The art of Topiary

Box clipping season is approaching, heres how I approach it with a few hints & tips on getting the best finish.

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Hidcote manor

It’s the start of May and I’m already thinking about clipping my Box hedging. I realise that I’m early, traditionally its always left till Derby day to allow new growth to toughen up. Those of you who follow my Twitter account will have realised I get a bit over excited about Box hedging. I guess it stems back to one of my very first jobs in horticulture when I was put in charge of renovating a collection of topiary shapes that were in a bit of a sorry state. Sat in pots with no food for a great length of time and sporadic watering I made a vow to bring them back into use.

It wasnt just box topiary, there were 6ft spirals of Cupressus ‘Goldcrest’ and small balls and spirals of lonicera nitida ‘baggesen’s gold’. My first act was to re-pot not by going up a size but by removing their pots, cutting off the old roots, banging out as much of the old compost as possible then re-potting in a good loam based compost. I couldn’t go up a size as these plants were effectively show plants and were taken around the country for various events so needed to stay in sensible sized pots. Then ensure they all got a damned good feed of Nitrogen, even despite the new compost these babies needed all the help they could get!

After 3 months and a couple of tidy haircuts they looked amazing again and I was so proud when the went back out on the show circuit for the first time in over a year.

But then maybe that wasnt the start of it? maybe I had absorbed this love from my dad? He’s always been the one who wanted to have things grown in odd shapes, he loves a good standard. It doesn’t matter of what, he’ll make pretty much anything into a standard left to his own devices. One of his proudest was a standard Callistemon he’d grown from a small cutting. Outside his house in Durham, he has carefully over a number of years clipped a Lonicera to resemble a cat. There used to be an owl on the other side of the path but its more of a dumpling now. Sadly during the heavy bout of snow we received recently the cat took a bit of a battering. First heavy snow made it lean a bit, then sadly dad ‘may’ have nudged it with his car as it was leaning further than he expected… oops! Oh well, it will recover but here it is in its glory days! Its tail used to be a tiny thin whip which went around the drain pipe in a single thin strand. Over the years it’s definition has been lost a bit but you can still see it’s a cat…. or a snail… maybe

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I’m not sure exactly why I find topiary so darned satisfying, both to look at and to do. Maybe its the structural element it brings to a garden? As seen here in a friends garden, the simplicity of this design is awe inspiring in its magnificence. Excellent use of clipped hedges and reflective pool with a borrowed landscape which looks fabulous in any season.

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Maybe it just satisfies something in my creative side? Whatever the reason I will happily spend hours crouched getting it just right… and then groan loudly as I finally unfurl to step back and admire it.

The art of creating shapes and patterns out of hedging plants dates back to Roman times and there are many English gardens which have amazing topiary hedges hundereds of years old. Beckley park, Hidcote, Great Dixter, Hever castle, Levens hall and Biddulph grange to name just a few.

More recently the Japanese art of Niwake, or cloud pruning, has become more popular in european gardens.

There are a million tips I could give you on how to get the best finish, I admit I’m a bit of a topiary snob and others will probably loudly disagree with some of the things I’ll say and that’s ok. They have every right but it doesn’t make me or them wrong. All I know is I’m happy with my methods.

My most favourite thing is restoring topiary shapes, a plant that hasn’t been clipped for two or three years can look daunting, the shape almost lost… but fear not! A well clipped shape will still be there inside the fuzzy soft growth… you just need to find it.

Heres what I mean…

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With really out of shape topiary go slowly, you can always take more off but you can’t stick it back on. One thing I will do repeatedly when cutting is flick my hands over the surface, this shakes loose any debris and also allows any soft fluffy growth to pop back up to the surface. You’ll know when you’ve hit the sweet spot, the plant will feel firm when you brush it over, it wont flop and fall over.

First you need a nice sharp pair of shears.

I have an amazing pair of Niwake shears I bought specifically for cutting topiary, its a total luxury in a way but they are so beautifully balanced and stay incredibly sharp, giving an incredible finish. The sharper the shears the cleaner the cut, there’s nothing worse than a pair of shears that chew their way through the hedge doing untold damage to the leaves and stems as they go. The fact they’re lightweight and balanced is equally important to me as after a day of cutting I have absolutely no strain to my hands, shoulders and forearms.

Of course you don’t have to invest so much in a tool but if you can, I would recommend doing so.

I know some people use hedgecutters, which is a skill in its own right but personally, on box, it’s not something I like doing. I will happily use them on pretty much every other type of hedging but the risk of spreading box blight when using a hedgecutter is high.

This is one of my all time favourite pics, taken by my head Gardener at the time Quentin, at Hole Park.  To cut the tops of the yew ‘Pianos’ was so much fun!

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The blades are difficult to clean properly and if you’re trying to restore an unruly topiary shape it can be difficult to get it just right, especially if there are awkward corners.

