Topiary in Moderation

Both Mark and I burst out laughing when we heard a quote from the late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter fame, one of England’s premier gardens and gardeners. “People are always looking for low maintenance and easy care gardens,” he said. “Personally I am of the view that if you love what you are doing, higher maintenance is more interesting.” We could not agree more.

Topiary is a tradition which has not been greatly embraced in this country although it has a long and honourable history in Europe and Asia. It is neither instant nor low maintenance so maybe it has just never fitted the quick and easy tree and shrub style of gardening favoured here. It was Hollard Gardens in Kaponga which first aroused our interest in the use of the heavily clipped punctuation mark shrub to give form to an otherwise loose planting. Subsequently we have realised that this draws on overseas gardening traditions and that there is a place for heavy clipping and shaping without going overboard and thinking that an entire garden must be forced into clipped submission.

The traditional candidate for clipping in Britain is the yew. With its dense growth, tiny leaves, ability to regenerate quickly from bare wood and its longlived habit in their climate, it is perfect. There are reasons why we don’t see many yew trees here. They just do not like our heavy rainfalls and given ground which can stay wet for months the roots give up the ghost. Even quite mature trees can suddenly up and die on you. We recently lost a mature golden yew of some fifty years from our rockery. One month it was vigorous and healthy and next month it was clearly dying. It battled on a while longer, putting out new shoots from the base before it decided that it simply decided it no longer wished to inhabit this earth. It is dead and we won’t be replacing it with another yew tree. We do still have a surviving green one of a similar vintage. It must have developed a major lean in its early years and these days we clip it hard once or twice a year to accentuate the diagonal angle. It resembles a kiwi shape.

Buxus is the preferred clipping candidate in this country. It is pretty forgiving and if you pick the reasonably strong growing sempervirens form, you can get clipped balls, pompoms and shapes in a fairly short space of time. While we have a couple of clipped buxus hedges here and one large clipped buxus dome, we are not particularly enamoured of box and would not plant any more. It is a bit dull really.

The New Zealand yew equivalent is none other than our native totara. It too has tiny, dense foliage and will resprout from bare wood. If you have a spare decade or two and visualise yourself gardening long term, the totara will reward you. While it may be a forest giant when left to its own devices in the wild, it is easily contained in the garden situation by regular clipping. Miros and matais are other native trees which will take topiary or shaping and, to our eyes at least, are a great deal more interesting than buxus. I have a little series of matai balls on 120cm standards which are responding to clipping most rewardingly. I was given a form of dacrycarpus dacrydiodes from Paloma Garden in Wanganui. A witches broom of the magnificent kahikatea or white pine, it is very dense and slow growing and offers itself as another indigenous candidate for clipping.

If you have big, chunky camellias in your garden, you have the raw material for clipping in situ. It is not always easy to know what to do with a big blobby camellia but they can be splendid clipped. When starting from scratch, I would advocate a quick growing but small leafed variety such as tsaii, Fairy Blush or Cinnamon Cindy. But as the smaller foliaged types have only become popular in more recent years, established garden camellias are more likely to be larger leafed japonica types. These are a bit more problematic to shape but do not let the challenge put you off. If you get it wrong, they will grow again. In fact, if you cut them off at ground level, most will regenerate and keep growing. Not even Round Up kills them.

Working with a bigger leafed variety, leave the hedgeclippers to one side for as long as possible. Cut leaves look worse when they are large and twiggy stumps are more obvious. Start with trying to get the shape right from the middle, cutting off wayward branches flush to the trunk. Take out branches which cross or which are clearly growing in the wrong direction for the shape you plan. Prune back growths which are too long. Remove all dead wood. If you are careful with your cuts, it is possible to do this exercise without it being particularly obvious and it should not look like butchery. Then prune back the leafy stems with secateurs, again trying to cut flush with the stem so it is not obvious that you have been cutting it. The aim is to encourage dense foliage growth but in the shape you want. If you are twitching to use the hedge clippers, then restrict yourself to the time after flowering and before the new growth appears or when the soft new leaves are in full growth. At these times, the plant will soon cover the rigours of your assault on its foliage with the clippers.

Don’t be too ambitious from the start. There is considerable skill in clipping spirals, chickens, peacocks, hunting scenes and the like and they are not usually achieved by working with a plant that is already mature. Keep to an obelisk, a mushroom shape, cones, pillars or big balls. Clouds may be achievable if you are confident. Be prepared for it to take a couple of seasons to get the shapes right because the plant may need to thicken to fill in some bare areas. But the reason for this train of thought is that the time for the first clipping of a camellia is straight after flowering with a tidy up in spring when it has put its new growth on. As many of the sasanqua camellias are now starting to pass, you may like to pause and look at them and ponder a little judicious pruning and shaping. It is more fun than weeding.