One of the first things that struck us about the garden when we moved here more than three years ago - where did the years go? – was the box hedge. There are two sections of it, vast overgrown beasts that sprawl across the lawn looking like nothing more than swollen blobs of dark green against the light green slopes. They are out of place, plonked here for no apparent reason, and yet their shape does describe a quadrant of the garden which suggested to me that they might have been planted as a low border around a herb or vegetable garden.
About 18 months ago I found that my hunch had been right. Our neighbour showed us an aerial photograph taken in the 1960s which clearly showed our house and garden. The farm buildings were still in use then and there’s a tractor with a plough on what is now the drive. In the picture the main garden has all been turned over to production, perhaps a remainder from the war effort. Not that there seems to be much growing other than what might be a large strip of potatoes. The remainder of the garden is bare earth. But running north/south is a long hedge about 18in high and sharply clipped to a neat top and sides. And running at a 90 degree angle to this is another hedge surrounding a small rectangle of green. So here it was - the small vegetable garden that I had pictured in my mind.
Over time much of that original hedge has died or been grubbed up and the remainder has just been left to its own devices, turning back from hedge to blobs. No longer serving any purpose they look awkward and lost.
After considering them through the seasons I have decided that the time has come for action. So a couple of weeks ago I put in a call to Jake Hobson, a brilliant topiarist, who, after studying sculpture at the Slade, spent a year working in a Japanese plant nursery near Osaka where he became intrigued by the Japanese way of topiary. Jake married a Japanese girl and on returning to England they set up a business importing Japanese garden tools.
Jake also lectures and runs courses on pruning and topiary which in his hands becomes more of an art than a craft. He has written books on the subject one of which The Art Of Creative Pruning is sitting in front of me on my desk. Inside are pictures of fabulous cloud pruned hedges - smouldering boulders of yew, flowing buttresses and crenellations of box and wave upon wave of wondrous evergreen. Stupendous, unbelieveable stuff. I have been longing to try making one myself. But so far I have been way too scared.
Jake Hobson's The Art of Creative Pruning. See more beautiful examples of Jake Hobson's cloud pruning.
Which is why I phoned Jake. He was wonderfully calm and encouraging. He also provided some very helpful tips. Here they are:
Jake Hobson's cloud pruning tips
1. Use the finest shears for leaves but an old pair to cut into wood.
2. Sterilise your tools dipping them into a bucket of dilute bleach or keep a small kitchen sprayer to hand, filled with a diluted antibacterial. (Jeyes Fluid is just the job.)
3. If you cut now you won’t get fresh growth till March – so avoid cutting into the wood unless you don’t mind seeing it. Otherwise wait until the end of winter and cut before the new growth comes. (I am doing a first cut now so that I can have a second go before next spring.)
4. Take a photograph of how it looks now and then draw on top of the picture how you think you might want it to look
5. Working on a long area as I am is, says Jake, a bit like doing a jigsaw. As with jigsaws it’s easiest to start with an area that you know what you want to with or feel confident about.
6. Try to avoid repetition. Aim for organic shapes.
7. Keep stopping and standing back to see how its looking.
The result I want to create is that of undulating sweeps of differently sized boulders. Something a bit like this image from Jake’s book of Jacques Wirtz’s cloud pruned hedges at Schoten in Belgium (see above).
Last week I took a deep breath and began. I started using shears and stupidly gave myself a mild bout of tennis elbow by working for too long and too hard. The shears that seemed so light grew heavier and heavier as I reached for the top of the hedge. I left it for a week but then I thought I’d have a try with my new cordless hedge trimmer.
It may not be very Japanese but I am just me and the hedges are monsters and I could be here for years if I try to clip it all by hand. That’s my excuse, anyway.
Interestingly, I found the trimmer worked really well at creating smooth curves. It is also great for reaching across the top of the hedge. This new model is more powerful than the one I had before so cuts well without chewing. I also found that some of the box plants were much closer knit and easier to clip than others.
All the things Jake said were useful, especially the stopping and looking. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what to do, so I left and moved on to another bit. I wish Jake was here to hold my hand and say left a bit, up a bit, deeper a bit but in his absence I am just going very cautiously. Better to do less than too much I reckon. This is a work in progress but here, as a taster, is where I have got so far.
Find out more about cloud pruning from niwaki.com and The Art Of Cloud Pruning by Jake Hobson
Find out more about the new GTech HT05-Plus Extendable Hedge Trimmer.