IF you enjoy clipping and pruning, you could consider installing a maze in your garden. Also known as a labyrinth, a true maze is a series of paths and passages created by a complex and somewhat claustrophobic arrangement of hedges or walls.
Perhaps dating to the ancient Greek myth of the minotaur who terrorised maidens in the winding tunnels beneath the Palace of Knossos, seat of King Minos, in Crete, the maze has for thousands of years symbolised mystery and entertainment, along with the path to wisdom.
In the Middle Ages, labyrinths and mazes signified the difficult path Christians were often forced to follow, and represented the journey to the Holy Land.
One of the earliest known mazes was at Woodstock in England, where in the 12th century Henry II courted Rosamund.
The maze at the Palazzo Ruspoli just north of Rome, planted in 1612, remains one of the best preserved in Italy. Designed to be viewed from the windows of the palazzo, it is arranged in 12 sections planted in laurel, myrtle and box, with citrus borders outside the maze.
Parterres and knot gardens (more achievable, perhaps, for the smaller domestic garden) were first designed to replicate the intricate embroidery so important in medieval times, as well as finely detailed Persian carpets. They were traditionally drawn in hedging plants of different foliage shapes, textures and colours. In the earliest monastery gardens, parterres were functional, intended to separate medicinal and culinary herbs. Later, patterns became more intricate, housing annual flowering plants or designed as elegant swirls in several species, against a background of gravel.
The earliest mazes were marked out in rock and masonry; turf mazes followed, before conifer became more usual. While yew ( Taxus baccata) is most often used in the northern hemisphere, in this country cypress, perhaps x Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Leighton’s Green’, is more common. (This species is out of fashion in some circles, however, because if left to grow to its full height, it can severely affect a neighbour’s amenity.) Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ may be a better choice: an intense emerald green in midsummer, turning bronze in winter, it is slow growing, which allows for better detailing and a denser finish. You can also find mazes created from rose hedges or from mown sections of turf. They are sometimes planted in corn and kept only for a summer or autumn season.
Mazes and knot and parterre gardens are also created from box ( Buxus spp.): the two boxes, English and Japanese ( Buxus sempervirens and B. microphylla var. japonica), look particularly effective when planted together. The faster growing Japanese box is lighter in colour, while the denser, slower-growing, darker green English box can be pruned lower. You can also use several other plants to create the basic pattern of your knot garden: santolina, teucrium, westringia, lavender and lonicera are just a few. Remember that the slower growing the species you choose, the more finely detailed the result.
In the small 13th-century village of Bagnaia, about an hour north of Rome, you can find one of the most perfect gardens of the Italian High Renaissance, the Villa Lante. Designed in the late 16th century by the landscaper and architect Giacomo Vignola for a young cardinal as a country estate for entertaining, the garden salutes palladian constructs of circle and square. The massive Lake Parterre, richly drawn in box, rests at the culmination of a series of terraces, fountains and water chains. Laid out on the lowest level of the garden, the lake comprises four pools of water surrounded by 12 gardens of box and yew that encase various allegorical motifs, along with tubs of citrus.
Your own parterre can be as complicated as your energy will allow; create fancy over-and-under effects by weaving the variegated box into your design. You could fill in the voids with a changing plant selection in each season: tulips for spring, petunias in summer, perhaps.
Or, if you prefer to avoid too much maintenance, plant an expanse of box and clip as much, or as little, as you like. But, as with all hedging, regular clipping from the time of planting will produce the most intricate, and formal, results.
Whether it is a maze, a parterre or a knot garden you fancy, use graph, tracing or butter paper to draw your shapes to scale. Mark out the areas of different plants by shading the sections in different colours pencils, noting which colours indicate which species. This will also provide you with a legend when you are ready to plant.
Planning and drawing up your design provides that perfect excuse for staying indoors on cold winter days. Follow daily garden tips and tricks on twitter.com/hollykerforsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Seasons in My House and Garden, is out now.
The maze at the Palazzo Ruspoli, near Rome, was planted in 1612