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Hydrangeas growing in Italy inspire local gardener

Garrden Views

A trip to Italy, and their shockingly pruned blue mophead hydrangeas, changed how I thought I should prune almost any shrub.

Their espaliered hydrangeas triggered espaliered oakleaf hydrangeas and George Tabor azaleas in my own garden. True, the initial epiphany was to dance differently with hydrangeas, but years passed and I realized I wanted to dance differently with the azaleas.

You must know how simple it is to espalier a woody shrub. Webster's 3rd International Dictionary defines espalier as "to train to grow flat on." For low maintenance, pay attention to the words "woody shrub." Woody shrubs won't need a trellis or wires. They are easily trained to grow flat against your home by pruning off the front.

A common plant already espaliered and ready for sale is the camellia. They can cost $50 or more espaliered, so purchase a plant not espaliered. You will save more than 50 percent off the espalier price by buying a normal plant and doing the pruning yourself - an easy $25 for less than 10 minutes of time.

Why would you want to espalier anything on your home? Because espaliered plants make a home and garden appear lush and more connected. Knowing the mantra "less is more" is a great rule. Espaliered plants are an exception, proving they make more, less. This isn't a garden design treatise, there's not enough space, but knowing and following garden design rules is just as important as knowing when to break them.

George Tabor azalea is a Southern Indica type with large leaves and large light-pink flowers, and it can grow to 10 feet tall. Mine have been mature for many years. They are planted at a bank of windows and must be kept just below the sill; some of the prunings are 4 feet long. Azaleas begin to set next year's flower buds within six weeks after they finish blooming. Pruning them once a year, after they bloom, is all I do to manage them.

Dressing properly to prune azaleas includes long sleeves in my garden because I'm allergic to them. A few seasons ago, standing with Felco pruners in hand, my eyes and mind coordinated to let my conscious aesthetic know the George Tabor azalea wanted to be pruned in an espalier manner up the brick sides of the windows. The excitement at the explosion of this thought was tempered by the time it took to achieve.

Two years passed, and I continued pruning the front of my azaleas normally and pruning into an espalier along the sides of my windows. Success was achieved, it was gorgeous. Then, disaster. A man doing routine maintenance on my air-conditioning unit said the azaleas were too close. The azaleas must be cut off. Horrific. I was finally dancing in the Italian manner with my azaleas and someone wanted to turn off the music.

A kind heart was within this man. He asked if he should haul off the clippings so I wouldn't have to see them. Time has passed and I have again espaliered the azalea, but in a manner to please both the air-conditioning repairman and me. The Italian dance is back.

Stone Mountain resident Tara Dillard designs, installs and writes about gardens. Her most recent books include "Garden Paths and Stepping Stones" and "Perennials for Georgia."

E-mail her at TaraDillard@agardenview.biz or visit www.agarden view.biz.