If you’d planted a garden full of evergreens that were now ripe for pruning, you could hardly be luckier than Dilly Hobson. Her son Jake returned from Japan, where he’d spent two years training to become a topiarist, at just the right moment. And not just any old topiarist but an expert in niwaki, or ‘cloud pruning’, the highly esteemed art of neatly clipping trees into a series of soft cloud-like shapes.
Dilly and her husband Tim moved to Harvard Farm, an 18th-century farmhouse in Dorset surrounded by concrete yards and outbuildings, in 1992. ‘It was a working dairy farm with a minimal garden,’ Dilly recalls.
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Her vision was to transform the two acres of land around the house into a series of intimate gardens.
‘I wanted a feeling of seeing through to other areas,’ she says, ‘something more open than traditional garden “rooms” and something that worked with the lie of the land.’
One of the first things she did was to deal with the wind. ‘The farm is high on a ridge and exposed to gales from every direction,’ she says.
To create shelter, she planted evergreens: ‘Common laurel for front-line protective hedging and pyracantha for cushioning the walls, to stop the wind bouncing off them. Once these were growing well, I could start on the more interesting broadleaves and conifers.’
Dilly adores evergreens so she took the time to select interesting species, such as the green olive (Phillyrea latifolia), and planted them in abundance. ‘I wanted the house to be visually anchored in a permanent green framework,’ says Dilly. ‘That way the garden always looks lovely, even in winter.’
Umpteen evergreens now divide the garden into small areas, each with its own microclimate, tucked away from the wind. Even the borders are layered with evergreen foliage, from mounds of box (Buxus sempervirens) low down, to shrubs such as pittosporum, topped with peaks of Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’), which punctuate the skyline like green candles. In between are flowery mounds of perennials.
With extraordinary good timing, Jake returned from Japan in 1998 to find Dilly’s countless evergreens ready for their first prune.
‘It was a lucky situation for both of us,’ Jake recalls. ‘Mum didn’t know how she wanted to prune all the evergreens and I wanted somewhere to try out what I’d learnt. Harvard Farm became my testing ground; over the next few years I clipped away there, gained confidence and discovered what
I like and what I don’t.’
Today Jake, who first visited Japan on an arts travel award from Slade School of Fine Art, where he studied sculpture, is one of the UK’s leading topiarists, specialising in Japanese cloud pruning and in what he calls ‘organic’ topiary, which involves cutting softer shapes that suit the plant and its setting.
His experiments have matured into wonderful topiary that sits within the borders, marks out divides, entranceways and vistas, and forms focal points as huge pieces of green sculpture. ‘The topiary creates contrast and structure,’ says Dilly.
‘It combines well with the informal traditional planting and with the modern perennials and grasses.’
The garden is the perfect mixture of contemporary and old-world elements. As well as fresh streaks of contemporary planting, such as the bed of silver and green foliage in front of the house, Dilly has erected some imposing traditional features, such as an archway of wisteria and a gorgeous tunnel of espaliered apples.
This is all the more impressive as she is entirely self-taught. ‘Everything I know, I learnt while creating this garden,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t easy – the wind is extremely strong and the ground contained farm-building foundations. Some people say their favourite work tool is a fork or a trug – mine is a 4ft metal crowbar, which I use to prise rocks out of the ground.’
Gardening has become Dilly’s passion and she now spends most of her time outside. ‘I have help with the heavy work and Tim designs much of the hard landscaping, but I do all the basic gardening and decision-making myself,’ she says. ‘I’m always changing things. If a plant gets too big or begins to bore me, I take it out. The new space provides exciting scope for change. I’m working on a new pond area: this will be an informal shape with a stone bridge designed by Tim and a naturalistic planting of perennials.’
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Top 5 topiary evergreens
If you fancy a break from yew and box – the usual candidates – Jake suggests the following:
Green olive (Phillyrea latifolia) This grows wild in the Mediterranean. ‘Highly recommended for cloud pruning.’
Holm oak (Quercus ilex) Another Mediterranean that is fully hardy in the UK. ‘Can be clipped into wonderful architectural shapes and also creates a good windbreak.’
Osmanthus (Osmanthus x burkwoodii) Scented jasmine-like white flowers in April and May – ‘and
it makes a good niwaki cloud tree’.
Evergreen privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) ‘Often overlooked but this is great for sculpting interesting hedges. It’s also quick growing and easily available.’
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) Clips into neat lines and its shiny leaves make it stand out. ‘A classic for formal topiary and lollipops – but watch out for prickles on old leaves.’
Is cloud pruning right for your garden?
If you've taken on a garden with a sprawling hedge you're thinking might be perfect for cloud pruning Jake's book is full of expert advice. He suggests first leaving the hedge for a year or two so that it becomes clearer what kind of beast one is dealing with. Where are the stronger plants, which are the weaker?
- Thinking about the design in context with the rest of the garden.
- Will it be a screen and therefore need to be a certain height?
- Will it echo the shapes in the background and beyond? Will it echo the landscape?
- Will the hedge spill on to the lawn?
- Will it be smooth and flowing or vast and carbuncled?
Doing the cloud pruning: step by step
If you've decided you definitely want to proceed then start by drawing the outline of the existing hedge. Then draw, in strong simple lines, what you would like the finished hedge to look like. Aim for organic shapes and avoid repetition.
Get your tools ready. Use the finest shears for leaves but an old pair to cut into the wood. Sterilise your tools by dipping them into a bucket of dilute bleach, or keep a small kitchen sprayer to hand, filled with diluted antibacterial such as Jeyes Fluid.
If you cut your hedge in autumn or early winter you won't get fresh growth until March, so avoid cutting over winter unless you don't mind that. It's best to wait until the end of winter and cut before the new growth comes.
Rough out the basic forms using your tools (shears, scateurs, mechanical hedge trimmers). Take time, invest the hedge with your personality. Start with a small area. Working on cloud topiary is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, says Jake. It's easiest to start with an area that you know what you want to do with or feel confident about.
Take photographs now and then and draw on top of the photo how you how you want it to look, and keep stopping and standing back to see how it is looking.
Come back to it over the year.
It will, he says, encouragingly look a complete mess when you finish. But that’s okay. “It will soon grow back and fill in any evidence of excess enthusiasm.”
Harvard Farm is such a good example of how to clip topiary to suit your own style and setting that Jake holds all his topiary workshops here. One of the farm’s fields contains his niwaki nursery, where lines of trees have been clipped into clouds or await a haircut. Jake’s affable manner and clear instruction (and Dilly’s incredible cooking) mean the workshops are popular. Having watched Jake show how it’s done, using the niwaki tools he imports from Japan, students are let loose on some of the cypress trees. Afterwards there is lunch and a chance to walk around Harvard Farm, which, all these years later, has matured into a beautiful topiary garden, a fusion of mother and son, and East and West.
For details of organic topiary and niwaki workshops at Harvard Farm or to arrange a group garden visit, go to jakehobson.com. To buy topiary tools, go to niwaki.com
The Art of Creative Pruning
These pictures, taken from The Art of Creative Pruning, show the way Jake Hobson’s style can be used to stunning effect to create unusual flowing shapes and that are a far cry from the rigid and structured topiary we have come to associate with stately gardens.
Signed copies of Jake Hobson’s book The Art of Creative Pruning, £25, Timber Press, and imported Japanese pruning shears and other equipment are available from Niwaki.
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