Ancient techniques, modern applications
suitable plants Rose, creeping fig, hibiscus and gardenia are good candidates for espaliering.
The very techniques that make it all happen are the humble cutting and pruning. Most gardeners are aware of the importance of these to bring fresh growth in roses, or manage that arch of woody vines or thin the dense tree branches to open up the canopy to bring in more light, or increase the size of fruit or flower etc.
Based on the science of food remobilisation to stimulate growth within the plant structure, these very fundamental techniques have been utilised for centuries in agroforestry as well as advanced management of vines, trees and bushes in European gardens. Espaliering, pleaching, pollarding, coppicing and shredding are various practices which manage the trees and vines to successfully serve the desired purpose, and yet look beautiful.
In urban context, the knowledge and scope of cutting and pruning holds a renewed significance due to ever-increasing space constraints. With shrinking open spaces, and growing privacy requirements, it is useful to know how to keep the shrubs and trees thriving by suitable management of growth habits. Not only thriving, but also solving problems by providing green screens that oxygenate and work as noise barriers too.
In advanced forms, these go beyond problem solving to creating living art or living structures. With shift towards container gardens, it’s relevant to know that it’s a viable option to grow shrubs or trees right in the container. The knowledge allows the gardener to expand the plant choices beyond the smaller species. Its simply a matter of a bit of science, some patience, and a purposeful vision.
One of the very fruitful structures are the espaliers. These are decorative and functional patterns suitable for fruit and flower-bearing woody trees, where, instead of canopies, all growth happens flat, along a sunny wall or a support frame. Various patterns such as candelabras, fans, cordons, Y etc are possible. It’s a blessing for an urban gardener who has just a narrow stretch.
A primary central stem is trained vertically and the side branches are strategically trained to follow the desired patterns. The strategic pruning allows new and sturdy branches at desired locations. Espaliers form elegant screens or a very fruitful wall adornment. Lemon, grapes, figs, purple wreath, rose, wild almond, bougainvillea, hibiscus, jasmine, gardenia, creeping fig and apples are good candidates.
For the next level of adventure, go for three dimensional structures by pleaching. This is the method to create living shapes with several species of plants. Regular pruning encourages the pliable side growth that is woven together in the desired shape to create a living mesh. Over time, the woven branches fuse together to make a dense mesh of branches that bear leaves, flowers etc. Living walls, living ceilings, tunnels, alleys, intimate nooks can be created by this method. Strong stemmed ficus varieties are good candidates for pleaching.
To keep large trees in smaller spaces, pollarding is the technique. For shrubs, the main stem is cut back and bunch fresh branches emerge. Its useful in keeping the shrub bushy or
rejuvenating bare stems of shrubs. For trees, after a desired height is reached, the top end is cut to stimulate the side growth. In trees like moringa, it is useful, as it eases the fruit picking. Its useful in managing the trees that cast too much shadow. The newer growth should be managed by choosing the framework of branches so that the problem doesn’t repeat. Ash, mulberry, tulip tree and parijat are few of the many candidates.
Coppicing is a useful technique for old gardens. Worn down, sparsely-leaved hedges can be rejuvenated by coppicing. The stem is cut down low, and new growth sprouts. Murraya paniculata, cotinus and hibiscus are few of the many that respond well to this. This is primarily an agroforestry method but can be successfully deployed to revive old tired looking shrubs or hedges in the garden.
To prevent trees from overwhelming the house by their shade and volume, a technique called shredding can be used. The side growth from the main strong trunk is regularly trimmed down or removed, while the top of the trunk is allowed to grow. This allows the tree to grow taller without taking over the building structure or blocking those wonderful sun rays from reaching the rooms.
The basic cutting and pruning techniques are a must-know for all gardeners who like to be surrounded by the gorgeous lushness that comes only with age. All advanced applications start with the basic. The association with mature shrubs and trees that you have nurtured for decades is unparalleled. Always start with a good plan which includes appropriate choices of location and species, use proper tools, exercise patience and create yourself bespoke green luxury, something that serves not just you, but also the environment.
(The author is with True Nature Advisors)