Dealing with overgrown plants

Rejuvenating an overgrown mahonia

Pruning regularly is the best way to keep your shrubs and trees in good shape and produce the best display.

However, if a plant has become very overgrown, more drastic action is needed – you’ll need to remove some of the stems and reduce the rest by a third or a half.

Here’s how to rejuvenate an overgrown shrub, a large hedge and a neglected apple tree.

Rejuvenate an overgrown shrub

Removing a branch of a shrub at its base
Removing a branch of a shrub at its base

Cut out the thickest, oldest stems from the base, using a pruning saw or loppers. To prevent tearing a heavy branch, make a first cut, about 30cm above the final desired cut. Remove the oldest wood – up to a third of the stems – each winter, leaving the rest to flower, and cut back any crossing branches. Then reducing the remaining wood by half after flowering. Don’t worry if you can’t see any buds – hard pruning stimulates new shoots from under the bark. This works well on forsythia, mahonia and viburnum.

Reduce a large hedge

Trimming a hedge with electric hedgecutters
Trimming a hedge with electric hedgecutters

Many popular hedging plants can be given a very hard rejuvenation prune and respond well. Beech, privet, hornbeam, mixed native hedges and yew can all be cut back very hard to near the main trunk. Only tackle one side at a time, ideally with a one- or two-year break between prunings, then feed and water the hedge well afterwards. Coniferous hedging plants are a different story – this method works on only two of them, yew and thuja. Lawson cypress and leylandii hedges won’t take hard pruning.

Sort out a neglected apple tree

Rejuvenating an old apple tree in winter
Rejuvenating an old apple tree in winter

Apple and pear trees produce fewer fruits with age. Borne high in the canopy, they are hard to pick and often end up as bruised windfalls. If you enjoy the character of a gnarly old apple tree, then leave it be. Otherwise, take a third of the oldest central branches to open up the heart of the tree and reduce congestion. Then shorten the lower branches by up to half and cut back half of the old, weak fruiting spurs. Remove any crossing branches to reduce congestion.

Hard pruning

Some plants, including Viburnus tinus and Cornus alba, can be pruned hard, right down to the ground. Hard pruning encourages them to send up vigorous new shoots in spring. It’s best to hard prune tender shrubs and evergreens, such as mahonia, in spring, after the last frost.

Frequently asked questions

Help! My garden is seriously overgrown with nettles and brambles!

Don’t panic! Take one step at a time. Make a plan and tackle one area or problem first, before moving on to the next one. If there’s any rubbish, remove this first. Then you may find it helps to divide the garden into sections, that you can work on separately. Always check for wildlife before clearing an area – hedgehogs sleep, nest and hibernate in thickets of bramble and tend to freeze rather than escape when their nest is being disturbed. Once the site is clear, use a strimmer or shears to cut back long grass and nettles, and use a spade to dig out brambles – wear gloves when handling brambles as they have spines. If you have large overgrown shrubs you can cut these back using loppers – see the above tips for how to do this. 

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