Wednesday, 3 March 2021

How to Pollard Cotinus coggygria for the best foliage

At this time of year - early March - there's still time to give Cotinus coggygria the annual pollarding, where I chop off all this year's luxurious growth, in order to promote large-leaved foliage for next year.

Pollarding, in case you don't already know, is a form of pruning where you keep the main trunk(s) of the chosen shrub or tree, and chop off all the new growth every year.

Why? Well, we pollard trees and shrubs for two main reasons: firstly because it allows us to keep them down to a manageable size, and secondly to promote super-large foliage.

Pollarding is quite different from just "lopping off half of all the branches to make it smaller". That practice is known as "topping" or, in my world, "butchering". A tree or shrub which has been topped, or - in gardening terms - "lollipopped" or "bunned" *shudders theatrically* can be ruined for years, as each cut branch will throw out a mass of new growth, which then sprouts untidily at the tips.

It is just so illogical: if the reason for cutting back the limbs was to make it smaller, well "Fail!" as the  kids say, you've just forced it to grow super-fast, and right at the extremities, not to mention spoiling the outline or "form" of the tree.

So normally we would do the classic RHS "one in three" style of pruning, where you remove about a third of the oldest stems right down at base  level, each year. This keeps the shrub down to a manageable size, it retains the original form of long arching branches, and if it's a flowering shrub, then regardless of what time of year it flowers, you will always have two-thirds of it flowering.

Pollarding,  however, is where you want to keep some height, but you want to keep the overall size as it is, and not allow it to get any bigger.

The other reason for pollarding a shrub - or, for that matter, certain trees - is that it promotes huge, juvenile foliage.

So if you have a shrub, or tree, with particularly appealing foliage, then pollarding is the way to go.

Some years, I pollard my Cotinus (plural of Cotinus, anyone? Cotini? Cotinusses?) in late autumn, but some years this job gets left until Feb or even March: it rather depends on the weather, partly because the weather affects how soon the leaves drop, and there's no point trying to do this with the leaves still on it, and partly because if the weather is very wet (as it is this year) I can't get onto the beds without ruining the soil and getting mud all over the lawn.

This is, in fact, one of those useful gardening jobs that can be saved up until conditions are right!

Here's one which I do every year - this is what it looks like over winter, once the leaves have fallen: I go round and chop off every single one of those long lanky shoots, right back to the main stem.

Bearing in mind that I do this one, without fail, every single winter, you can see just how much it can grow in one year. 

The main parts of this shrub are at eye-height for me: so those lanky stems are easily 6-7' long.

If you didn't prune it every year, imagine how big it would get!

I say that, but actually, the act of pollarding, or hard-pruning, promotes growth, so if you were to leave it unpruned, it would not really make this amount of growth every year: growth would slow down each year.

But it would soon become an over-large shrub. So I pollard it, every year, and this - below - is what it looks like when I'm done.

Brutal, huh?

It is now a typical pollard, with knobbly lumps where I have repeatedly shortened the new growth, as hard as I can.

It grows back every year, trust me!

Pollarding like this has another couple of benefits: the weather can get to the soil around the base, so it gets water, and frost, and other natural climate ingredients.

The removal of the branches allows me to get in there and weed: so it doesn't become infested with bindweed or other noxious weeds.

And, not least, it allows an underplanting of bulbs and early spring flowers, to brighten up the area.

So there you go - how, when, and why to pollard your Cotinus bushes.

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