Tuesday, 25 November 2014

How to: Cut back Aquilegia

Aquilegia - also known as Columbine, or Granny's Bonnets, a staple plant of cottage style planting, and a generous self-seeder. 

There's nothing quite like a mass of them to create the pretty, frothy effect so sought-after in informal planting, but left to their own devices, they can take over your borders and can become quite a nuisance.

My "management style" for this plant is two-fold: firstly, after flowering, cut them back and cut them back hard;  and secondly, buy named varieties, and be ruthless about weeding out the seedlings, as most of them will revert to the usual blue.

Which is not to say that blue is bad, of course, but why have the plain old ones, when you can buy really beautiful ones?

Here's a selection from Chiltern Seeds: I'm not specifically recommending them, just using their picture to illustrate the variety you can have these days:

Aren't they gorgeous?

So that's my second piece of advice - buy some lovely ones to start with, and weed out any seedlings.

Or, should I say, leave a few seedlings but weed out most of them, especially the ones which pop up too close to other plants. Sadly, these beauties above won't come "true" from seed, but you might get something interesting.. or they might all come up plain blue, who knows!

Working backwards, then, my first piece of advice is in respect of dead-heading. Most people are far too gentle with their dead-heading, and just nip off the actual dead flower. This leaves an unattractive blunt stem sticking up, which does no-one any good.

So part one of dead-heading is to cut off the flowering stem right down to ground level. That leaves you with a mass of foliage, some of which is new, some of which is old. 

If you leave it at that, then in a month's time you'll have a mound of mostly dead foliage, looking battered and untidy, but with some fresh new growth inextricably in amongst it.

So my method is to be ruthless: after you've taken out the flowering stem right down to the ground, cut off all the old leaves as well.


As you can see, a mound of somewhat tatty foliage, and some old flowering stems.

Stage one: cut out all the flowering stems, and also cut out the majority of the leaves.

The original plant is by my foot, there are two piles of cut stems and leaves, to give you an idea of what proportion of material is removed.

As you can see, all that is left is a handful of short, new, leaves.

Stage two: rake through what is left of the plant with either your fingers, or a small hand tool.

As you can see, and as you would expect, I use my faithful Daisy Grubber for this operation.

Raking through removes all the dead material, and any leaves or other bits which have fallen onto the plant over the previous few weeks.

Raking out the rubbish lets air and light into the centre of the plant, reducing the risk of slug or snail attack, and reducing the risk of fungal diseases such as mildew.

The result might seem to be heartlessly bare, but the plant will reward you by putting on a spurt of new growth, and in a few weeks you will have a neat dome of fresh new foliage, which will continue to look nice until the end of summer, when you repeat the process but even more drastically. 


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  1. This is just what I needed to know! Brilliant.

    thank you

  2. Thanks, Kim, you are most welcome!

    I now wish I'd remembered to take another photo a couple of weeks later, to prove how much better they look if done like this... but you'll have to trust me on that!


  3. Cheers for that info. Will try this and hopefully get some new flowers

  4. They are my favourite flower. Thank you so much for the advice.


  5. Brilliant thanks for that I'm off to give it a go

  6. Why do some not come up I bought t and m seeds and put them in a pot but only 2 came up what did I do wrong please

    1. By "t and m" I am assuming that you mean Thompson and Morgan, well-established seed supplier.

      If you buy seeds from a reputable supplier, and if you sow them as per the instructions on the pack, then they should germinate well, so getting only two is a bit disappointing.

      Growing things from seed is not trivial, as thousands of people are discovering for the first time, this year.

      There are many things which can go wrong, from having the compost too wet, too dry: having the pot somewhere which is too cold, too hot; and if the pots are outside, they could have been eaten by the many small critters which look upon our expensive bought seeds as a sort of running buffet, especially just as they start to shoot.

      But you could say that at least you got two good strong new seedlings, so that's a result!

  7. All my questions answered in basically one sentence. Thank you very much.

    1. You're most welcome - if only I could manage to write "just" that one sentence, instead of waffling on at great length! *laughs*


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