Linking a Garden with Doorways in Hedges

Recently I have become mildly obsessed with doorways cut into hedges. I think they are a wonderful way for large gardens to link different areas.

Too often hedges are seen as static features, acting as a barrier to divide one area from another. By cutting a doorway the hedge’s purpose changes and becomes an integral part of the garden design, linking rather than preventing access.

And there is also something ‘Alice in Wonderland’ about them, appealing to our human nature to explore.

I am lucky by living in the Cotswolds to have two gardens nearby that utilise hedge doorways with great success. They are Hidcote and Kiftsgate. Here are a few examples from those gardens that may help explain my growing obsesssion with this design feature:

1: Garden rooms are a big feature of Hidcote, dividing the large garden into manageable and distinctly different parts. Here they have used Yew hedge to divide a lawn area from another section of the garden. The doorway has been carefully placed to provide access but also to draw the visitor in by offering a tantalising glimpse of a curved gravel path. Where does this path lead? Who could resist this invitation to explore further.

Two large, stone paving slabs are placed on the lawn side to help with wear but also catch the eye and make the door more visible. It’s surprising how easy it is to miss these doorways when there is not a path leading directly to them.

2: This time the doorway is cut through a beech hedge. Again the same principle of a curved path is used to entice the visitor through the hedge but not reveal too much of the garden beyond. The only option for the inquisitive is to follow the curved path and see where it leads.

3: There is no intrigue with this hedge doorway. It is a yew hedge that has been cut and shaped like an archway to become a feature of the garden. The design links with the topiary in front.

The paving stones are smaller as you approach the archway to slow the visitor down, before they make their grand entrance through the yew archway into the next section of the garden.

4. This doorway at Kiftsgate is cut into a purple beech hedge. The strong lines of the path draw the garden visitor towards the doorway. The dark purple colour of the hedge perfectly frame the green foliage of the garden ahead, creating a visible focal point.

5. This one isn’t a doorway cut into a hedge but I wanted to share it with you anyway because, basically, I like it. The gardeners at Kiftsgate have trained Sorbus aria into an archway. The large leaf shape, colour and texture of the Sorbus contrasts perfectly with the yew hedging. There is not the intrigue as associated with a small doorway cut into a hedge, rather a dramatic statement to attract the visitor to view more of the garden.

6. It doesn’t always have to be doorways cut into hedges. At Kiftsgate the gardeners have cut a window into a yew hedge to frame a view of their contemporary garden room.

This glimpse of the reflective pond and fountain is enough to encourage the visitor to find the path leading to this section of the garden and discover more.

Beat Box Blight with Curved Tops on Box Hedging

I have noticed box blight affects the top part of hedges and topiary more than the base. The top is where the fungal infection seems to thrive, causing the most defoliation and stem damage.

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My approach with box blight infections is to treat the hedge twice a year with a commercial grade fungicide and encourage the gardener or homeowner to adopt good gardening practices such as watering from the base, regularly sterilising clipping tools and clearing up as much fallen box leaf litter as possible.

So far this approach has had good success. The fungicide helps stop the infection getting worse and gives the box hedge a chance to recover. But unfortunately you can’t kill box blight. Once a hedge has become infected, it becomes a case of managing the disease rather than finding a cure. There is always a chance the infection will flare up again as fungal spores can remain active for up to 6 years.

The hedge in the photo above did recover. But as most of the damage from the blight infection was concentrated on the top, I was left with a hedge that had lovely new growth on the sides and twiggy patches along the top. So I cut the box hedge with a curved top using the fresh growth on the sides to hide the twiggy areas that were taking longer to recover.

This did improve the appearance and I also noticed the incidents of reinfection on the top were reduced. The repeated fungicide treatments were obviously a factor but it started me thinking whether cutting the box with a curved top was better for the health of the hedge?

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Before I explain my reasoning I should add there is not scientific basis behind this theory! It’s based on my experience of working with box hedging and topiary.

A flat top is the popular choice for box hedging. This has be the same for centuries. Parterres and knot gardens created with box hedging used to be meticulously cut with flat tops using hand shears. Now we have the luxury of battery and petrol powered hedge trimmers that over time create a far tighter finish on the box than hand shears. This looks great but has the downside of reducing the air circulation into the hedge and creating conditions perfect for a fungus to thrive in. Cutting the box with a curved top improves the air flow into the hedge and discourages the box blight fungus.