One last reason I’m not keen on hedgecutters is the risk of scorching the hedge with the exhaust, This example came from a contractor who used a long arm hedgecutter on a tree next to the box hedging. It can happen to us all, a moments lapse in concentration then a week or so later the damage appears.

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I know some people will take the thick off then swop to shears to give the finishing touches that feels like doing a job twice to me with the added disadvantage of more clean up time as the cutters will throw bits everywhere no matter how careful you are.

No.2 on my list of must have’s is camellia oil, for your blades. I’ve never felt comfortable putting WD40 or 3in1 oil onto something that is effectively going to wound a plant. This might just be me being weird but it just feels wrong to be introducing something so… chemical? synthesised? unnatural? to a plant. I have no proof this is any better or worse for the health of the plant but I do know it protects and lubricates the tools as good if not better than the conventional, modern alternatives.

Next a tarpaulin!

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If you have ever tried to clean up every tiny bit of box to prevent blight without using a tarp you will understand exactly why I use this.

Trying to clean up leaves from gravel is a nightmare!

In a border with other plants a lightweight plastic tarp can be draped over the top and stops bits flinging everywhere but without crushing the other plants nearby, tuck the edge under the topiary you are clipping and all you have to do at the end is gather it up trapping the debris inside.

One of the most important things with box especially is cleaning your blades. Clean them thoroughly between each plant to prevent spread of fungal infections. There are 2 things you can use, first is surgical spirits, the second is a weak solution of Jeyes fluid (mixed to the manufacturers recommendations). Both should be used with care to prevent contamination of waterways and kept out of the reach of pets and children.

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This pic above shows a desperate box ball struggling under Hydrangeas which had all but swamped it, I honestly don’t know how long it had been left unclipped but it had become incredibly top heavy pretty much collapsing under the weight of the new’ish growth. It took a bit of perseverance to find it again as every time you fluffed it big holes would reappear where it was still too heavy to support the shape. Gradually taking less and less off it came to the stage where I could fluff it and it retained its ball shape.

Below is a fun little hedge I used to do, this one had been installed relatively recently and kept in reasonable shape so very little restoration work was needed, I’d say its still one of my fave’s just for the pure design element of it.

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One of the first jobs I had mentally set my heart on when joining Ulting Wick was cutting the box hedging, Ill be honest here, it took way longer than id anticipated. It was incredibly shaggy by the time I started in July

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So the first bit I tackled was the Old Farmyard getting my eye in on the straight sides. I never use a line, I was taught that the eye can judge it better in the sense that if other angles around it are slightly off which they often are it makes even a perfectly straight line look wonky. As you can see the tops looked particularly fluffy at this point with the extra added challenge of having a jungle quickly encroaching on them!

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But perseverance won through!

I then moved onto the other box which actually wasnt so bad!

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To my chagrin though I ran out of time to do the pink garden, a combination of unsuitable weather conditions coupled with tall plants later in the year meant it got left…. but! Last week I made a start….. Oh my god they were fluffy!

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Its almost hard to see what shape they had been! …

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But gradually they emerged

One thing I do know is that because ive clipped them so hard they will retain their shape now till next year and clipping them again will never take so long and year on year the shape will become more robust and defined. One tip I can pass on is always cut back hard. If you don’t cut back to the old growth, over a period of years the plant will keep gaining size and much like my dads cat tail at the beginning will eventually lose all definition. Remember you control the size and shape not the plant.

Eventually you should end up with something like this!

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Its worth mentioning quickly, especially for those in the london area, about Box Caterpillar.

Introduced just 10 years ago on imported plants the moths babies can totally devastate and defoliate a box hedge in literally weeks. The caterpillars will eat their way through a hedge as soon as you can blink. Fear not though! At present they are limited to London and surrounding areas … although they are colonising outwards… and you can treat your Box to stop them in their tracks!

For the home gardener there are several options available, there are pheromone traps which lure the male moths in and trap them on sticky pads inside preventing them from mating with the females. There is also a biological control which can be used on the caterpillars themselves. This has the advantage of being quite specific to caterpillars and isn’t harmful to your pollinators, like a general insecticide spray which kills everything, but timing this is essential. Too soon and the fungus that does the damage to the caterpillars won’t be able to infect them, too late and the same problem. It works using a fungus called Bacillus thuringiensis which enters the caterpillar through its gut, the caterpillar eats the treated leaves and is infected that way.

There are now several reputable firms which have spotted the need for this treatment on a commercial basis in infected areas and if you have problems I would honestly recommend you ask one of them to do the treatment as they have access to the commercial treatments, they know the exact timing on when it should be applied and how much.

Ask them if they have their sprayers licences and a treatment programme. A good firm will know how to answer your questions on this and be transparent about their treatment plans.

If you have been unlucky enough to already take a hit from either Box blight or Box caterpillar fear not! Both are treatable! Although the really effective treatments are only available to licensed professionals.

I hope for all our sakes we are able through careful handling and treatment of these problems we will continue to enjoy our Box topiary for many years to come!