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Pruning native plants for design

By Chris Larkin, Melbourne

Pruning native plants for design is valuable for both practical and aesthetic reasons. It’s an opportunity to be creative!

Pruning for practicality vs aesthetics

Pruning is an area of gardening where practical concerns butt up against design considerations.  For instance, cutting ground-covering plants back from a path requires deciding between the practical and the aesthetic. 

You may see a need to cut back the plants for safety reasons. But in tandem with this is how you want this path to look.  The question here is – does this path need to have clearly defined edges, or can those ground-covering plants be allowed to spill over onto the path?  The answer to this question is all about design.  Sharp edges fit with a formal design or lawn edge. Allowing plants to spill onto a path suggests a naturalistic look. This is what pruning for design is all about.

Pruning affects appearance and health

Choices you make when pruning affect the look of a plant – its shape or its design.  When you prune and how you prune will have effects on the health and appearance of a plant. It may also limit what can be achieved in the future with the plant’s appearance. 

an old native plant that needs pruning or removal for design purposes

In my garden there are good and bad examples of the ‘when’ and ‘how’ coming together to affect the future design possibilities of a plant.

If you want to topiary a plant into a rounded shape, start early and keep up the practice of regular pruning. You will soon realise that the plant is most likely going to have good growth tips and a dead centre. 

I have now learned this lesson well. I have kept the very many Westringia rigida ‘Milky Way’ plants in different parts of the garden small. I’ve removed a few large specimens so I do know they can grow very big given the right conditions. 

Before I learned to topiary regularly starting on young plants, I let a Westringia fruiticosa variegated just grow and grow. It was in a place that is difficult to access behind a rock, behind a pond, on a strong slope.

Now I need to remove this plant due to age and lack of sustained maintenance.  Unfortunately it is in a key position where I see it as I look out my living space windows.  Many years ago I planted a cascading Kunzea ambigua behind it. I can only hope this helps to disguise the fact there is a plant missing.

Action on this will be taken either this year or next but this plant’s days are numbered. A decision about pruning native plants for design.

Pruning for lateral appearance

An option to consider is looking laterally at a plant. Consider whether the plant could be trunked rather than removed.  Once again I have had success with doing this. However I wonder what the limits of this idea are when I look at a Kunzea ambigua dwarf.  It may be time to remove this plant given too much exposed spindly branches in proportion to the mop-top. 

And then there is the size of the space the plant is growing in to consider.  Has it outgrown the space? 

For years I liked my creative solution to dealing with the size of this plant. I liked what had been achieved by exposing the branches of the plant. But time moves on and garden plants do not stand still.  Remove or not to remove the plant is another design decision because the plant is perfectly healthy.

a native plant that has been laterally pruned for design

Options exist to prune internally, not just externally

Many years ago, Elspeth Jacobs spoke to our group on the topic of pruning. And she brought in a largish pot plant to demonstrate what she was talking about. 

I learned so much from this talk and practical lesson.  It gave me the reasons and confidence to do more than cut back a plant, i.e. working on the outside of the plant only.  I learned how to prune internally to correct the structure. This allows light and air into the centre of many of the plants we grow.  Allowing light and better airflow is all about the health of a plant. Correcting its structure if branches are rubbing against each other is also about this. 

In addition, correcting the structure improves the appearance of the plant and makes it more pleasing to the eye.

Pruning is a creative exercise

I see pruning as not just a maintenance job but as a creative exercise. Deciding what I’m trying to achieve with a plant are as important as understandings how to preserve its health and longevity. Pruning native plants is a design decision.

There are limits of course in most instances in what can be achieved. 

Limits to pruning are the age of the plant, changing growing conditions as a garden matures and how well the plant responds to pruning. 

Long gone are the days of the false mantra, ‘Native plant gardens are low maintenance’.  Pruning is by far my biggest job. And unfortunately the more regularly you prune the more you need to prune as you unlock the plant’s growth response. 

On the other hand pruning will reward you with a healthier better looking garden. This is evidence of your care and plant design aesthetic.

For more articles on pruning for design, see here.