The main difficultly with this approach is convincing the garden owners as most still prefer the look of a flat top. Changing the fashion to curved tops will take time. Personally I like the look of a curved top but it doesn’t work on all designs. The flat top suits formal parterre designs whereas curved tops work on more informal, organic designs like the snaking box hedge in the photos below. What do you think?

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Restoring Old Yew Topiary

As I was working in Dorset the other weekend, I took the opportunity to visit the beautiful Mapperton House gardens.

Their ‘Pool Garden’ is lined with large, cone-shaped yew topiary. Some of the yew topiary has become misshapen over time and I was pleased to see the brave decision has been taken to restore a few to their original shape.

This type of restoration is not for the faint hearted. It involves hard cutting the yew back into the old wood. The beauty of yew is that it will regrow from old wood. But this does take time. Probably two to three years before the topiary starts to look how it used to.

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For the restoration to work, the topiary is hard cut back to a supporting framework of strong branches. The yew will soon start to rejunivate, from the tips of the supporting branches and from within on the main trunk.

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For a while the hard cut topiary will look like a skeletal collection of branches with very patchy, irregular regrowth. Periodically trim this growth to encourage it to thicken and to maintain the restored shape. After a few years the yew will look better and with continued, regular trimming the topiary will be restored to its former self.

The best time for this style of extreme restoration is in late winter/ early spring. The yew is still semi-dormant but will not have long to wait before the sap starts moving and the new growth begins to appear.

If this restoration work is being carried out on a yew hedge, it is best to cut one side and then wait until next season to do the next. This gives the hedge a chance to recover from the traumatic shock of the hard cut.

Leaving one side to recover with round and cylindrical shapes is difficult. The top part could be cut first and then cut the bottom half next season. But sometimes I think it is best to risk cutting the whole shape and cross fingers the yew topiary recovers. Regular feeding and watering in dry spells will help the yew cope in this time of stress.

For those with less patience, pre-cut topiary can be purchased and used to replace the old misshapen yew. But for those who can wait, rejuvenating old yew and restoring it to its former glory can be a deeply satisfying experience.

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Supporting Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ with Box Hedging

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ is a beautiful shrub. Large white balls of flowers on long stems from the end of July and into August. But this variety of hydrangea has a reputation for flopping due to the size of the flower heads. Wire supports help but they don’t look great.

A natural support is box hedging. I was inspired by the photos of Gina’s garden on Instagram to plant Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ in a front garden that has borders edged with tall box hedging.

Two years on, the hydrangeas have established and look stunning. Billowing clouds of white flowers contrast beautifully with the green of the box hedging. Some of the hydrangea stems are holding each other up as they have grown densely together. Others flop gently on to the box hedging.

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As the hydrangea flowers fade, they turn a lovely bronze colour that looks particularly good on a frosty winter’s morning.

Usually box hedging is not happy when crowded out by herbaceous perennials. Patches of dieback can appear. This often happens with perennials like geraniums that put on lots of foliage early in the season, and block out light and air flow to the low hedging. However, box hedging copes well with Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ as the flower heads only start flopping when they are full sized in mid to late July. This gives box enough time for the new Spring growth to harden off. As the flower heads age, they lighten and lift off the hedging enabling better air circulation- an important factor to discourage box blight.

The box hedging needs to be at least 60cm high to provide adequate support. Any lower  and the hydrangeas will fall straight over it. In early Spring cut off the old flower heads to the nearest two strong buds, rather than cutting the Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ back to the ground. This helps the stems to thicken and become stronger to hold up the new flower heads.

Trimming the box hedging can be a little awkward. Carefully tie the hydrangea back using string and posts, lifting the flower heads off the hedging enough to allow access for the shears or trimmers. But still be careful as it’s very easy to cut a hydrangea stem by mistake. On the plus side, Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ make lovely cut flowers for the house.

If you have a box parterre or border edged with box hedging then I definitely recommend Hydangea ‘Annabelle’ for a low maintenance planting solution that has maximum impact. They will need regular watering, especially if we have a summer that has been as dry as this year. But it’s worth the effort when you can enjoy the results.

Mature Beech Topiary with Personality

I use the social media network Instagram to share photos of my work. I enjoy the feedback and interaction with other topiary enthusiasts from all over the world. Photos of a project that always have a good response is six mature standard beech balls. They form a visual barrier between a garden and the neighbouring paddock.

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The history of the beech balls is not fully known. The beech trees existed when the current garden owner purchased the property 30 years ago. I would guess the intention was to create a pleached beech hedge. But the creative flair of the current owner’s late husband meant the beech were rounded.

The last four years I have been responsible for maintaining this beech topiary and have been working on developing their curved shapes.

Each beech ball is different. Some are becoming more oval in shape as their neighbours exert their dominance. I like to emphasise this individuality when trimming, rather than trying to achieve a consistent ball shape. I do however keep them at the same height from the base of the topiary ball to the top, in relation to the sloping ground.

Each beech ball has its own personality, much like you find with old yew topiary. Their quirkiness adds more interest than a row of standard trees. Every September I feel like I’m visiting old friends when I go back to trim and shape them. Haven’t actually given them names yet but I will admit I do have my favourites.

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Fungicides And Good Gardening Practices Are Ways To Beat Box Blight

One of my services is fungicide treatments for the disease called box blight. The fungal disease attacks Box (Buxus sempervirens) and can result in large, twiggy bare patches and dieback.

Box blight was first recognised in the mid 1990’s and has now become a real problem in many gardens all over the UK, especially with the warm and damp weather.

If you suspect box blight in your garden then please feel free to contact me for advice or to discuss our fungicide treatments to help prevent the disease.

So what is Box Blight?

Box blight is a fungal disease that largely affects Buxus sempervirens (Box) and its cultivars.

Two fungi are the common cause- Cylindrocladium buxicola (syn. Calonectria pseudonaviculata) and Pseudonectria buxi. Identification is best in wet conditions. White spore masses on the underside of infected leaves signifies C. buxicola, whereas P. buxi spores are pink. Both can exist on the plant at the same time but C. buxicola will be the one causing the most damage.

What should I look out for?

Autumn and Winter is usually the time when you may see the first signs of  box blight.

The common symptom is dark brown or black spots appearing on the Box leaves. These will merge to cover the entire upper leaf surface and soon after the leaves will fall off, leaving twiggy, bare patches on the Box.

Look closer and you may see black streaks on the stems. This is caused by the C. buxicola fungus and will cause die-back on the Box plants.

What can I do?

Box blight is not a death sentence for your plants.

If possible, cut out any severely affected areas. As far as is practicable clear any fallen leaf litter and dead material. Destroy both, ideally by burning. Do not put any Box leaf litter, cuttings or dead material  in your compost as the fungus spores can remain viable for at least 6 years. Fungus can also remain in soil so best to remove and replace the topsoil around the affected plants.

Make sure the Box plant is as strong and healthy as possible to improve recovery and increase infection resistance. Do this by mulching annually in Spring with a good depth of quality mushroom compost or leaf mould to help improve the nutrient balance in the soil. Spray the Box plants with a liquid seaweed or Topbuxus every six weeks during the growing season to promote healthy growth.

Increase air movement through the Box plants by reducing the amount of times the box are trimmed. Regular clipping encourages denser growth, which is an ideal environment for the fungus to flourish. If your box is in a border or flower bed, best to reduce overcrowding and improve air movement by removing any other plants growing in close proximity.

Avoid overhead watering as spores can be spread in the water droplets and damp leaves create conditions that the box blight fungus thrives in.

Keep shears, clippers and hedge trimmers clean when trimming infected box to avoid spreading the box blight to healthy plants. Do this by dipping tools in a weak mix of bleach every so often when working, or apply to the blades using a trigger sprayer. One small capful of bleach to five litres of water works well.

Treat the Box plants in Spring and Autumn with a commercial grade fungicide. Applications must be delivered by fully qualified operatives who are certificated by NPTC (National Proficiency Tests Council).

Following this advice does not guarantee success at curing box blight but will certainly improve the chances of the Buxus (box) battling the fungal disease. Remember to continue with the fungicide treatments and good gardening practices even when your Box plants start to recover, to ensure the box blight does not return.

Take a look at the two photos from a garden where I currently work. The first photo was taken in early Spring and shows box hedging badly affected by box blight. The second photo was taken a year later in early Summer, after treatment with fungicides. The Box plants have recovered really well and although there are still a few signs of box blight, the hedge is looking stronger, healthier and with lots of encouraging new growth.

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Please contact me if you are concerned about box blight in your garden or would like to know more about my fungicide treatments to combat the disease.