Many shrubs, if left unpruned, outgrow their allocated space or become filled with unproductive old wood. One solution to this is to cut them right down to the ground and let them start again. Shrub species that can tolerate this drastic treatment are those that – by their nature - have dormant buds near the base, hidden just under the bark.
The technique, known as coppicing, can be applied to most of the deciduous shrubs, and is a particularly useful remedy for overgrown forsythia, lilac (Syringa), flowering currant, mock orange (Philadelphus) or smoke bush (Cotinus). It is done when the shrubs are in their leafless state, between November and March. Unless they flower very early in spring and are coppiced straight after, that year's flowers are usually lost.
Some evergreen shrubs can also benefit from coppicing, although the operation should be delayed till April or May, as they generally tend to be less hardy. If done too soon, the delicate new stems sprouting from the base might get killed by frost. For those shrubs that flower in mid to late spring (e.g. rhododendrons), the coppicing can be done directly after flowering.
Laurels, rhododendrons, camellias, Choisya, hollies, Viburnum tinus, Euonymus and yew all tolerate severe pruning. A dose of manure or general fertiliser, and watering during the following summer, should ensure recovery.
In recent years the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) has become very popular on account of its fast and abundant growth. If left unchecked, it can reach tree size within 15-20 years. Fortunately, it can be safely cut down to within a few inches of the ground, and be maintained as a shrub with regular pruning. The added advantage being no flowers and no fruit to be eaten by birds and 'planted' as weeds in our woodlands where, sadly, it is seen more and more often...