Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Rose pruning (as always!) and leaf mold.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Questions: Topiary

I've had a few questions about Topiary, generated by last week's post, so here are some answers.

1) How do you train to do topiary?

The easy answer is to say "get out there and do it." Hmmm, not very helpful.  OK, go to your nearest B&Q or Homebase store, and buy one of their cheap Box topiary balls or cones. They're generally less than a tenner, and are a manageable size.

Take it home, put it in a pot, then use it for practice. Take your shears, or your topiary shears if you prefer - oh, sorry, digression, question 1) should have been "what are topiary shears".

These (left) are topiary shears of the simplest sort: two blades joined by a handle that acts as a spring. They are based on early sheep-shearers.

You squeeze the blades together to cut, the spring pushes them open again, so they can be used one handed.

I suppose you could have one pair in each hand - very Edward Scissorhands - but I've never tried to do so. Hmm, maybe I will...

Anyway, these are known as Topiary Shears, as opposed to normal shears which are these things:

There you are, these are normal or garden shears. They need two hands to operate, but they cut a lot more with each snip.

Right, back to question 1) part II: how to train/learn to do topiary.

Take your shears, of whatever sort, and practice moving them over the shape of your topiary, without actually cutting it.

Look at the angle you are making - especially with the garden shears - and try to get them as close as you can to the plant without actually snipping.

Once you have got the feel of it, start just snipping the very tiniest bit off the leaves.

Leave it a few weeks until it is starting to look slightly "fluffy" then have another go, and this time, try to trim it back to where it was. You can generally tell by the colour of the foliage: new growth is pale green, so once you can see the older, darker leaves, stop snipping!

2) How do you cut a curve with straight shears?

I've never really known the answer to this one: I've watched myself doing it time and time again, and I still can't see quite how I can cut a smallish ball using long bladed garden shears. I just do it!

I suppose you have to think of it as making a curve from a large number of straight lines: if you cut enough of them, the overall effect is a curve.

Also, garden shears can be held in two ways: the normal "up" way, and upside down, which is the best position for cutting the far side of a straight-sided hedge. It means you don't have to lean over so far.

3) What are the best plants for topiary?

The usual suspects include Box, because it grows slowly, the leaves are small, it re-grows if you cut it back to brown wood ("oops") and it holds a shape nicely.

Yew ditto, it makes a very dense shape and will definitely come back ("break") from old wood if you need to be drastic.  But not Irish or Fastigiate yew - that's the slender upright one - it has to be English yew.

You can also do basic shapes with any of the small, shrubby Euonymus: just simple domes or squares, as long as you don't mind them being a bit imprecise.

Lonicera Nitida is also very good, but it's very very fast-growing. So, topiary has to be re-done every few weeks instead of twice a year: but it does mean that if you make a boo-boo, it will quickly recover, so it's good for beginners.

This leads into

4) How do you start a topiary from scratch.

Let me tell you about Brian.

In early 2005, I noticed that a client had a Lonicera Nitida bush that was more or less two separate stems, one rather bigger than the other. Being of a whimsical turn of mind, I decided I could make it into a snail, so I trimmed each of the two unequal halves (can you have two unequal halves? Perhaps I should say "each of the two portions"... anyway...) into balls.


I kept two sticking-up branches on the front, smaller, portion, to be made into his antennae.

Here he is in September of 2005, looking pretty featureless, but clearly some sort of proto-snail.

Actually, he wasn't called "Brian" at that point, he was just "the snail" or "oh good, she hasn't noticed yet."  Or possibly, "Can you tell what it is, yet?"

Every few weeks I would just trim over the balls, to get a thicker, denser shape.

Here he is the following year, 2006, round about July.

As you can see, I've shaped in a bit of a nose at the front, and the two antennae are thickening up nicely, if somewhat askew.

I was using the garden shears for most of him, and secateurs for the antennae.

Note: never do topiary on a windy day.  Nearly cut off one of the antennae, once! When doing delicate parts such as the antennae, I find it best to hold the part steady with one hand while trimming with the other.

By now my client had noticed him, and luckily loved him, especially for the grandchildren who thought he was great.

 By 2009 I'd put in a curved shell, and you can see that he's fattened up quite nicely.

All went well until my friend Jim went round the garden one Open Gardens day, and pointed out that a snail's shell does not curl round on top like this: it curls round on the side of the shell.

Duuuuh...

You'd think I 'd see enough snails to know.....  so, I then had to cut out the shaping and start again.

First I spent a little time hunting for a real snail....had a good look at it....realised what I should be doing..... so, I re-cut the back ball into a plain ball, chopping through the steps of the curve as though they weren't there, and revealing a swathe of apparently dead brown edges. Not a pretty sight! But within a couple of weeks it was greening up again, and then I could re-shape it, this time with the curve on the side.


