Pruning problem solved

An old boy said to me the other day something quite true of his carpentry that applied equally well to most of gardening. “A good carpenter spends more time setting up and tidying up than he ever does actually cutting wood.” Even more does this apply to hedge trimming and pruning. It is so easy to trim a shed load of bits with shears, secateurs or saw but then it takes as long again to dispose of all those bits. Careful planning and methodical work can reduce the effort considerably after all you do not want to pick up and move anything more often than necessary do you?

Of course when pruning one gooseberry or a couple of roses in a small garden it does not matter much if you do not work it all out beforehand. But in a big garden or with an overgrown hedge you may cart a lot of material about rather needlessly or make it harder to deal with.

With a big job producing lots of waste be careful if you can’t deal with it as you go. Do not drop the stuff higgledy piggledy but lay it down in an orderly manner so it can be easily picked up again later. A jumbled pile interlocks and can be difficult to unweave; a carefully stacked pile will be easier to unpick. It’s often better to pre-process large pieces as you go reducing them to more handleable units, and ideally stacking them away simultaneously.

The whole idea is to reduce everything possible to the most useful categories – so any branch thicker than your wrist is put aside for valuable firewood for anyone with a wood stove. Even if you don’t have a stove just cut the logs, stack them till you visit a friend with a stove and take a present. Those logs of fruit woods such as apple are especially prized as their smoke is so sweet. If you have no friend with a stove then make a log pile, it will become home to countless creatures. I used unwanted as it burns poorly elder wood, rotting logs and bundles of prunings to make a safety wall around my pond which keeps out both herons and wandering toddlers.

And do not waste the sawdust- this can be used to smoke foods on next summer’s bar-b-q, especially that fruit wood sawdust. When cutting green wood best dry the sawdust before packing it away or it will mould. When using a chain saw I replace the chain oil with cooking oil- it may reduce the chain’s life but adds to my own as I don’t want food smoked with burnt chain oil!) Of course it makes sense to put down a sheet where much sawing is to be done as even if you don’t want the sawdust it’s easier to clean up after.

Likewise if producing masses of trimmings from shearing a hedge or then put sheets down first. In particular put newspapers under gooseberries as their small thorny trimmings are murder to pick up. It takes much less effort to clean up when you just lift sheets! Most fresh live thorn-free shearings can go in a good compost heap but may be too dry for a small one if added in bulk. Mixed with grass clippings they will rot quicker. Evergreen and conifer trimmings are hard to compost and are best reduced to smaller pieces then returned under their donors unless they are likely to be a fire hazard. In the latter case turn them into wild life refuges (see further down).

It is the in-between stuff that can be cumbersome when a heavy prune or severe trim is carried out. Stuff too thick and woody to compost but not thick enough to be useful firewood, too brushy to make a compact pile and the thorny stuff. The first thought is usually a bonfire- which can be the most sensible method of disposal if safe and allowed. But wild life refuges are a more useful if more effort option as I’ll come to.

However if having a bonfire you want a safe one that burns quickly and cleanly. You can burn fresh cut green stuff but it is far less smoky to dry it first- so make a stack near the bonfire site rather than building a bonfire and leaving it too dry. Either may become a home for all sorts of critters but breaking a stack down and feeding it onto a small hot fire will do a neater job and allow you to save many of them. It is sometimes amazing how many ladybirds and beetles are found when disturbing bundles of dried twigs.

The best bonfires are not bonfires but incinerators- like bottomless metal dustbins; where the fire is contained but then the stuff has to be cut very small. For large amounts build a bonfire on top of some metal bars supported on bricks –an old wrought iron gate works well. This allows the air in underneath and a quicker cleaner burn. Put some old sheet iron underneath to protect the soil and gather the valuable ashes. The ash from a bonfire can be very rich in potassium, especially if many small twigs were burnt, but it rapidly loses it if wetted. As soon as cold the ashes should be scooped up, sieved and stored dry until given to the crops needing them most such as onions, tomatoes, potatoes, gooseberries and cooking apples. Or they can be mixed in the compost heap. The sievings left will have a few stones and some odd bits of metal doubtlessly, but probably quite a lot of charcoal which can be sorted out and kept dry for next summer’s bar-b-q.

To light a big fire or an incinerator first light a small fire of waste paper and dry sticks, feeding it lots of small pieces of very dry woody stuff. Once the small fire is going well there will be a crackling hissing noise and only then can you add the rest of the stuff. In an incinerator you have to have cut it down to smaller pieces just to feed it in which keeps the fire burning well as too many big gaps can’t form. For a bonfire one naturally does as little trimming as possible. But if it is left too bushy, ie you have not cut it down enough, then the bonfire will burn a hole up the middle with the rest untouched. And if you did not add the branches carefully then it might all overbalance.

So to get stuff to handle and burn well reduce the big bushy pieces to simpler stuff by cutting off side shoots. Go along a branch with loppers cutting off all side branches and shoots until you can cut the branch itself with them. Then using loppers or secateurs remove the smaller side branches from the next bigger piece and so on down. Cut anything longer than say five feet in half to make handling and feeding the fire or incinerator easier. The trimmed pieces will stack in a barrow or in a pile so much more efficiently than bigger bushy bits. Where it’s possible you may find it easier to trim and tidy big branches before you cut them off the tree or bush rather than after. Of course if the prunings are straight enough and not diseased or thorny then you could bundle up longer thicker ones to dry for bean poles and the smaller bushier ones for pea sticks. Any substantial offcuts make good kindling and the loose twiggy stuff can be collected for composting or burning. Or this too can be tied into bundles. Brambles in particular become easier to deal with if they are bundled. Prune them from their parent in yard or so long pieces and lay these in a pile. If this is made across two strings placed on the ground like rails these can be used to gather and pull the pieces into a tight bundle without their ever being touched.

Tied bundles not only stack, dry and burn well but make very good wildlife shelters for creatures big and small once secreted in dry places such as in and under evergreens and hedges.

Usually stuff is burnt because there is no room to keep it. An unburnt bonfire is a very attractive home for all sorts of creatures- it’s just we probably don’t have the space to keep such an ugly pile. And obviously you must burn diseased and difficult thorny stuff you can’t bundle up. The trouble is although a lot of stuff can be bundled and tied up then secreted away making very useful wildlife shelters you can only hide so much; next year you have another lot of stuff to deal with, and then another and so on…

The answer is to use such bundles (say three to four foot long by a half foot or so thick) to make garden walls, or rather a sort of thick woven fence panel. Pairs of light stakes, say five or six feet long, are driven in every couple of feet and bundles pushed between them then tied down with string between the pairs. By overlapping each layer of bundles, like long bricks; a thick fairly uniform fence can be constructed. This is made even greener and more value by growing climbers especially ivy through it; first of all disguising the fence, then reinforcing it and eventually replacing it.

An alternative on a thinner scale is to weave the individual prunings into a thinner more fence panel like wall. Pairs of canes can be used instead of most stakes but some strong stakes will still be needed every yard or so if it is a windy spot. Rather than yard long longer prunings are cut of four to six feet. These are woven piece by piece about the canes and tamped down. This works well where a lot of thin straight stuff such as raspberry canes and grapevines are grown.

But I take my hat off to one ingenious gardener who used bundles of prunings to make his compost bin walls, each with a woven plastic lining to stop them breaking down too fast.