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!

Irish Daily Mail - - Gardening -

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

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