I have always enjoyed a good chop. When I had Sindy dolls as a child, I always scalped them. I can’t remember whether I thought the hair would grow back, or whether I just wanted them to look like me (I had short hair).
I get the same thrill from hacking back plants. Tidying them up a bit. Sometimes getting carried away.
The good thing is that unlike Sindy hair, plants generally grow back.
I’m not talking about the ‘Chelsea Chop’ here. The Chelsea Chop is for late-flowering perennials: Rudbeckia, Heleniums, Rudbeckias, Helianthus and Phlox all fit the bill.
But I never Chelsea Chop. I can’t bear to knock back plants when they are at the peak of fitness and are in the race to flower.
I am talking about the early flowerers that are now running out of steam. Lupins, Centaurea and Oriental Poppies.
The foliage of these plants will now be looking pretty ropey. Raggedy and rangy, eaten by critters, starting to be taken over by powdery mildew. Oriental poppies look limp and jaundiced. Centaurea are grey and sallow. Once these lupin flowers go over, the leaves will be wilting and looking sad and dejected.
I have no qualms about hacking them back, right to the ground. The Centaurea are falling over drunkenly into their neighbours. They need an Intervention.
Lupins, Centaurea and Oriental Poppies respond to this treatment by sending up lovely fresh new foliage. Yes, they will look ‘sleek and streamlined’ for two weeks. But then they will sprout new leaves, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
This is how to retain a fresh-faced look in the borders through the whole of summer. Centaurea will resume flowering quite quickly, and you increase the chances of Lupins and Poppies having a modest second flush in late summer. If not, no matter. They will still look beautiful with their leaves alone.
You would think that this drastic treatment would leave a temporary crater in my border.
But you barely see this hole if you step back a foot. Avert your eyes for two weeks. Distract any garden visitors by pointing out the rose that is just starting to flower, just behind.
By accident or by design, (who can tell?) the gap is very quickly swallowed up by neighbouring Alchemilla mollis, Geraniums and Hemerocallis, which are just needing to stretch their wings.
If you have a particularly large group, then you can stagger your hacking.
I have just chopped back the worst offender for powdery mildew in this group of Centaurea ‘Jordy’. The others have promised to be good, but at the first sign of misbehaviour I will be there to sort them out with my shears. By which time the first Centaurea will be rehabilitated and will be a role-model for the others to re-grow their lovely fresh shoots.
I always plant Oriental poppies with a scattering of opium poppy seeds, or with Hollyhocks. When you’ve given the Oriental poppies the chop (Could we call this the Chatsworth Chop?) the opium poppies or Hollyhocks are putting on their strongest growth. And guess what? Just as the opium poppies are turning yellow and the hollyhock foliage has rust, the Oriental poppies have recovered their poise and are more than happy to cover for the others. Tag-team planting.
When you perform this hack, you will get a unique view of your border. Yesterday I found myself sitting astride my post-and-rail fence, as if bare-back horse-riding. I was able to tip right over, rodeo-style, to cut down poppies in Deathtrap Corner.
I could see the Underbelly of the border. It was dark and dank, and oddly thrilling. By keeping my feet hooked under the fence post, I could reach under a pull up a few cheeky nettle seedlings. I’m sure that by removing the old poppy foliage I am allowing the rose to breathe, and reducing the risk of fungal infection. We all like to feel the breeze in our skirts.
Another benefit of this treatment is that it provides helipad on which to land when I am leaping from point to point in my deadheading sorties. I have been having to come up with ever more contorted positions with my secateurs in one hand, bucket in another. I am an accident waiting to happen. But now I have opened up a new safe route to the back of the border. Only the dogs and I know about it.
Can you think of any other early-flowering perennials which benefit from this drastic form of rehab?