Brave the cold and step into the shrubbery

David Hall, of Halls of Heddon, gave a presentation to Alnwick Garden Club. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
David Hall, of Halls of Heddon, gave a presentation to Alnwick Garden Club. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

Tempting though it is to stay in the warmth of a living room and cosy armchair during daylight hours, we need occasionally to wrap up warmly and brave the elements.

The thought spurred this fellow on when two dry, but cold, sunny days, offered the opportunity to prune, dig and plant, also to inspect shrubs preparing to flower.

Emboldened by the experience, it was a small step to go garden visiting and attend an evening talk.

Although many hardy shrubs are capable of lasting for decades, I view their most productive period to be 10 to 15 years. Beyond that, even with regular pruning, several begin to show signs of diminishing vigour and performance. One way to prepare for this is the regular propagation of stem cuttings.

This can begin in early summer with short new shoots, whose stems are soft enough to root quickly in a heated propagator or over several weeks in the cold frame.

Another opportunity comes in autumn when shrubby summer growth has toughened-up. Hard wood cuttings, 30cms long, planted in the open garden or a large pot of gritty compost outdoors, will root over winter.

Layering is a method that requires no special facilities. Some do this themselves, such as viburnum, winter jasmine, but can be encouraged by pegging or weighing down branches drooping near soil level.

With a few replacement shrubs in waiting, we’ve been digging out older ones that have served us well. This is best tackled in stages; reference the Viburnum tinus, which stood 2m tall, with roots spread far and wide.

The first step was to reduce the height by more than half, leaving two, good-sized, upright stems for leverage. Digging to saw through thicker roots followed. Reconstituting the site with weathered organic matter and fertiliser set it up for new plantings.

Halls of Heddon ( has been synonymous with dahlias and chrysanthemums for decades, so it was a pleasure to welcome David Hall, third generation owner of the firm, to Alnwick Garden Club.

His presentation covered interesting historic images and anecdotes from Northern shows, some now defunct. Then he brought the audience of 50 or so bang up to date with top modern varieties. He certainly knows his plants, and references to the herbaceous perennials and shrubs they grow helped broaden the interest.

Sales figures of 22,000 chrysanthemums and 60,000 dahlias per year revealed the size of their operation. Orders go to New Zealand, Canada, Russia, China and even their country of origin, Mexico.