Is that yew, NIGEL?
If you’re thinking of trying topiary, now’s the perfect time, says Monty Don – you can even immortalise your beloved pet in a hedge!
THIS is the perfect moment to trim evergreen topiary or hedges. This will keep them crisp all winter. Yew and box are ideal but plants such as holly, phillyrea, eleagnus, Lonicera nitida, bay and pittosporum can all be successfully clipped and maintained in a wide variety of shapes – but leave any hard pruning until new growth starts to appear next spring.
Whatever you’re cutting, always use something very sharp. This might seem obvious but it’s astonishing how many people cut their hedges and topiary with old hedge trimmers that have never been sharpened. Not only do sharp tools make it far easier for the cutter, it’s also much better for the plant. A blunt hedge cutter crushes and shreds the leaves as it goes through them, leaving a large surface area that’s much more prone to infection and fungal attack, as well as a brown, bruised residue. But sharp blades slice cleanly, leaving a neat wound that will heal quickly.
I’ve become a convert to hand shears over mechanised or electric hedge cutters for all but the largest topiary jobs. Cutting deciduous hedges is different, but a good pair of shears, kept sharp, makes light work of the controlled leaf removal that comprises most topiary and a pair of secateurs on one’s belt is all that is needed to cope with the odd thicker stem. Have a bucket of water, perhaps with a dash of bleach in it, in which to regularly dip the shears. This will reduce the buildup from the cut leaves, make clipping easier and reduce the risk of infection. Clean and oil the shears at the end of a session.
I have two kinds of topiary in my garden. There is Topiary Nigel, the yew representation of my golden retriever Nigel and the sole figurative work in the garden, and scores of yew and box cones. Until earlier this year there were also 64 large box blobs, but these have all been dug up and burnt as a result of incurable box blight. In their place I have just planted a range of thickleafed box (Buxus sempervirens ‘Handsworthiensis’) and yew – all grown from cuttings – that I intend to cloud-prune into a series of free-flowing blobs and hummocks over the coming years. As its name suggests, cloud-pruning is simply a Japanese style of pruning shrubs and trees into shapes that resemble clouds. Other than cutting back leaders to encourage side shoots, this kind of topiary is really a case of understanding how the plant wants to grow and then using your instinct. This lack of precision, in the initial stages anyway, reduces stress and makes it a lot of fun.
Topiary Nigel demands a different approach. For a start he is made of four separate plants (one for each leg, although the majority of him comes from two plants) that were trained from the outset on a cane structure. Secondly there is not a lot of room for improvisation with the model constantly there for comparison. And do remember that yew is poisonous, to dogs and cats as well as humans.
When making a figurative piece you need to establish a strong framework of growth before starting serious shaping. This takes a few years, but tying shoots in will help. Any that are tied in to the vertical will grow stronger, while lowering a shoot down to the horizontal slows it down. Cutting back a leader results in bushier sideshoots and eventually, with regular clipping, what seems flimsy will become solid.
Finally, do not worry if you remove too much. With all topiary there is a safety net as new growth can be trained in to replace a cut too far.
Monty with Topiary Nigel and (inset) the real Nigel