Here he was yesterday, before clipping.

As you can see, he's quite fluffy, and this is about 2-3 weeks' worth of growth.

Nitida does grow quickly, but as I said, it means that if you make a mistake, you can have another go in just a couple of weeks.
And here he is after clipping.

Much neater!

It's not easy to see in these two photos, but his antennae are now going up, then curving forwards and splitting into two.

It was worth having that close look at a real snail.

In case you wondered, yes, he is now "looking" to one side, and the reason is that he has a liddle baby snail by his side.

I found a small seedling next to the original plant, and I'm slowly encouraging it into a similar but much smaller snail-shape.


Here it is, seen from above, looking over the body of Brian.

Or should that be Bryony, now?

Anyway, you can see the same principle: take whatever you have, and turn it roughly into the shape you want: keep clipping it again and again, and it will soon become quite a solid, firm shape.

There, I hope that's answered a few of your queries, do feel free to email me if you'd like more details about any aspect of Topiary, or gardening in general.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Box hedges: Time for Topiary

Ah, a much-loved job: clipping of the topiary.

Box is definitely my preferred medium for topiary: I find yew is a bit hard going, unless you do it more than the regulation twice a year, and unless you use hedge-trimmers.

Alas, I'm not allowed to use hedge-trimmers, I get overcome with power and go completely mad, re-shaping and reducing drastically. "Scissor-happy" is the name for it. Plus, one slip of the wrist - and power tools are generally pretty heavy - and you can ruin a topiary for months.

So I stick to my old-fashioned hand shears, with my normal secateurs for hard-to-access bits. And no, I don't use topiary shears: I have them, I've used them, but to perfectly honest they make a horrible metallic set-your-teeth-on-edge noise. And as secateurs work perfectly well in either hand, I don't really need them.

What? Yours don't? I bet they do, have you ever tried? The only reason scissors don't work in the left hand (if you are using normal right-handed scissors, of course) is that the pressure is applied wrongly. To use right-handed scissors in the left hand requires a particular way of squeezing them at a slight angle. Impossible to describe, but I could show you... no, I'm not left handed, but I can do most things with both hands....anyway, as secateurs are sprung, they don't have that problem. Go on, get out there and try it!

Most right-handed people don't give their left hand a chance, but it's a useful skill to acquire. It gives the right hand a rest, thus extending the time you can work without hurting yourself, and it's sometimes essential when trying to get a small piece of intricate topiary symmetrical.

So, what was I doing today? Answer, the Long Hedges and the Cloud Hedge. I have already done the Cones, and the Little Balls, (Stop laughing, I can hear you.) I have the Ski-slope Hedge and the Battlements yet to do.

Right! Long Hedges.

This is the first one, it runs from the Cloud Hedge round to the gate.

The second one - of which I have no photos - runs from the gate round to the summerhouse, and is in two parts, interestingly angled.

Actually, I'll try to remember to take a photo of it next week.

Here I am about to start, note use of plastic sheet to collect the clippings.


Here we are part way through the job, just to show you how much I have to take off.

And to show you how much neater it looks when done!

Before you ask, I always clip the top face first: then the back, then the front, then I chamfer off the corners.

I know, I know, weird but true: if you try to get precision square corners, it always looks slightly scruffy, but if you chamfer them off, it looks neat.

And here's the finished hedge, along with a bag full of clippings. Oddly enough, in this photo it looks sort of rounded, but I assure you it's flat on top and flat on the sides!

The clippings all go on the compost heap, of course: and the hedge gets a sprinkling of balanced feed to encourage it to leaf up again.

I know some people leave the clippings as a mulch, but it's not good practice: the greenery takes nitrogen out of the soil in order to rot. Yes, it gives it back afterwards, but I'd rather let that process take place slowly on the compost heap, and give it back as fully-composted material later in the year.

Right, now onto the Cloud Hedge.


When I first came to this garden, I thought the Cloud Hedge was the lumpiest topiary Snake ever: but I was wrong, it's cloud-pruned. Silly me.

So now I have to continue the tradition.

Cloud pruning is not as difficult as it looks, you just treat each "bubble" as a ball, but let them merge into each other.

The worst part here is the yew hedge getting in the way - it used to be well behind the Cloud Hedge, but over the years the man who prunes it has let it get just a little bit further forward each time.  This is always a problem with hedges, it's hard to stop them gradually widening over the years. Generally, there comes a time when you have to be strong and give them a super big chop, revealing dead brown branches and ruining the look of it for a couple of months. Worth it in the long run, but a hard choice to make.


So, back to the Cloud Hedge: here it is done, in the rain, yuck, but at least (she says, looking for the silver lining) it stops the clippings from blowing around.

Ah, now you can see that the Long Hedge is indeed flat on top. There, would I lie to you?

