A medieval technique of hard pruning, known as pollarding, is used on the four crab apple trees in Cuxa Cloister garden to control the height of the trees and the spread of their canopies. The pruning is done in late winter, while the trees are still dormant.
Above: Frances Reidy, our arborist, cutting last spring’s growth back to the same “head” as the previous spring’s. This successive hard pruning produces the “knuckles” of tissue characteristic of pollarded trees. This is the third year in which the technique has been applied; the knuckles at the head of the branches will become more pronounced as the pollard matures.
Although pollards are usually created when a tree is very young, we are applying this technique to our mature crab apples in order to solve a problem. In 2008, we realized that these trees had grown so tall and wide that they were obscuring the medieval architecture of Cuxa Cloister and shading out the lawns and beds of the garden. On the expert advice of our arborist, Frances Reidy, we decided to reduce the size of the canopies by resorting to a medieval technique known as pollarding. In order to transform the crab apples into pollards, we needed to perform the necessary pruning over the course of three years. (If we cut the trees back by more than a third at a time, we would risk sending them into shock.) Ms. Reidy is now working on the third and final phase of the transformation, but the pollards will have to be cut back to the same point every year, a task that will be taken on by the gardens staff.
Pollarding is sometimes used in modern horticulture to control size or to enhance ornamental effects such as flowering or fruiting. However, the medieval technique was developed as a form of woodland management, and was intended to produce successive crops of young shoots from selected species of trees, such as willow or ash. The new growth was produced well above ground level and was thus protected from browsing animals. Once harvested, the wood could be put to many practical purposes.
More on pollarding in the Middle Ages to come…