Pruning the buddleia

Garden area full of different green shrubs in summer

I am not tough enough to be a gardener. It takes a certain ruthlessness to cope with all the pruning, the pricking out, the discarding of plants that have outgrown their usefulness. And that’s before we get started on pest control. I feel cruel cutting and discarding something which has strived so hard to grow. This week however, while we wait for the greenhouse to be built, we turned our attentions to the flower garden at the back of the house and I had a rapid reminder that a firm hand is sometimes needed. We inherited a very mature garden, with all its accompanying joys and challenges. A lot of plants are old or have grown and spread far beyond what was probably originally anticipated and it is down to us to decide what to nurture, what to tame and what to replace. A tall order for a couple of newbies, one of whom is basically soft. As is often the case, though, D makes up for my weaknesses and can be ruthless when he has to be. He prunes the trees, trims the hedges, mows the lawn and generally imposes order where I would leave chaos, too afraid I will kill something to cut it back. I read all the advice, I know pruning actually helps the plant, but I still struggle, especially once spring growth is starting to show.

Occasionally, I harden my heart, take my secateurs and set to. Last summer, I reduced an elderly, spindly hydrangea to a stump. It may not flower this year as a result, but there is lots of strong new growth on it and I am confident – now, at least – that I did the right thing and it will be all the stronger for it.

Hydrangea bush with new leaves
This was 2 spindly shoots last year but is growing strongly this year thanks to a hard pruning

This week, I decided it was time to take the same approach with an old buddleia, which has assumed tree-like proportions in the corner of the raised area towards the back of the flower garden. I read everything I could and announced boldly to D that March is the time to prune, that the harder it is pruned, the better it will respond and that it is fine to decimate it. Hmm, that is all very well in principle but, when it came to actually doing it, even D hesitated. It is clearly a very old plant, with most of the growth at the top and some of the older wood just came away in his hand when he touched it. He cut it back with more care than he perhaps might usually and I couldn’t even bear to watch that. Half an hour later, we had a totally full garden waste bin and a bare plant. Will it recover? Who knows. I suspect that everything I read about how to prune a buddleia didn’t take in consideration the fact that the plant may be years and years old and neglected for many of those to boot and, sentimental as I am, I am feeling very guilty that we may have killed something which has been living there happily much longer than we have. If it doesn’t recover, I also apologise to all the butterflies and bees that visited it late last summer. We are keeping everything crossed that at least some of it will survive our well-meaning but totally amateur attempts. It’s like the apple tree all over again – but much more radical.

Much less controversial was the removal of the old water feature in the lawn. It didn’t work and it was unattractive, with a layer of sludge and a dead pot plant in its centre. We have been wondering what to do with it for some time and eventually we agreed to replace it with a rose bed. We bought three small very bare rose bushes and D raided his wood stash to create a border around the new bed. It looks quite empty at the moment, but we intend to plant annuals in it around the bushes until they grow and flower. Even empty, it looks better than what was there before. It has proved a magnet for the cats and Calamity came in yesterday with a large scratch across her nose – she clearly got a little too curious and the rose bush fought back. Heaven knows what they will make of the greenhouse next week!

5 thoughts on “Pruning the buddleia

  1. Ah, you may have a dead buddleia, while they are tough as old boots, when pruning need to go down to at least a shooting bud, from the photo I would say that the main trunk is so badly diseased that it was struggling anyway. If nothing shoots out by June, dig it out and get a new one, well done on the hydrangea though, that is looking great, it may well flower as long as its kept well watered!


      1. I’ve got one at the same stage, including half a dead trunk coming away a while back. It still flowers but with much less vigour than previous years. I planted a new one next to it last year so hopefully the bees & butterflies will have something to transfer to.


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