Looking at it from this angle, I might go back to it next week and take a bit off that one that's bulging out leftwards a bit, do you think?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Goldfish, Robins and Cotinus coggyria

Yes, it's already June, the days are just flying by, and I have been too busy gardening to do much blogging. Oh, and research visits: I've been to Grays Court and to Sudely Castle recently, purely for research (honest!) and have enjoyed looking round their gardens and answering questions.

Yes, even when I go and visit someone else's garden, I still end up answering questions! At Sudely Castle a woman was anxiously - and loudly - looking for the name of a climber, and I felt compelled to help her out, as it's one of my favourites: Actinidia kolomikta.

There you go, great, isn't it? It's a climber, and the leaves start off green but then go white with pink edges, so you get a wonderful waterfall of colour, looking as though it's been raining pink.

I have two small cuttings of it in the "specials" section of my front yard: I took them over two years ago, and of a dozen cuttings, just these two remain. One is a bit of a non-entity, but the other is suddenly putting on some growth, so I might just have to pot it on and maybe put it somewhere sunnier.

Of course, I then had the pleasure of her company for some time, as she had a stream of gardening questions... I don't mind, actually, I could talk about gardens all day! But I managed to tactfully give her the slip after a time - after all, I was there to do some serious research, not to enjoy myself!

Today, no time for research, hard work up at the Yard: it was pointed out to me that pallets are actually quite good bench substitutes, being a) free  and b) slatted for good drainage. So, it was round to the disused stables and a merry afternoon digging in the straw of ages, to unearth half a dozen of them then cart them round into my Yard on the trusty, rusty wheelbarrow.

Here they are, propped up on spare old bricks to make it easier for me to water and check the plants.

Not bad, eh?

OK, not the most stylish of benches, but they were free! The bricks are just on loan, there are piles of them lying around - as there are in most disused farm yards, it seems! - and presumably, or hopefully, they will be re-used when the old stables are knocked down and re-built.

In the meantime, they are being useful for me.


Here's the yard as it looks today: it's becoming populated with plants, and so far I haven't had any problems with bunnies or slugs. (*touches wood*)

The biggest problem so far is the wind: it's a windy place anyway, being at the bottom of a slight valley, and the actual yard is a bit of a wind-tunnel.

This means that I have to water most days, even if it's overcast, as the wind is drying the plants out more than the sun.

Another job today was to bail out the water tank: we are due some heavy rain tomorrow, so I wanted to get it emptied and refilled with fresh water. I made a slight mistake, I didn't realise that the roofs which drain into it are covered with that lumpy mossy stuff, so when it rains, it gets washed down the drainpipe into my tank. Then it changes into disgusting black spongy stuff, and eventually the water went very cloudy, with a thick layer of silt on the bottom.  Ooops! I've now fixed up a filter (an old kitchen strainer) over the end of the downpipe, so hopefully once clear, it won't get as mucky again.

I have been considering putting a lid over most of it, to stop the water going green, but the plants won't mind, and the fish don't seem too worried, so I probably won't. Yes, I still have fish in my tank! I hadn't seen hide nor hair (fin nor scale, possibly) of them for some time, and I was a bit concerned that the soupiness of the water might clog up their gills. However, the masses of mosquito larvae had completely disappeared, leading me to believe that they might still be alive in there somewhere.

Yup! As the level dropped, there they were: first Bill appeared and was put aside in a bowlful of soup water: then Scott appeared to see what was going on, and took a trip in the net to join Bill: and eventually, when I was down to the last 2" of water, Bram Tanking finally whooshed around the tank, playfully avoiding my net until the last possible minute.  So there you go, goldfish in water butts do indeed eat all the larvae, and they don't seem to mind if it gets quite cloudy and revolting-looking.

Now on to much prettier subjects: robins. Yes, we all love robins in the garden, and here is the little chap who belongs to my morning garden: can you see him, sitting on the handrail?




Not content with being that close, he wanted to walk right round my feet, and here he is quite literally at my feet while I was trying to weed the bridge.

As you can see, no fear at all, just an insatiable appetite for small edible things.

He followed me all the way round the lake, as I progressed slowly with the wheelbarrow, weeding as I went.

Oh, must tell you about this:

I'm sure you're all familiar with Cotinus coggyria, the smoke bush, and particularly the purple-leaved one; well, I was pruning one the other day, with the client calling out "down a bit - now that big one - now the one at the back!" to get the bush into a more balanced shape.

When we'd done, she collected all the cut branches, and look!  What a great Goth wedding bouquet that would make!


The photo doesn't do it justice, with the light behind the airy flowers, the effect was fantastic. So any Goths out there thinking of getting married in character, leave it until about this time next year, and choose Cotinus as your bouquet....