How to Prune and Train Plants to Create Striking Winter Sculptures

The garden in winter, stripped of its finery and laid bare to the world, can be an austere place. But there is a beauty to it. Whether it’s the silvery seed heads of the summer flowers, the web-like sprigs left over from the pumpkin plant, or the recently cut hedge, what’s left in the winter says a lot about the bones of a garden. And a garden that sings through the darker months is a real balm for the winter blues.

There are many plants that glow in winter and entire books on the subject. However, the best gardens are not only based on winter flowers and berries, but also on the structure of the plants. This is often achieved by pruning and training to create a layer of shrubs or trees that shapes the garden. The obvious choice here is boxwood and yew. The cool, clean lines of boxwood balls and low hedges, the whimsy of peacock topiary or the dark, austere background of a yew hedge around a border are all classics for a reason.

There is another kind of winter pruning, that of shrubs and deciduous trees. Gardener Jenny Barnes, whose work can be seen at places like Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens in Northamptonshire and Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire, is known for her extraordinary work that takes rose pruning to a whole new level. .

His keen eye and incredible patience allow him to bend hikers and climbers into puffy organic shapes that coil and arch like snakes or curve around walls in rococo shapes. Sometimes she takes several roses together to form giant orbs on the border.

The results are quite something, not just because of the dedication, but because they are fleeting; to be enjoyed in winter before the summer leaves give them a shaggy hairstyle. There are other benefits to all this manipulation: each time the stem is bent, it pushes the hormones from the underside of the stem upwards, resulting in more flowers.

Jenny Barnes' painstaking work with roses creates giant orbs at Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens

Jenny Barnes’ painstaking work with roses creates giant orbs at Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens

This painstaking work — each rod must be tied multiple times to manipulate the shape — “isn’t for everyone,” Barnes says. “It takes a lot of patience: it hurts, it’s cold and it takes forever, but I believe anyone can do it.” She has a few tips for those willing to try: don’t overcrowd the plants. “If you double up, the bottom layer will be shaded in the summer and die,” she says.

Climbing roses are preferred “because they offer the best flexibility and lots of whipped growth, so there’s a lot to work with,” she says. “Climbers can work but you’re more limited, especially if they’re the David Austin type with really thick uppers.” Soft new growth is best, so it may be a good idea to prune an older hiker hard for the first year to maximize new growth.

“If you’re terrified of pruning, you really don’t have to be, you can’t kill a rose by pruning it,” she says. If it doesn’t do well one year, just be more frugal the next.

Barnes begins the process by removing any remaining leaves on the rose so she can see the entire structure. Then she cuts off all the stems the size of a knitting needle or less to two buds. Then start detangling. “You have to be guided by the roses,” she says. “Each stem will tell you which direction it wants to go.” Keep plenty of space between each stem, Barnes says, and cut off any side shoots: “You end up with something very tight and smooth, but still sculptural.”

Roses may require patience, but the final result can be achieved in a day or two. Pruning fruit trees to the same artistic heights takes much longer, a decade or so, but it’s worth it for something that can accentuate the bare bones of winter, while alluding to the bucolic nature of summer with all those big buds, says Sylvia Travers. “It’s like giving a garden some really nice cheekbones,” she jokes.

Travers oversaw the construction and planting of the Paradise Walled Gardens and Kitchen at RHS Bridgewater, Salford, which has plenty of walls to cover with fruit.

“It’s still a bit of a dark art,” she says. “A lot of people are getting into growing vegetables, but how the trees are formed remains a mystery to many.” Travers, who is a tutor at West Dean College in West Sussex, wants to change that. “There’s a tremendous amount of skill, but also satisfaction that goes into this kind of pruning.”

Travers is adamant that you can’t buy the end product and it has to be created in the garden. Fruit trees can be trained against walls, fences and trellises in “fans”, where the branches fan out from a low trunk; “in espaliers”, where the branches are horizontal; and “cordons”, where the branches are cut very close to a tall, straight trunk.

Boxwood balls and low hedges structure a garden

Boxwood balls and low hedges add structure to a garden © Del Buono Gazerwitz Landscape Architecture/Marianne Majerus Images

There is also the simplest “crossover”, which Travers suggests starting with – a short trunk no more than 50 cm high with a single long horizontal branch on each side, so that it forms a low fence. It is excellent for small gardens and will bear fruit within two or three years of forming as a maiden.

She also recommends a “Belgian fence”, where a trellis of intertwining trees creates a diagonal trellis – “actually quite simple to achieve, but this is hidden by its seemingly complex appearance”, she says.

If you want to be considered a serious gardener, then Travers says you should opt for a “statuesque” espalier: “the classic for a walled garden”. But don’t overlook the simpler fan shape, which is best suited to stone fruits that “don’t span well.”

This form also works for soft fruits. “If you have a low wall that you can’t do much with, especially if it faces north, you can try gooseberries,” says Travers. However, the one she likes the most – she says it’s not for the faint-hearted – uses the French Lepage system where the end result is a tree line that looks like a wave or shell pattern.

Books can teach you a lot, but this type of pruning is really best learned from a master. Travers teaches day courses in the basics of fruit growing and training at West Dean College. Classes start in early January – a perfect New Year’s resolution, perhaps, to learn the art of a cut shape.

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