Secrets of a Hacker

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.

Lupin ‘Gallery Red’ starting to look past its best. Especially if you look at the leaves.

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.

Centaurea after a good de-lousing.

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.

Hemerocallis foliage drawing a screen over the carnage.

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.

Alchemilla mollis stepping up.

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.

Centaurea ‘Jordy’ with Alchemilla mollis. They evaded rehab for now.

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?  

My aim on this site is to share the sense of wonder I get from gardening and being outdoors. 

If you would like to join the joy, click on the ‘Follow’ button at the end of this post. You will receive an email each time I post a little pop of wonder. 

28 Comments Add yours

  1. cavershamjj says:

    Chatsworth chop it is. I have a ropy looking centaurea and some gone over poppies. Off with their heads! Great post.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you.

  2. Cathy says:

    I know what you mean about stretching and strange contortions… my rockery can be a bit hairy at times as my footholds are few and far between! I chop back my Veronica as soon as it has started to fade early June and the gaps look awful, but in the last couple of years I have grown Plumbago under it which is nice and leafy already. 🙂

    1. Ali says:

      It’s all good for our balance and keeping our brains busy though! I really do think gardening is brilliant for flexibility. That’s a nice combination with Veronica and Plumbago.

  3. Penny Post says:

    As I currently have a very bare garden/beds I can’t wait for the time when I too can give everything a Chatsworth chop, just need to grow/plant them all first.

    1. Ali says:

      Ah, I’ve been there when you’re just willing everything to plump up and cover the soil!

  4. There ought to be an ‘I LOVE this post’ button! I so enjoy your gardening exploits and all the useful advice that comes along in your very charming style. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Ali says:

      That is so lovely of you. Thank you. 🙏

  5. Heyjude says:

    I like the idea of a ‘Chatsworth Chop’ 🙂 I have just cut my Pulmonaria down to the ground (now worried I shouldn’t have gone that far) as the leaves were getting mildew. I also have rust on my St John’s Wort which is only just coming into flower so no chopping, but should I spray it with something or just let it be?

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, I would definitely do the chop on pulmonaria – I have in the past, but for some reason for two years running it has been brilliant through the whole summer. I let things be if they get rust – hollyhocks always get rust, so I plant them at the back of the border with large neighbours. A couple of my geraniums got something that looked like a sort of rust last summer, so I chopped that right back, and that cured it. Maybe after flowering?? I’ve never grown St John’s Wort, so not sure…

      1. Heyjude says:

        I’ll let it be then. It is under the trees so maybe that’s caused it. My geraniums are flopping all over at the moment. Do you have supports for yours?

      2. Ali says:

        I tend to rely on surrounding plants to hold them up – roses coming in very handy for this!

  6. bcparkison says:

    It is all part of the game.

  7. Your post is entertaining and informative all at once! Beautiful photos, too. I try to chop my salvia…it is blooming now (we are somewhat behind you in our bloom cycles). If I chop it, I’ll have a second or even third flush of flowers during the growing season. Our lupines are just starting to bloom and they are gorgeous right now. I bought a whole flat of wild blue lupines for my yard and yet to have them planted. I realized I might have the wrong soil! Oops! Happy Gardening!

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you! Yes, Salvia is another one good for chopping. I just do the flower spikes. Do you do foliage too?

      1. Nope. Usually just the spikes, like you! 🙂

  8. Eliza Waters says:

    Great post, Ali. I enjoy your breezy writing style. 🙂
    I find it hard to cut anything that is still flowering well, but once over, I don’t mind. I chop geraniums, veronica, polemonium and Siberian iris similarly, as they will sprawl and look awful if I don’t. I cut lamb’s ears in stages as the bees love them so much, I feel like I am robbing food from their mouths!

    1. Ali says:

      Thanks Eliza. Yes, it’s harder if there are still flowers. Centaurea is the same – there were flowers and buds, but I had to do it!

  9. I love the title of this piece.

  10. I chop off the columbines after they flower. The foliage regrows beautifully and looks great for the rest of the summer! Great post!

    1. Ali says:

      Oh yes, columbine/aquilegia also benefits from the chop! And you get to enjoy its unfurling foliage all over again!

  11. janesmudgeegarden says:

    Southern Hemisphere version of Chatsworth Chop needed! It’s going to happen in my garden soon when I cut back all my perennials ready for Spring. Lovely and entertaining post as always, Ali.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you Jane.

  12. Valuable information. Lucky me I found your website by accident, and I’m shocked why this accident didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

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