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Cornucopia - The Chelsea Chop

The Chelsea Chop
Pam Tatam

Totally unaware that we were trendy followers of horticultural fashion, we have been practicing the art of ‘Chelsea chopping’ for a number of years. This is a technique that involves cutting plants back at the end of May (during the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, hence the name) to promote bushier, chunkier growth, and hopefully reduce or eliminate the need for plant stakes or supports.

In our case the plants were cut back to provide softwood cuttings, but we noticed (as many others had noticed before us) how much better many plants were (especially sedums and other late flowering perennials prone to floppiness) as a result. Cutting back does also delay flowering, and this can often be beneficial where one wants to synchronise flowering combinations. A recent article in one of the gardening magazines suggested that this was somehow unnatural, almost cheating even. After a summer of wind and rain, I wonder how well the author’s plants withstood the difficult growing conditions.

I thought it might be useful to run through some of the varieties we have ‘Chelsea chopped’, in most cases halving the overall height of the plant and in some instances chopping again in July. (Where we have cut more than once, I shall put ‘x 2’.)

  • Achillea – all varieties
  • Anthemis – all varieties (x 2)
  • Asters – all varieties (x 2)
  • Buddleias – x 2.
  • This year the butterflies were exceptionally late appearing. By cutting plants back twice, and delaying flowering until September, our bushes are smothered with butterflies as I write now (3rd week in September).
  • Campanula – particularly taller varieties such as lactiflora types, latifolia and persicifolia.
  • Chrysanthemums (Leucanthemums) – all, and the later flowering varieties can be cut twice.
  • Eryngiums – often produce a good second flush of flowers if pruned hard after flowering.
  • Lythrums
  • Monarda – x 2
  • Nepeta – all varieties
  • Phlox – all tall, border varieties
  • Salvias – especially taller types such as Maynight and East Friesland
  • Sedums – x 2
  • Veronicas – taller varieties

Perhaps our most exciting discovery was the experiment we undertook with our roses. With approximately 4000 on the nursery (2000 out on the sale beds and the rest as backup), we wondered whether by cutting back half of them we could delay the first flush of flowers until July and August, a time when there are normally only intermittent flowers. Not only did the technique work perfectly, but the new young growth was much healthier and cleaner, thus reducing the need to spray for mildew and blackspot.

Younger, fresher foliage is always healthier than older, tired leaves, and it has left me wondering whether we might try cutting plants such as hollyhocks (notorious for developing rust) hard back to see if we can keep plants cleaner. There must be lots of other varieties to try chopping. We shall experiment further in 2009.

First published in the Lincolnshire Group Newsletter, October 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25.
© Copyright for this article: Pam Tatam

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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