Shaping up: should I transform my hedges with cloud pruning?

Tiffany Daneff / 05 March 2015

Gardening editor Tiffany Daneff takes inspiration from Jake Hobson’s stunning cloud pruning.

Jake Hobson is one of my gardening heroes because he has devoted his life so far to nothing so apparently ordinary as the garden hedge. Jake is a master at training and shaping shrubs and trees.

I am deliberately not using the T word, for topiary conjures up a rigid, exacting vision of rigid green lollipops quite different from the world that Jake inhabits. Partly, this is because he originally trained as a sculptor at the Slade and largely because he followed this up by going to Japan where he spent a year working in a nursery in Osaka where he learned the art of pruning.

Being no fool Jake also realised that good pruning requires good tools so he set up a company that imports whistle sharp pruning shears and other equipment from Japan. And he has married a Japanese girl. All of which is a round about way of explaining that when I say that I am thinking about topiarising the hedges in my garden I am not thinking lollipops.

Rather disastrously I decided to consult Jake’s book The Art of Creative Pruning. I recommend you avoid looking at this book unless you want to be unsettled. For those of us who are obsessive about hedges this book is bad news. It is chock full of the most beguiling, bewildering, beautiful and to die for pruning.

There are those glorious lumpy cloud pruned hedges in the Wirtz garden at Schoten in Belgium that bubble up like green yeast; unbelievably smooth plateaus of flat topped junipers from Oedo-botania in South Korea; extraordinary swollen buttresses of yew at New Place, Stratford. And on and on it goes. Yew and box are transformed into fairy tale shapes that take your breath away.

And then there are the box hedges in my garden. These are old and overgrown. I suspect that they are the remains of what was once a tidy rectangle of foot high box that once circumscribed a corner of the garden. Now, as you can see, they have bulged and morphed into something else. The first time I saw them they seemed out of place, somehow wrong in the way that they were pushed into one corner of the lower garden. Since then I have been vaguely pruning them so as to bring the separate parts closer to one another. Now I am wondering whether to try and cloud prune them into something looser and more flowing.

Jake describes exactly this process in his book. He suggests 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?

He suggests:

  • 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? (Yes, monstrously carbuncled will do me.)
  • 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.
  • Rough out the basic forms using whatever tools (shears, secateurs, mechanical hedge trimmers). Avoid repetition and aim for a natural irregularity. Take time, invest the hedge with your personality. 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.”

I am enthused, but have I got the courage?

I recommend to you The Art of Creative Pruning by Jake Hobson, £25, Timber Press. See some examples of Jake Hobson's beautiful cloud pruning.

If you are after state of the art clipping equipment then is the place to go.

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