Thinking Outside the Box(wood)

Over the years I must have hand clipped many miles of box (in the USA, boxwood) hedging and once the knack is mastered it can be quite therapeutic.  The main rule to follow is to remember that it has to be precise for there is nothing worse than a straight, level hedge that is clipped unevenly.  It irritates the eye as much as a picture hanging crookedly on a wall.

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Patience and plenty of time are key factors in ensuring straight lines

I can’t say that I feel quite the same about topiary.  I can admire the craftsmanship that goes into producing weird and wonderful shapes but it is so easy, in a lapse of concentration to, say, cut the ear off a teddy bear or the beak off a peacock.  As a consequence, I find it rather stressful.  Cloud topiary is far more forgiving but, again, it doesn’t really “do it for me.”

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You need even more patience to clip topiary

Perhaps the most rewarding design I have created was turning four rather scruffy and unbalanced squares of box into simple but elegant cubes.  Yes, it was topiary but to misquote Star Trek “it’s topiary Jim, but…”  To begin with, I was faced by the four squares each with a rather ugly and thorny shrub rose growing out of their centres.  A consequence of this design was that the box couldn’t be clipped properly and neither could the rose be properly pruned.

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The original design with roses always looked scruffy

To create the design the roses had first to be removed leaving a gaping hole in the centre of each square.  Fortunately, I had some reasonably tall box plants elsewhere in the garden that I could dig up and replant.  I soon discovered that it was impossible to plant them properly without damaging the existing plants.  My gamble of just standing them on the earth and then throwing topsoil over them to trickle through the branches paid off.  The soil covered the roots and probably much of the lower branches too*.  Given a good watering, the plants thrived.  Before trimming  all the outer edges needed to be marked with string lines for accuracy in cutting.

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Without strings for guidance clipping the box into perfect cubes would be almost impossible

I thought about all sorts of fancy designs for the tops of the cubes and, as is so often the case with design, I decided that simplicity was the key to a satisfactory outcome.  Two cubes would have a raised circle and two a raised square.  It was essential that these weren’t too high – I didn’t want them to look like a combination of wedding cakes and pimples!  I found that it was impossible to mark these designs out and so they were created without guidelines, relying on my eye to tell me where and what to clip.  By their second year of clipping they looked as if they had been there for ever.

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The design will look just as good in winter when highlighted by frost or snow

Box is such a versatile plant to use and it is well worth experimenting with them.  Below are three photos of how I have used them: the first is the classic edging to a border; the second to bring focus to a set of garden steps; the third a mini-parterre to link two levels in a garden.  Your garden doesn’t need to be huge or grand to use box in these ways – the parterre was suitably small scale for a tiny town garden.  Have a go at creating your own box design – and if creating a topiary peacock is your thing, that’s fine with me – just don’t aske me to clip it!

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The classic use for box – fronting a border

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Giving focus to garden steps

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Mini-parterre for a tiny garden

 

*This is also a good and easy way to create plenty of new plants for the buried stems will often send out roots.  When they do they can be severed from the parent plant to be grown on elsewhere.

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Growing Sweet Peas – the lazy person’s guide

Imagine it is mid-summer, the morning sun is warming the day and you are gathering handfuls of pretty, multi-coloured and fragrant flowers to bring back into the house.  If this sounds like a heavenly dream then read on.  The dedicated gardener will need no further encouragement to grow sweet peas but for those less keen on gardening or with little time, they are still the perfect choice.

So, even if your idea of gardening is to sit in it with a glass of chilled, white wine, there is a quick and easy way to grow sweet peas for, at this time of year, pots of young seedlings are available from garden centres.  They are usually grown in a single pot with a dozen or more plantlets crowded together.  They nearly always come as a mix of colours but it is necessary to check that they are a tall-growing and scented variety.  Avoid buying the scentless and/or dwarf types, both of which I dislike intensely – why grow these when they should be fragrant and elegant?

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Sweet peas grown informally on a ‘wigwam’ in the garden border

If the weather is reasonable and the soil not frozen, the seedlings can be tipped out of their pot, teased gently apart and popped in the ground about six inches (15cms) apart.  It is beneficial to make sure that the soil in the pot is moist so give them a good drink an hour or so before planting.  Sweet peas, being climbers, need something to clamber up: the traditional way are hazel sticks. These are ideal for the sweet peas attach themselves readily to the rough and twiggy stems.  If hazel cannot be found, bamboo canes also work well although the young plants may need a little helping hand at first to attach themselves – use any short twigs for this just to prop them up.  The canes, which are traditionally placed into a circular ‘wigwam’, need to be about 7-8ft long so that once in the ground they are about 6ft tall.  Apart from keeping them watered in dry spells and free from slugs and snails that’s it.  They will begin to flower in June and continue (providing you pick them regularly and never allow them to set seed) until the autumn frosts.  Incidentally, they grow well up fences too providing they get adequate sunshine.

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For more experienced gardeners and those that want to enter the local flower show try growing them as ‘cordons’.  With this method they are grown in straight rows on bamboo canes or strings to a height of 5ft.  A place in the vegetable garden is ideal as they can be readily accessed from all angles without treading on other plants.  The spacing is again six inches apart.  For the best blooms, remove the tendrils and any side shoots as they appear, also any flower stems with less than four flower buds. With no tendrils for self-clinging it will be necessary to tie the plants to the stakes with string or by using metal rings sold especially for the purpose.  When the plants reach the top of the canes and/or the flower quality diminishes, cut the plants free of their stakes and lay them carefully along the ground. Tie in the growing tips to their nearest stake and train as before.  The plants will flourish having been given a new lease of life.

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These sweet peas, grown as cordons, are now ready for layering

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The layering process

Sweet peas are readily grown from seed, either sown in pots or the ground in March/April or in pots in October.  I prefer to start them in individual pots regardless of the time of year and to protect them from the worst of any cold weather.  The seed does have a hard coating and many gardening books advise chipping the individual seeds with a knife.  Not only is this hard work and time consuming, I have never found it to be necessary.  The seed is both plentiful and inexpensive and if a few don’t germinate does it really matter that much?

The growing and exhibiting of sweet peas reached a peak in late Victorian and Edwardian times with many specialist clubs holding shows.  With patience and luck, who knows you may become a medal winner at your local flower show?  Even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded by a garden full of colour and a house full of scent.

Book Cover

There is lots more no-nonsense advice for gardeners in my book “Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?”  To take a peek inside the covers, click here.