its very best, but in the process I am improving the health of the shrub, giving it room to breathe and light to live by. As an activity, pruning is more rewarding than weeding -- it's


Less is More… more or less.

August 18th, 2014 | 5 Comments »
A few weeks ago I wrote about The Big Rock and my plan to simplify the plantings around it, using a  lesson I learned from touring gardens in Italy. We haven't tackled that project yet. But we have tackled another area, applying the same principles of simplicity and balance to great effect.Beside the drive coming into the house is a large stand of spruce, planted there some 50 years ago. They are tall regal trees that mark a transition from open farm field to forested hillside. Until last week, they were