Michelangelo of the Pruning Instrument

<i> Teddy Colbert is a life-long gardener and contributing writer</i>

I see the abelias in my landscape with new eyes. Their containment was a challenge, but now, like an old love rediscovered, they rebound with grace and vigor. All that was required to turn these old haystacks of a shrub into sleek specimens was a little pruning.

Nine years ago, three specimens of Abelia grandiflora were adroitly positioned in my landscape by designer Phil Chandler to screen out the asphalt street. Since then, the arching branches--with their small, dark-green ovate leaves, the jewel-like bronze of new growth, the enchanting palest pink summer blossoms giving way to burnished winter foliage warmed by tenacious little stars of copper-colored calyxes--have served me well.

However, sweeping branches had extended over the curb and were scratching the cars parked there. In the heart of the bush, bristly deadwood and ugly stubs of haphazard pruning embarrassed me. They were reminders of my maintenance sins.


Reflection Required

Good solutions require reflection. I took a walk to see how other neighborhood gardeners treated their mature abelias. I did not like what I saw. Most were uncontrolled thickets, some were sheared as hedges; neither was compatible with the natural plant forms dominating Chandler’s design. There were worse examples: Contorted ball-shaped shrubs with escaping wands of new growth mimicked a Sputnik probing outer space, and a tortured specimen spread over a trellis recalled a resigned prisoner facing the firing squad.

Topiary and hedge grooming, mind you, are respected gardening arts, but, for my interests, the constant clipping seems to be misapplied energy. I find there is power in pruning. Michelangelo envisioned his carved figures embodied within blocks of marble and released them with his chisel; with pruning tools, my opus strives to extricate true form and inherent beauty within a wooden plant. I am not a master, but my attempt is noble.

The fountain-like grace of my newly planted abelias nine years ago beckoned me. Restoration to their original natural form and reduction by removing entire arching branches to the nub was my plan.

Taking Inventory

The first tools gathered were sturdy leather garden shoes to protect my feet and hold down resisting branches. Next was a pocket sharpening stone to hone my wieldy Corona 26-inch loppers and No. 60 pruning shears. A slender, curved pruning saw was the last of my arsenal. I felt like God, in full control of creation.

The longest branches were eliminated first, and work proceeded from the outside of the bush to the inside. Each limb was cut as close as possible to where it emerged from the base. Opening the densely wooded center of the plant made it easier to angle in the lopper’s cutting blade. If someone else holds the branch down while you cut, count it a blessing. As an alternate, place a weighted object, such as a filled watering can, on the tip end of the branch.

Entire ungainly branches, top-heavy from tip pruning, were removed next. A redeeming attack on the old stubs and deadwood was last, because there was now more room to maneuver around the straps of new wood, which would bear next summer’s blossoms. As a final touch, I clipped off the wispy twigs resulting from cold damage to this otherwise hardy shrub.

The amount of debris from each bush was awesome, yet the rejuvenated bush did not seem depleted--a test, I feel, of artful pruning. The new leaves appearing on the adjacent “Golden Fleece” roses seemed grateful for the additional exposure to winter sun.

The following August, I gasped at the surge of flowers on the wood I had left. All the energy that had been dissipated into random growth was concentrated into sweeps of apple-blossom-pink, bell-shaped flowers. A neighbor paused during his walk and inquired when had I “put in the new shrubs?”

Abelias have been enriching in other ways. As floral implements, they are useful throughout the year. For my daughter’s August church wedding, we used sweeps of the pink-tinged blooms to fill the space behind the altar. Bricks placed in the urns kept the arrangements upright. My landscape welcomed the extra thinning, the gentle color complemented the wedding party and the tones matched my daughter’s blush.

Abelia grandiflora also rescued me from being provincial. On my first trip to the Orient, in Seoul, despite the strange signs written in Korean calligraphy, odd coins and baffling telephones, I felt at home immediately on my arrival. In the airport landscape, not only were there women gardeners chatting amiably as they worked, squatting on their enviably pliant hamstrings, but they were grooming “my” abelias.

On my return, while researching this feature, I learned in the very first of 34,305 entries in Hortus III that “my” A. grandiflora is a hybrid of two species; A. chinensis and A. uniflora . Both are natives to Asia. In truth, my rediscovered abelias were theirs, not mine.