Might not be any snow, but with a pair of loppers and shears, we can transform winter gardens into lollipops and gumdrops. But a word to the thin-skinned: If you go crazy with creative trimming, you’ll get trash-talked.
Don’t get me wrong. I have interviewed the curator of the world’s oldest topiary garden, the utterly fantastic Levens Hall. And am an old friend and supporter of Pearl Fryar, South Carolina’s most famous pruning artist. Both of those are worth seeking online. I’ve also photographed tightly pruned centuries-old crape myrtle trees (gasp) in Shinto temple gardens in Japan.
Pruning trees and shrubs into balls on stems is not a horticultural sin; it’s an ancient artistic style called niwaki, or “floating clouds,” as well as a practical source for weaving material for wattle-style fences, like done all over England and even at the headquarters of the American Horticulture Society.
By the way, when a self-appointed tastemaker once told me that she disapproved of pruning crape myrtles because it’s “unnatural,” I simply pointed to her eyebrows, which had been plucked out and painted back on in a different place. You do you, and please stop body-shaming creative garden snippers.
Besides, we already accept other equally unnatural types of pruning, using secateurs and loppers to keep plants in bounds or shape them up, or even to cut them way back to rejuvenate them. Think thinning excess limbs on fruit trees, cutting roses back hard every winter, shearing hollies and boxwoods into meatball, breadbox or cone shapes, training vines, and espaliering small trees flat against walls.
But all this is best done on your own property. Step over the line, and there can be trouble. Without getting into the legalities of trespassing, there are social protocols. You can legally remove limbs hanging over your property line, but don’t pile the trimmings on the neighbor’s curb. Don’t blow your leaves onto others’ yards, and please stop picking my wildflowers for your sixth grader’s school project. Most folks get this.
Which leads me, during an otherwise festive and forgiving season, to a biting annoyance with a happy ending. Two years ago I returned from a trip to find that the brother of a new neighbor had taken it upon himself to whack my quarter-century old multiple-trunk yaupon holly tree, which was near her driveway, into bare, 6-foot stubs.
The neighbor was horrified, but it was too late. So when I got home, she was prepared for my horticultural wrath. And sure, I was seriously chafed but, being a practicing Stoic with a philosophy of “if you can’t fix it, flee it or fight it, flow with it,” I moved on. Can’t unboil an egg, right?
So, rather than completely remove the boogered-up but otherwise healthy plant, I poodled it, cutting the trunks to different heights and shearing the new summer growth into tight green balls.
Perverted, you say? Nay, nay. It’s my way of turning a sour lemon into a jug of lemonade. I accessorized it with a couple of flower pots made from old tires underneath, and set a blue bottle tree to one side.
Sure, I have to ladder up to shear it every summer, being wary of hidden wasp nests. But last week when I trimmed it for winter, I found a bird’s nest, meaning the poodle rounds out my garden as a wildlife habitat!
Luckily for me, my neighbor loves it as well. Which is a good thing, because I adore my quirky gumdrop tree and its accessories. And instead of scowling over a long-ago trespassing affront, now every time I see it I smile.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.