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Lifting shrub skirts to improve a shady garden

Tiffany Daneff / 15 April 2016

Find out the importance of lifting shrub skirts – an easy quick fix that’s guaranteed to make more of a dry, shady garden.

Osmanthus with lifted skirt
Osmanthus with a lifted skirt, allowing light to reach the flowers planted around it

Ever since Rachel de Thame first filed a piece for me – (could it really be 15 years ago?) – on the subject of lifting skirts I have found this one of the most appealing and satisfying of gardening jobs.

The skirts in question are the lower branches of shrubs and trees and the idea is that by removing some of these you allow more sunlight through to the ground below where little woodlanders or other low growing plants might be struggling. One forgets how important light is. The other benefit is that you reveal more of the trunk/stem, which can look more elegant in a minimal Japanese sort of way.

Related: designing a Japanese garden

There are two osmanthus growing in the flower beds in the garden here. They were left by the previous tenants and have now reached about four foot. I’d given them a good tidy up when we moved in three years ago, removing a lot of dead and dying wood and have regularly mulched and fed them.

Three years on they have greened up nicely, are much bushier and are flowering profusely. They have also sprouted lots of untidy side growth. All this has meant that the shade they provide has become dark, dry and spreads over a greater area. The poor persicaria growing under them are in danger of giving up the ghost and there’s no point trying to plant anything else to cover the ground.

I’ve the same problem with the holly tree which, by the way, is still bearing berries. This is a first time this has happened in the last three years and goes to show what a relatively mild winter we’ve just had. Underneath the holly is a mass of woodlanders, primula, brunnera, hellebores and so on and they too have been looking rather cowed and overwhelmed by the swooping, berry laden branches.

Related: planting in dry shade


I’ve now taken the lowest ring of branches off the holly, a very easy job with a small pruning saw. I reckon it took less than ten minutes but it has opened up the area underneath substantially and, once I’ve done some weeding and clearing the woodlanders will be much happier.

The results are even more impressive with the osmanthus, mainly because they were messier to start with and I removed more growth so the difference is much clearer to see. The real pleasure though, will come later when the persicaria, with luck, puts on some growth and starts to look happy and, together with the nepeta I’ve just moved, start to colonise the dead ground. There is nothing more guaranteed to upset gardeners than miserable plants and equally nothing that brings greater pleasure than seeing them thrive. Lifting skirts is a quick fix.

And if you haven’t got anything growing under your shrubs and trees then lift the skirts and get planting! All kinds of ground cover and woodland plants will thrive in this dappled shade.

How to lift the skirts of a shrub

The idea is two fold: to bring in more light to the ground below and to reveal and make the most of its shape to which end:

1. Consider how you want the shrub to look when you’re finished and keep stopping and standing back as you prune. Take your time.

2. Using a sharp clean pruning saw, loppers or secateurs remove some of the lowest branches thus raising the canopy. Only you can judge how much to take. My rule (as I am a fiend once I have a cutting tool in hand and liable to take out too much) is to stop and leave the job for a couple of days. If you need to take out more you can - but you can’t glue branches back on.

3. Tidy up the main stem removing unwanted wispy side shoots.

When to do this

The rule is if it flowers before mid June prune it just after flowering. If it flowers after June then wait until late winter or early spring.

Related: creative cloud pruning

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.