DEBBO

After my garden visiting weekend in Marlborough, I came home feeling that I was suffering from DEBBO. That is Death by Buxus Overload. You can have too much of a good thing.

I will admit that we have the odd metre or two of buxus hedging ourselves and it certainly makes a tidy little hedge but the bottom line, as Mark is inclined to observe, is that box hedging is grossly over used and is basically boring and clichéd. He has never been a buxus fan.

I have been told by overseas visitors that in New Zealand we use clipped hedging a great deal. If that is the case, it probably started for two reasons. One is that we live in a windy country and most gardeners need to establish wind breaks. The second reason is that plants in this country are ridiculously cheap by international standards and planting a long hedge is usually a great deal cheaper than using permanent materials such as brick or stone and we can do it ourselves in an afternoon. It is this second reason that is probably responsible for the cumulative hundreds if not thousands of kilometres of low clipped hedges, mostly buxus, that we feel driven to plant to define the bounds of individual gardens.

Buxus is an infinitely handy little plant. It is so easy to strike from cutting that it is within the reach of even novice gardeners. And because it is so easy and so common, if you decide to buy it, the plants are cheap as chips. It does not grow too fast so you can get away with clipping just twice a year. Even if you cut it back to bare wood, it will shoot again and bush out. It will grow in harsh conditions (though it can get a bit yellow-ish at times) and tolerates rough treatment. Its main problem is the nasty fungus which is attacking and killing plants in warmer areas but has yet to be a major problem locally. All of which means we probably have our share of buxus kilometres in Taranaki gardens too. Even the lake in Pukekura Park has a buxus hedge which has always struck us a little redundant.

We have not yet felt such dislike of buxus that we have ripped out our modest metreage but at the first hint of buxus fungus we will be reaching for the saw and spade, not for the sprayer. And for some years we have been reviewing other options for neat clipped hedges. The big problem is that there is nothing that roots as easily and is therefore as cheap as buxus let alone its fine, small foliage. But there are options with better coloured foliage which will take cutting back hard and form dense little hedges.

Top of the list are some of the small leafed camellias. We have trialled various options here and our short list of suitable camellias for dense, clipped, small hedges includes brevistyla (which also suckers a little which is no bad thing for a hedge), microphylla and minutiflora (all species with small white flowers. Some of the very slow growing miniature camellias could also be used for clipping in to tidy hedges. Others, like Fairy Blush, Night Rider or transnokoensis can make great intermediate sized clipped hedges.

Some of the species camellias will set seed relatively freely so if you are patient, you could raise the seed to get cheap hedging. Seedlings are not identical (unlike cutting grown plants which carry all the same genes as their parent) but for a clipped hedge they should be close enough.

If you feel compelled to have buxus hedging in your potager (though why anyone wants to eludes us because it takes up valuable space, sucks nutrients and moisture out of the soil and provides a perfect hiding place for snails) you may like to consider a clipped edging of Camellia sinensis instead. If you gathered the clippings and fermented them, you could even aim to be self sufficient in tea. I saw cranberries pruned hard in a Blenheim potager. In that case they were lollipops but there is no reason why they could not be hedged. Locally, Te Popo Garden had hedged cranberries last time we visited. The ripe fruit has a wonderful aroma.

My short hedge of loropetalum chinense (the green form; we are conservatives here and rather of the view that hedges are best green, not in-your-face burgundy or chocolate or even grey) is thickening up well and only needs a passing trim twice a year.

In frost free areas, compact little vireyas Saxon Glow, Saxon Blush and Jiminy Cricket (all sister seedlings) make a tidy and attractive little hedge. Vireyas root easily so you could buy one and try your hand at cuttings.

Totara can be clipped heavily and becomes more dense, sprouting even from bare wood and forming a really classy indigenous hedge. It is a bit prickly when it comes to clipping and the prunings are not exactly ideal in the compost heap but because of that, it is also a burglar and child proof hedge. It is extremely hardy and long lived. Our remaining length of tightly clipped totara hedge dates back to the end of the nineteenth century and it is still dense and only two metres high. Some of the fine leafed coprosmas and corokias are other native plants which lend themselves to clipped hedging. The Aussies love our pittosporums for hedging but you need to be selective about the colour of the pitto you chose as some can be rather pale.

We are very lucky here to have an in-house hedge trimmer who takes great pride in getting them looking sharp, to the extent that he uses string lines and a spirit level. But we certainly would not contemplate planting a hedge that needed trimming more than twice a year. For that reason, we shun the popular teucrium and lonicera which certainly make good, quick and cheap hedges but need your attention a great deal more frequently than twice a year. In fact to keep those two looking good, it can be closer to twice a month in the peak growing season.

Next time maybe : NAB C BAT. That stands for Not Another Boring Clipped Bay Tree. And yes I do have a large lollipop bay tree (laurus nobilis) but it is in the vegetable garden where it is acceptable (it is the culinary bay and belongs in the herb garden) though it does get thrips in our climate. There are other plants besides buxus and bays that you can topiary as punctuation marks in the garden. Seeing some originality and flair in plant selection can be like a breath of fresh air for garden visitors who will often see the same plants used in similar ways in multiple gardens. Deliver me, please, from any more buxus and bays.