Make the most of the rest of the summer by letting light into outside spaces. We’ve got some tips below for thinning trees, shaping hedges and – if all else fails – what to plant in your shadiest spots!
Our first piece of advice is to think about the type of tree you want to tackle and how big a job it will be. Not all trees are suitable to be pruned and some are best left until later in the year, when they’re becoming dormant. But if you’re just intending to remove dead wood and do some light shaping, most trees will cope with a bit of a ‘hair cut’ at this time of year. (We’d recommend checking out the RHS website for some specific advice about your species of tree).
It’s also worth checking with your local authority to make sure that there are no Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) in force, particularly if you are planning drastic action.
There are several methods you can use to thin out a tree, typically:
Crown thinning – this is a general pruning, usually around the edges of the tree’s canopy, to reduce its shade density and the weight of foliage. A general thinning will improve air circulation, too, which helps to prevent fungal and pest problems.
Crown lifting – this is concentrating on the underside of the tree’s canopy, removing lower branches to allow for better access or light underneath, for example, to mow a lawn.
Pollarding/Coppicing – these are both extreme forms of pruning which take out all or part of the central trunk, either to set height (pollarding) or right to the ground (coppicing). Although they can be attractive, particularly on smaller trees, we wouldn’t recommend such drastic action at this time of year or without seeking specialist advice.
To thin a tree, concentrate on branches up to 4cm thick and look for any that are broken or crossing others. We suggest you take off a maximum of 15% of the branches. Take a step back every so often to check that you’re not getting carried away and are keeping a natural shape.
Interestingly, the RHS tree experts no longer recommend painting tree wounds with pruning or wound ‘paint’ as they appear to slow a tree’s recovery and may increase the likelihood of rotting.
Now that young birds have left the nest, July is a good time to tidy up your hedges. Unless we get a longer, later summer, they are unlikely to put on much new growth before the winter, which saves you having to trim again. In fact, pruning a conifer hedge much later than this can encourage bare patches to develop.
With all hedges, try to make sure that the base is a little wider than the top (so the hedge is tapered; this is called a batter) so that light can reach it.
If You Have a Formal Hedge
Use a taut string tied between two stout canes to help you get a straight cut to the top of your hedge. Making a cardboard or plywood template can also help you get the shape you want.
If you’re using hand shears, keep the blades parallel to the surface of the hedge that you’re trimming in order to get a flat, even finish. If you’re using a hedge trimmer, keep the blade parallel and work upwards from the bottom, so the cut foliage will fall away.
If You Have Informal Hedges
This is more like pruning a shrub so judging by eye will usually give you a pleasing final result. In general, look for misplaced or crossing branches and cut back to a shoot or division. If your hedge has large leaves, secateurs or loppers (rather than a hedge trimmer) will help avoid ugly leaf cuts.
Planting for Shade
If you really can’t reduce the shade over your outside spaces, there are plenty of plants that will actually enjoy a shady spot.
Growing for Food
Believe it or not, lettuce, rocket, spinach and chard will all grow happily in shade. Herbs like sorrel, parsley and mint will also thrive (but avoid those Mediterranean herbs, which like to be thoroughly baked!). Other vegetables that don’t mind shade include peas and runner beans. Some fruit bushes – blackberry and gooseberry particularly – will be fine, as will fruit trees like plums, Morello cherry and cooking apples.
Growing for Beauty
Ferns are often the obvious choice for shady spots and some can cope with 100% shade and north facing spots. Hostas also work well (as long as you don’t mind a little slug damage). Astilbes and sedges will be happy with shade, as will camessias, primroses and hardy geraniums. In fact, think about the plants you see growing under trees in the wild and they will all be happy in shade.
Planting for Dry Shade
If your shady spot is under a tree, you may well find it also gets very dry. Any of the following flowering plants will be quite happy here: hellebores (Lenten Rose), astrantia, lily of the valley, ivy and Japanese anemone.
Planting for Damp Shade
If your shady is close to a pond or river, you may find the plants there always have ‘wet feet’. In which case, we’d recommend things like angelica, astilbe, solomon’s seal or bleeding hearts for flowers and, for foliage, hostas, ferns and grasses (particularly carex and deschampsia).
The Gardeners’ World website has lots more tips on planting for shade.
At this time of year, it’s really important to make sure that any newly planted trees, hedges and shrubs don’t dry out. They often need much more water than you’d think. But, water is a precious resource so think about collecting rainwater in a butt (or even recycling your bath water!).
As with all garden activity, particularly if you’re using power tools, think safety first. Make sure you use gloves, goggles and any other appropriate protective equipment. If you’re using ladders, check they are in good repair and don’t reach too far off them. If in any doubt, call the experts.