Country Living (UK) - - Contents -

Fan­tas­ti­cal topiary forms and in­trigu­ing ar­chi­tec­tural finds fea­ture in an artist’s gar­den in Kent

birds are every­where in artist Char­lotte Molesworth’s gar­den in Be­nen­den, Kent. Not only does she en­cour­age the real ones by feed­ing them in win­ter, but she has also found a creative way to make her own. Sprout­ing from yew hedges are won­drous peacocks, perched upon deftly fash­ioned balls and col­umns. Be­low these are chirpy-look­ing fledglings, roost­ing on wave af­ter wave of box­wood, glimpsed through green spi­rals and pyra­mids, cones and balls – all prod­ucts of Char­lotte’s vivid imag­i­na­tion, artis­tic eye and ra­zor-sharp shears.

“I don’t like cut­ting straight lines – that’s ter­ri­bly bor­ing,” Char­lotte says. “So, af­ter I ‘waved’ the top of one hedge, I slowly re­alised I wanted all the gar­den to be like that.” She has clearly had tremen­dous fun and the ef­fect is ut­terly mag­i­cal, es­pe­cially on a misty win­ter’s morning, when a touch of frost still rimes the pre­cise out­lines of her cre­ations. Topiary forms are trained us­ing bam­boo sticks and string. “Never use wire, as it gets for­got­ten and then stran­gles the poor plants,” she says.

Char­lotte sim­ply fol­lows her in­stincts and a plant’s nat­u­ral struc­ture to tell her what shape to de­velop. She prunes from a steady, three-legged Ni­waki lad­der for safety, with an elec­tric hedge trim­mer used over the straight bits and Ja­panese hand shears for in­tri­cate de­tail. “Yew has a won­der­ful en­ergy and vigour,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of cut­ting it – even if you muck some­thing up com­pletely, you can put it right the fol­low­ing year.”

She and hus­band Don­ald moved to Bal­moral Cot­tage more than 30 years ago. Although the acre of gar­den had lain waste, it had a lovely rich, fer­tile soil, hav­ing been the well­worked kitchen gar­den of the great Vic­to­rian plant hunter and Ja­panese cherry ex­pert Colling­wood “Cherry” In­gram.

“There was no real plan,” Char­lotte says, “but box was def­i­nitely on the agenda from the start – we took hun­dreds of cut­tings from my mother’s gar­den and asked for yew seedlings as wed­ding presents and set them all out in rows to grow them

“Yew has a won­der­ful en­ergy and vigour – don’t be afraid of cut­ting it”

on.” A path lead­ing from their don­key field to a newly dug pond formed the back­bone, and the rest of the gar­den evolved from there, ex­pand­ing out to ei­ther side, with beds full of herba­ceous peren­ni­als, shady borders un­der trees, a nut­tery, kitchen gar­den and chicken run. Ferns also fea­ture – Char­lotte rec­om­mends ‘Pulcher­ri­mum Be­vis’, a choice cul­ti­var of the soft shield fern Polystichum setiferum, “which re­tains its shape from when the first fronds un­furl to when you chop it down in March”. Echo­ing the or­ganic nature of the plants are sin­u­ous metal sculp­tures on loan from Peter M Clarke (pe­term­clarke.co.uk).

Much of what she and Don­ald have gar­nered for the gar­den has come from skips and been do­nated by friends and rel­a­tives – res­cued stone from a de­mol­ished barn forms a ter­race, slate is now a table­top and an up­turned, gal­va­nized wa­ter hod makes a sur­face for a col­lec­tion of trea­sures. “Don­ald and I are in­fa­mous scav­engers, so we are for­ever be­ing of­fered things,” Char­lotte says. On one oc­ca­sion she bun­dled a vast, up­rooted yew bush found aban­doned by the side of the road into her Mini Coun­try­man, driv­ing home with barely room to move, her face pressed against the wind­screen. Even her first wavy-topped hedge was made up of “waifs and strays” – cut­tings and seedlings of yew, box, holly and horn­beam amassed from friends and fam­ily.

Gen­er­ous in re­turn, Char­lotte prof­fers cut­tings to those who show in­ter­est, and is happy to share her knowl­edge. Her skills

as a topiary artist are much in de­mand and she has trav­elled to many other gar­dens to clip, shape and ad­vise. Re­cently, she has been pleased to find an as­so­ci­ate, Dar­ren Lerigo of Mod­ern Mint (mod­ern­mint.co.uk), who she de­scribes as “ea­ger, strong and ready to go”, to take over from her on larger com­mis­sions, as she prefers to spend time in her own gar­den and art stu­dio.

So far, to Char­lotte’s re­lief, there has been no sign of the dreaded box blight that has af­fected so many gar­dens. She puts this down to luck and scrupu­lous plant hy­giene (see box, right) and, more re­cently, the use of bi­o­log­i­cal con­trols called Mi­cro­ferm and Oenosan, which for­tify the plants and in­crease their re­sis­tance. These are made up of ef­fec­tive mi­cro-or­gan­isms (EM), and she buys them from Karel Goossens’s nurs­ery in Bel­gium (buxu­skwek­er­i­j­goossens.be/en). “I spray very early in the morning when the leaf peti­oles are open and most re­cep­tive,” she ex­plains.

Also on the ad­vice of Karel, who Char­lotte met through the Euro­pean Box­wood & Topiary So­ci­ety (ebts.org), she now cuts box from Novem­ber to Fe­bru­ary only, when there are fewer fun­gal spores, in­stead of at the tra­di­tional time of early June. She rec­om­mends his bi­o­log­i­cal spray to de­ter box cater­pil­lar, too. “There was a time when I feared we might have to bull­doze the lot be­cause of our aver­sion to the use of chem­i­cals, but now I feel con­fi­dent that box does have a fu­ture. I have high hopes that these bi­o­log­i­cal con­trols could be the an­swer.”

Cre­at­ing any gar­den is a learn­ing process and Char­lotte has also dis­cov­ered that you should al­ways make paths at least half as wide again as you think you might need. “It’s def­i­nitely some­thing to bear in mind if you’re start­ing out.”

Bal­moral Cot­tage in Kent is open for the NGS on Sun­day 29 April and 6 May, 11am-6pm (ngs.org.uk), and for Open Stu­dios on week­ends in June 11am-6pm (ex­cept Satur­days 16 and 30). A cot­tage in the grounds is avail­able to let (the­p­ot­ting­shed­hol­i­daylet.com).

PRE­VI­OUS PAGES Topiary peacocks, spi­rals and balls cre­ate a mag­i­cal scene

FROM LEFT A ter­rar­ium filled with lichens and a clay pot of suc­cu­lents are com­bined with sal­vaged items atop a gal­va­nized wa­ter hod; the small glossy leaves of box (Buxus sem­per­virens) are dec­o­rated with a sparkling

white coat­ing of frost OP­PO­SITE Many char­ac­ter­ful ar­chi­tec­tural finds, in­clud­ing this wa­ter pump and iron pig swill boiler, both found on site, have been in­te­grated into Char­lotte and Don­ald’s gar­den de­sign

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