I start to look differently when the last of the foliage is finally pulled from the trees. The nakedness of winter limbs reveals what went undercover in the growing season and I slowly walk our land and take note. The growth on the hedges, the advance of the brambles that sat in their shadow and that this year might need curtailing. The mental map of winter work as the season stretches out ahead of us is now clear and visible.
As the garden matures and there is more to manage, I am bringing the pruning forward in the season so that it can be savoured and never rushed. Woody plants such as mulberry and grape vine that have a tendency to bleed are pruned first. The Strawberry Grape, which we have planted alongside the open barn has sent its limbs into the gutters and without attention will begin to get the upper hand. Pruning it back to an orderly framework in turn triggers one of the first winter jobs. The taking of hardwood cuttings.
Hardwood cuttings could not be easier, if you take them as soon as the foliage drops and the sap is still in the wood and not yet drawn back to root. Unlike summer cuttings, which need cossetting to keep them hydrated whilst they are also trying to form roots, a hardwood cutting does not have to put energy into foliage. It will instead spend the next few weeks initiating roots that will already have formed as it comes back into leaf again in the spring.
Hardwood cuttings suit many, but not all, deciduous shrubs. Willow and dogwoods, roses and honeysuckle, figs and vines to name a handful. A cutting should ideally be pencil thick and much the same length, with a flat cut below a joint or bud at the bottom and a sloping cut above a bud at the top to shed water. The angle of the cut also identifies which is top and bottom, something that is not always easy as you gather up the nest of vine cuttings that has been cast on the floor after you have pulled it from the gutters.
As space is limited in my cold frames, I take only what I need and have plans for. Plants which might need to be moved in the garden and make an easier move for being a youngster or those which have sentimental value or are hard to get hold of. The figs are a good example and I make a number of plants every year for clients and friends. A few from the cut-leaved ‘Ice Crystal’ (main image) and the same for the ‘White Marseille’. Perhaps the best of all the figs that can be grown outdoors in southern England, my cutting was given to me by Alastair Cook, the former head gardener at Lambeth Palace. This remarkable tree was planted at the palace in 1556 by the last Roman Catholic Archbishop to reside there, Cardinal Reginald Pole. Today it makes an environment of its own, twisted and touching down to the ground to root where it has done so. With this in mind, my plant here at Hillside is grown in a large pot, but one day it will be liberated so that we can walk amongst its branches to harvest the honeyed, lime green fruits.
Hardwood cuttings of figs are best taken with tip growth rather than a series of pencils cut to length from a stem, as with the vines. They are left for a little over a year in the pot and then re-potted in spring to grow away in readiness for planting out in the autumn two years after being taken. A short wait if you have a relay of plants as I do, but important to have in the wings as the cuttings represent a kind of security. They have the value embedded in their histories and I have a mental list of homes that will enjoy being part of their diaspora.
An easy rooter such as a willow can save on all the efforts of potting up and frame life as it can be struck very easily right where you intend it to live out its life. This is how I have been stepping the Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders’ down into the wild wetness of the ditch. The cuttings take minutes, though I take the time to choose strong healthy wood as this always makes the best propagation material. The young limbs or ‘rods’ are simply pushed into the ground with a foot or so in the soil to root and give enough purchase to hold them upright. With a little height and sap in the stem to help them take root over winter they will have the advantage. They need to, for they will be left to their own devices, with not much more than a fond thought to fight it out with the meadowsweet come summer, whilst I get on with the winter works that lie ahead.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 11 December 2021