Deciduous bushes, such as whitethorn or quick, though excellent as screens and on account of their rapidity of growth, are not comparable as backgrounds with evergreens.” So writes Mr. Nathaniel Lloyd in his “Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box,” recently published by Messrs. Benn, Limited. He brings experience in garden making and in photographing to his task, and the combination gives us a very practical and easily understood treatise, of real service to all – who want to know how yew and box can best be procured, planted and trained for hedge and topiary purposes. His short tabulated “Results of Planting Yew Hedges of various Sizes in different Soils” is alone a contribution that earns our gratitude. He gives the results, after twelve years’ growth, of half a dozen lots of yews that ranged from 6ft. to 3ft. high at the moment of planting. He compares them with each other and also with a lot of 1ft. high nursery plants. These in nine years formed a clipped hedge 6ft. high. That is also the height of one of the 3ft. lots after twelve years, although others of that size and date were 7ft. to 8ft. high. Only a very little more than the last-mentioned height had been reached by the 6ft. plants, and his experience shows us that if we are wise we shall certainly not buy more than 3ft. stuff and perhaps confine ourselves to the 11ft. nursery plants. As to the six-footers, not only were there no results commensurate with size and cost, but there was a mortality of “from 30 per cent to 50 per cent.”
Fig 1. Topiary garden, Great Dixter.
“Moreover, these large plants, not being fully furnished down to the ground, were very thin and scanty looking for several years; whereas the 3ft. pyramids, which were bushy near the ground when planted, formed a solid hedge in less than four years, and with few losses.”
No doubt then – given adequate means for initial outlay, thorough preparation of the ground and careful watering and nurture for twelve months after planting – 3ft. plants are recommendable “to get a good hedge in the shortest time.” But where the quality of patience exists and circumstances permit its exercise in even small degree, most points may be given to the 1ft. stuff.
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“These cost one-twelfth what the 3ft. plants did; practically none were lost, and they required little attention after planting. Although they caught up the 3ft. plants in about nine years, they did not make so good a hedge after only three or four years’ growth.”
Fig 2. Vista through a yew archway and cocks in process of formation.
Mr Lloyd, whom I remember initiating his Great Dixter garden in 1911, evidently got all his yews of whatever size from nurserymen, and does not deal with the question of at least a partial reliance upon one’s own nursery. Where the intention is to develop gradually, but on a more or less pre-arranged plan, the latter course is certainly advisable. Of any sorts of tree and shrub which I am likely to want in quantity, I find it well to get in the autumn batches of the smallest size supplied by the nurseryman, set them in rows in good ground, grow them on for one year, or two at most, and then transfer them to their permanent stations on a chosen day when the atmosphere is damp, and even then keeping them out of the ground for the least number of hours or even of minutes. Such plants soon catch up and surpass older and much more expensive specimens. It will now be about fifteen years since M. Detriché of Angers sent me over bundles of two year old yew seedlings at a penny apiece. In three years’ time they were ready for permanent planting and farm part of the formal gardens at Mounton House, where yew hedges (at those points where such loftiness is needed) have now reached a height of 10ft.
Yews are certainly of the class that, if of any size, is best planted from home reserves, and not from distant nurserymen, where they may be out of the ground for many days and in arid weather. Yews, except in adolescence, are tricky things to re-establish without loss or detriment. As to the season for such work, Mr. Lloyd tells us:
“It was found that spring was a better time to plant than autumn, when the looser soil tended to become waterlogged. In an exposed situation, April was found a good time to plant, when the gales, which strained the roots, had abated.”
Fig 3. At Brickwall.
The word “waterlogged” makes it probable that Mr. Lloyd is speaking of heavy lands, but where it is light and the drainage good I have certainly found that an early autumn day, chosen when the ground is wet and the air humid, is the safest and most effective moment to avoid loss and procure a quick start. The re-rooting process begins at once, and makes ready for the support and nourishment of the new shoots when they begin to unfold in the middle of the following May. If this season is missed, then the nearest moment to the time of such unfolding is best, given that there are facilities for watering and syringing and for sheltering from wind and sun. Even then, climatic conditions unusual with us may cause disappointment. I remember, early in May, 1921, wishing to extend a line of hedge some four feet high, using for the purpose a number of bushes of right size that happened to be near by and could be spared. Great care was taken in the moving, planting, watering and sheltering, but whereas when the job was done the weather was soft and clamp, in a week or so east winds and blazing sun began the long drought for which that summer was famous. The result was that 10 per cent, of the moved yews died and 20 per cent, went back, so that it was two years before they regained any measure of bushiness. It was at this very same moment that the totally different conduct of Lonicera nitida awakened me to the value of this shrub, either for a rough screen or a clipped hedge. