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.

Box Hedge Clipping (2) watermark

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.”

Box Cloud Topiary watermark

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.

Box Hedge Clipping watermark

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.

Box hedge Clipping (10) Year 2 watermark

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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No Time For Growing? A Recipe For Guaranteed Success

We all lead busy lives these days and often don’t have time to sow seeds, despite our best intentions. I garden for my living and, in the tradition of cobbler’s children, my own garden is, more often than not, far from text book perfect. I simply do not have the time for all that seed sowing and pricking out even though I spend all day encouraging others to do it!

Raised beds are often described as labour and space saving and, indeed, they are. They are hugely productive and can look lovely, as the many posts and photographs by fellow Bloggers prove. But what if you don’t have the time even for that?

Here is my recipe for growing summer suppers…..

1. Purchase a box of lettuce. No, not joking! Supermarkets sell a wide range of salad ingredients including growing pots of near full grown lettuce. Recently they have started to sell mixed leaves as seedlings, the idea being to keep them fresh for a few extra days.


2. Carefully remove all wrappers and tip out of their packaging. There is quite a good root system already started.


3. Divide carefully and, just by using your fingers, plant direct into your soil or compost. Water well. In the photo below, for even more speed, I just pinched a few plants out of the growing medium and planted together in one hole. I ended up with about twenty groups – planted separately I would probably have had nearer a hundred. Note the herbs behind the lettuce, all grown the same way.


4. The lettuce in the photo above may have looked a little sad but within a day, the seedlings perked up. Ten days later here are some of them again below. Enjoy!

Recently I have been taking the idea of raised beds a stage further and creating much higher raised beds that avoid the hardship of bending. I use them as ‘walls’ to separate different levels of a garden, I use them on the flat and I use them where the client is elderly or has a disability.

Made from chunky timber so they won’t rot for years, I also make them bottomless as that is always the first place to go. They require less watering that way too. Lining them with black plastic prevents water seeping through and disfiguring the boards which is important if they have been painted or stained. And the boxes just seem to be getting ever bigger!

This box separates the lower dining terrace from the house level and creates a sense of enclosure when seated below. As it is situated close to the kitchen door, the box is planted with a mix of herbs as well as garden flowers. The twisted stemmed bay gives a degree of formality as well as height.

Exotic planting works well in this square box. A hardy palm is underplanted with coleus, the magenta splashes of the leaves are emphasised by the identical colour of the petunias and of this favourite plant of mine, Lythrum. Lythrum is native to the British Isles and grows besides streams and in boggy places. This variety, ‘Robert’, is identical in every way except for its shorter height and is a great garden plant. I’ve found that it grows in quite ordinary soil in the border and it certainly thrived here in these conditions.

 

PS I’ve just remembered! Spring Onions (Scallions) bought as bunches from the supermarket: when planted out early in the year, grow to become reasonable sized onions. They don’t store well but help to bridge the gap that occurs before those grown from sets are ready for harvest. Try some in your boxes!

Watercress works as well: eat most of the stems you buy and plant just the last 2 – 3 inches in ordinary compost. Keep moist and it will provide food up until the first frosts.

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