Points of interest

In an otherwise undistinguished garden in Giverny village, these clipped hummocks gave real impact.

In an otherwise undistinguished garden in Giverny village, these clipped hummocks gave real impact.

Punctuation points. That is what clipped shrubs can be. Very effective punctuation points, at that.

Formal gardens will often have pretty much everything clipped. If you have ever been to many Italian gardens, you may have noted the inclination to clip everything – at times to within an inch of its life. It photographs well. In fact we have often found that the photograph can be better than the real thing when you get to see it.

The modern New Zealand garden is characterised by clipped hedging, often carried out with military precision whether 30cm or 200 cm high.

But if you don’t want a formal garden or clipped hedging, there is a middle path. Punctuation marks.

Clipped accent plants give form in this garden which has predominantly loose herbaceous plantings and grassy meadows. Pettifers near Stratford on Avon.

Clipped accent plants give form in this garden which has predominantly loose herbaceous plantings and grassy meadows. Pettifers near Stratford on Avon.

It is the English gardeners who can lay claim to the mix of formality and informality. At one level, it is that act of taking hard edged design and softening it with froth as the proponents of the Arts and Crafts garden movement did.

It is a technique that you can transfer to many situations. At its simplest level, a tightly clipped shrub gives a focal point of order in a casual or chaotic environment. If your garden looks an unkempt mess, try it. You may be surprised at how a formal shape can make the disorganised areas alongside look as if they are intentional.

A sequence of clipped punctuation points gives coherence or visual order to an otherwise disorganised space. Sometimes it is a deliberate design feature, other times it may be closer to an act of trickery by a laissez faire gardener.

While the topiary bird At Gresgarth may be beyond the amateur, the sharp lines give contrast to the informal plantings and design.

While the topiary bird at Gresgarth may be beyond the amateur, the sharp lines give contrast to the informal plantings and design.

As you progress up the status ladder, a clipped shrub can become a deliberate focus to act as counterpoint to more informal plantings. It is then filling the role that others may choose to try and fill with manmade objects – a bird bath, a seat, maybe a sculpture – but there is a logical orderliness to a well tended shrub that those other objects may lack.
Pyramids on stilts give an accent point, a breathing space between two very different gardens at Bury Court.

Pyramids on stilts give an accent point, a breathing space between two very different gardens at Bury Court.


I have also seen small groupings of clipped shrubs used as a breathing space, a quiet linking device between two very busy but different areas of a garden.
Various shrubs can be clipped effectively. There are the tried and true hedging plants of buxus, lonicera and teucrium. Yew is a classic clipping candidate.
Often referred to as “pudding trees”, these Chamaecyparis give structure in the otherwise informal cottage garden made by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor

Often referred to as “pudding trees”, these Chamaecyparis give structure in the otherwise informal cottage garden made by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor


Camellias clip well. If you can cope with the prickles, so do hollies. Choysia ternata takes clipping. Evergreen azaleas take clipping and shaping well. So indeed do our native totara and matai. Some conifers can be clipped, some cannot. The mark of one that does not take clipping is a failure to sprout afresh from bare wood (in other words, where you have cut below the external leaf cover). It can be terribly blotchy and twiggy on conifers, if not terminal. Do some research first before you try this on your prized specimen.

The more you clip, the denser the new growth becomes so the tighter shape you get as a result. But if you are considering a first hard clip to establish a shape, do it right now. This very weekend is good. That is because at the end of the day, most plants are on the cusp of breaking into fresh spring growth (spot my political allusion). The aim is to clip before that happens, stimulating the plant to make fresh new growths at the point where you have cut it back. You will generally have to follow up with a tidy-up trim of long new growths a bit further down the season, but the first clip is the most radical shaping. Once established, you can often get away with just once a year.

Or clip on special occasions when you want your garden to look sharp, cared for or creative.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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