Chang­ing shape of top­i­ary

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Leisure - HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

LAST week we talked about mazes, parter­res and knot gar­dens, some­thing for those of us who love to prune. Oth­ers also en­am­oured with clip­ping, how­ever, and in a salute to beauty as well as util­ity, may pre­fer the art of top­i­ary. It is not as dif­fi­cult as it might look, re­quir­ing only a mod­icum of skill with shears and se­ca­teurs.

For those who gar­den in re­gions of se­vere weather and dif­fi­cult soil, who are time poor, or who don’t fancy the flam­boy­ance of flo­ral borders, top­i­ary pro­vides a smart and rest­ful al­ter­na­tive. Green is, af­ter all, the most sooth­ing in the colour pal­ette.

Among many great ex­am­ples of the art of top­i­ary — to be found in gar­dens the world over, from Levens Hall in Eng­land’s Lake District to do­mes­tic dwellings on Naoshima Is­land in Ja­pan’s Seto In­land Sea, Ade­laide’s Car­rick Hill and Old Wes­ley­dale in the north of Tas­ma­nia — Chateau de Gour­don, in the Alpes Mar­itimes in the south of France, must be among the most ar­rest­ing.

Perched about 800m above sea level and over­look­ing the Loup (wolf) Val­ley, Gour­don is one of sev­eral for­ti­fied cas­tles that cling to cliff sides in the hills and moun­tains be­hind the French Riviera, a re­gion oc­cu­pied al­most con­tin­u­ously since Ro­man times.

Con­struc­tion of the cas­tle, perched on a bare, rocky peak and dubbedthe Ea­gle’s Nest, be­gan in the 12th cen­tury. A nat­u­ral strong­hold, through the cen­turies it pro­tected vil­lagers from a range of in­vad­ing tribes, and the cas­tle and its own­ers some­how sur­vived the French Revo­lu­tion. The build­ing you see to­day, if you man­age to nav­i­gate your way up wind­ing, nar­row moun­tain passes, was re­built in the 17th cen­tury af­ter a fire. It was only af­ter it was oc­cu­pied dur­ing World War II that the cas­tle turned from pro­tec­tion of its vil­lagers to tourism.

Even for stu­dents of his­tory, art and ar­chi­tec­ture, it is the gar­den at Chateau de Gour­don — laid out on sev­eral but­tressed ter­races that hover, shrouded in mist, above the val­ley — that will elicit, surely, the great­est ad­mi­ra­tion. The west­ern ter­race, seen here, was de­signed by the land­scape ar­chi­tect to Louis XIV, An­dre Le Notre (1613-1700). A flat grassed ex­panse houses count­less trees and shrubs, many of them box or cit­rus, clipped into orbs. All around, wild flow­ers cling to tiny soil pock­ets in the haz­ardous cliffs.

You don’t need a cas­tle in the clouds, of course, to cre­ate your own top­i­ary gar­den, and you can use the skill in gar­dens that in­clude other styles. You only need a lit­tle pa­tience, and per­haps some imag­i­na­tion, to put your choice of shapes to good use. Some gar­den­ers love to clip ducks, hens, kan­ga­roos and ele­phants, but for those not so flam­boy­ant, top­i­ary cones, obelisks and globes are both use­ful and beau­ti­ful. They can mark out dif­fer­ent sec­tions of a gar­den, di­vide a long peren­nial bor­der into man­age­able main­te­nance sizes, or can di­rect a visi­tor from one sec­tion of a gar­den to the next.

Among many plant choices for cre­at­ing top­i­ary fea­tures, slow-grow­ing ever­green plants are best, as they al­low for the most de­tailed, fine fin­ish. As men­tioned last week, gar­den­ers in the north­ern hemi­sphere love the som­bre yew ( Taxus bac­cata), while mem­bers of the Cu­pres­sus genus are more suited to our cli­mate. More slow grow­ing than many conifers, Thuja oc­ci­den­talis ‘Smaragd’ is an ex­cel­lent choice in cool tem­per­ate parts of this coun­try: it has lus­cious emer­ald-green fo­liage in mid­sum­mer, tak­ing on bronze hues for win­ter.

Our na­tive lilly pil­lies, par­tic­u­larly Syzy­gium pan­ic­u­la­tum and S. luehman­nii, cope well with be­ing top­i­arised, but, be­ing faster grow­ing, will re­quire more clip­ping. Make sure you buy psyl­lid-re­sis­tant va­ri­eties. S. aus­trale ‘Tiny Trev’, with its bronze tones, is one of the best low­grow­ing lilly pil­lies: it re­quires prun­ing only twice each year to main­tain a dense, neat form. (I’ve seen it used as a low hedge, look­ing stun­ning en­cas­ing a swath of blush-pink flow­er­ing Vibur­num burk­woodii, which is planted be­hind a fur­ther rib­bon of daphne.)

The hardy, fast grow­ing spindle­bush ( Eu­ony­mus japon­i­cus) is ever­green, with el­lip­ti­cal, glossy leaves. Try the var­ie­gated forms, which are splashed cream or limeyel­low, to il­lu­mi­nate dark corners. And the fast grow­ing na­tive creep­ing wire vine ( Muehlen­beckia ax­il­laris) can be used to cre­ate a va­ri­ety of top­i­ary ef­fects, al­though a wire frame is usu­ally needed for sup­port.

While you might con­sider that the best gar­den is that per­fectly at home in its en­vi­ron­ment, per­haps with lit­tle change from the land­scape in which it rests, gar­den mak­ing is, af­ter all, an art: surely one in which top­i­ary has a place. If you visit Chateau de Gour­don, don’t miss the charm­ing perched vil­lage of Tour­rettes sur Loup, fa­mous for its vi­o­lets. 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.

HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

The west­ern ter­race of the Chateau de Gour­don in the south of France

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