Gardening: Shoots to Kill Cutting New Growth May Seem Drastic, Writes Anna Pavord, but You've Got to Be Cruel to Be Kind

Article excerpt

If anybody mentions global warming to me again, I'll scream. After a stretch of the wettest and most unpleasant winter months I can remember for a long time - mud to the horizon - I think we deserved a couple of fine, warm days to remind ourselves why we ever thought we liked gardening. Valentine's weekend was a miracle. I don't care if we have to pay for it with late frosts in May, as the doom merchants predict. Last Saturday, I stood among the aconites spreadeagled in the sun, and sniffed like a truffle hound the smell of the viburnum on the other side of the path. "Yes!" I thought. "Here we go again."

It was such an extraordinary sensation, feeling the sun warm on my back, I could easily have frittered the whole day away. I lifted up snowdrops to look at the odd green punctuation marks on the inner petals. I admired the slaty, dark satin colours of the hellebores. I resolved, once again, to divide the blue primroses. But, although I tried hard to maintain the tunnel vision that is so essential in a gardener, it was horribly obvious that there was a vast backlog of work.

Much of it had to do with pruning. February is the time to tackle the later-flowering clematis and cut them down to within 18in of the ground. They won't die if you don't, but if you leave them to their own devices, they tend to flower in a bundle high up on the wall or support, leaving you to look into a bird's-nest tangle of bare stems. If you have planted a late-flowering clematis such as C viticella to run through an earlier-flowering shrub, or to accompany a rose, the growth may become so vigorous that the host shrub is suffocated. By clearing out the carapace of clematis each season, you give the supporting shrub breathing-space. It can go ahead with its own performance untrammelled, before the clinging clematis smothers it up. If you have planted clematis to accompany a rose on a pergola, or against a wall, the rose itself will probably need pruning now, which, again, means you have to do something about the clematis. I certainly needed to do some work on the `Constance Spry' rose planted on the south front of the house, which was tangled up with a vigorous Clematis `Jackmanii Superba'. `Constance Spry' is usually described as a shrub rose, but it will easily get to 20ft if it has support. It was bred by David Austin in 1961, so in rose terms it is a new arrival, but it looks old, with big, cabbagey double flowers of a not-too-sickly pink. Austin calls it "myrrh-scented". I'd always wondered what myrrh smelt like. The rose was doing wonders for any acrobat who happened to be hanging out of our attic window, but not much for anyone else. Fortunately the clematis was the type that responds to February pruning. I cut all its stems down first, although I felt like a murderer chucking away all the plump buds that were already springing up. Once the clematis was out of the way, I could see more clearly what to do with the rose. Some of the longest growths had to be cut back to about 4ft. Other stems I pulled down, arching them against the wall as near to horizontal as they would go. This brought the bulk of the rose down towards eye level. It will also persuade the stems to flower more freely than if they were vertical. Some roses are too stiff to treat like this, but `Constance Spry' has relatively unthorny, pliable stems. If C macropetala or C alpina had been rambling through the `Constance Spry' rose, the whole job would have been much trickier. …