A Gardening Journal
Pollarding the Golden Scots Elm
- Published: December 04 2012
The gold-leaved Scots elm is a vibrant and vigorous presence in the warm months, but in the cooler ones, its look could scarcely be more different. The change is not just because the brilliant gold foliage drops during Fall to reveal the bare branches, as dramatic as the loss of color and screening capability is.
With the incredible foliage out of the way for the Winter, the branches themselves are what next engages us. I pollard this elm back to the top of the trunk; all the branches have grown just since May. It's an incredible display of arboreal horsepower, in that some of these dozens of first-year "twigs" are two inches thick and over ten feet long.
The predominant verticality of their growth has satisfying integrity. If there were a line of these pollards, what a powerful show would be created. In Summer, a bulky band of brilliant chrome-yellow foliage would be visible on Google Earth. In Winter, hundreds and hundreds of bare yellow-tan branches would thrust upward, for a display of different but still substantial intensity.
But as appealing as these branches are, today's the day they all get cut off. Ulmus glabra 'Aurea' grows quickly, and only with the yearly pollarding does it remain as compact as it is here; an unpollarded tree would soon grow many times as large.
The question is when to do the pruning? Unlike with, say, espaliered ornamental quince, where the pruned branches are just as valuable when brought indoors to force into flower as the pruning itself is to control the size and structure of the espalier, there isn't use for the pruned branches of this elm. And while they are attractive against the Winter sky, they're less so when seen head-on, with the neighbor's house as the backdrop.
Nor is there the pressure of seasonality in scheduling the pruning. Before flowering? After flowering? Before the weather gets cold? Not until the plant is waking up the following Spring? The elm's flowers aren't so showy that they enter into the equation, and because the tree is extremely hardy, timing of the pruning doesn't affect the tree's response to it.
Plus, garden chores are always dependent on the gardener's will or whim, not just the plant's needs and the season's dictates. If the moment is right, all other things being equal, then go for it. And today, the moment was right: The weather was warm and sunny, and the more urgent Fall tasks of planting bulbs and hustling tender plants into shelter were finally completed.
Ten minutes with pruners and a folding saw, and the pollarding was done. How long were those first-year branches, really? Laid atop a ten-foot row of bluestone for comparison, a few tips extend beyond the far edge of the stone at the left. A couple of the first-year "twigs" were eleven feet long!
With these modestly showy branches now shorn from the tree because of whim and expedience if not horticultural mandate, did the overall aesthetics take a hit? That depends what you think of a trunk that has been pollarded before Winter has even begun.
Growth won't resume until Spring—late April at the earliest—so there will be nearly five full months of looking at this just-pruned trunk. Apart from the knobby swollen roiling-with-energy look of the top, so clearly the point from which who knows how many new branches will spring in Spring, the power of pollarding is the message. This tree wasn't planted and then ignored. It's in partnership with the gardener who planted it. Every year, as long as the gardener (or his designate) shall live, the tree and the gardener will meet sometime during the cold months, for a session of serious grooming.
If you respect gardens that show as blatantly as this that someone is definitely keeping an eye on things, and taking active interest in them, pollarded plants are for you.
Here's how to grow golden Scots elm.