Do you consider your gardening style to be formal or informal? Is your garden style one you have chosen and studied or is it the result of chance?
Most people I ask say they prefer an informal garden, one created by chance. But whether you prefer a formal or an informal garden, pruning is the one necessary ingredient for success.
Formal vs. informal
If your garden is purely formal the plantings are clear and definite, symmetrical and/or deliberate, and the use of color is limited to two or three different ones and always includes white. If your garden is truly informal, the plantings are not clear and definite, the sense of symmetry is not obvious, and the use of color is endless. The formal garden begs you to look at it and the informal garden begs you to touch it.
In the beginning, like most new gardeners, I was an informal gardener by chance. Now after many years and lots of studying my garden is a blend of both. Formality provides the structure necessary for my small garden to keep from becoming too busy, with the informal parts providing lots of fun colors and textures.
A certain amount of pruning is typically necessary in any garden, but some very formal elements may require lots of regular pruning. I have found many gardeners are reluctant to prune so the formal elements may go unattended, leading a formal garden into informality. But even an informal garden requires regular pruning to showcase its beauty.
Art of pruning
Pruning is an art and it does take some experience to get comfortable with it. Knowing what to cut, what not to cut, and how much to cut is important: once you cut it off you cannot put it back on.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a talented and patient horticulturist, Buddy Hubbuch at Bernheim Arboretum, as a student intern in college.
This is what Buddy taught me: Start with a high-quality pair of sharp pruning shears that fits comfortably in your hand. Understand the plant you are pruning, its natural habit or its forced habit, how much it has grown, and how much you anticipate it may grow after you are done. Pruning takes time so you should go slowly.
Summer is a great time to prune, especially for beginners, as plants are fully developed. Have a picture in your mind of what the plant should look like when you’re finished. Step back often and take a look at your work. Don’t prune all day long. If you have a lot of plants to prune, take several days or all week if necessary to finish.
Most importantly, no matter how much foliage is lying on the ground when you are finished, it should look like you never pruned it at all.
Prune or relocate?
Planting the right plant in the right place is still the most important factor for success in any garden. But don’t be afraid to maintain. If you planted things a bit too close, ask yourself if pruning will keep them in check or would it be simpler to dig and move a few plants, giving them a bit more room to grow.