I was once asked by a leading grounds maintenance company to provide some pruning courses for their operatives. What had triggered this off was there had been a complaint from their client about the poor quality of pruning. The example quoted was that a Forsythia had been pruned to waist height in September by a hedge trimmer thereby removing all flowering wood and leaving a badly mutilated plant in its wake. I suspect a member of the public had made a complaint to the council.
The courses were well received by the staff and we applied some basic principles of shrub pruning to a range of plants in a public park. I can remember being appalled by the poor quality of pruning tools made available to staff and I was told that many of the secateurs had been purchased in a pound shop.
The mutilated Forsythia is just one of many instances of badly maintained plants. Near to where I live, council contractors make a regular habit of pruning specimens of Cornus alba to waist height in October. The plants seldom show any winter interest and regular hedge trimmer pruning has left them with a congested mass of dead growth in the centre. The plants have very little ornamental merit so why bother growing them? In the same planting, rootstocks of grafted Elaeagnus have now taken over and compete with elder, sycamore and goat willow. All get the same hedge trimmer pruning.
Now I am acutely aware of the financial pressures faced by local authorities and contractors charged with the maintenance of public areas but can’t we just stop and think? Why are some shrubs ‘pruned’ annually when there is no need? Obviously paths must be kept clear and windows unobstructed but is an annual hack back really necessary? Could some plants be properly pruned every two or three years and show the ornamental value that the designer had intended? I suspect that part of the problem lies with ill-conceived maintenance plans that assume all plants are merely blocks of vegetation that must be treated all the same.
This will require investment in training operatives in plant identification and pruning techniques but it will improve the appearance and longevity of public plantings. Better maintenance planning and more efficient scheduling could bring about some reduction in costs that could help to pay for better quality maintenance.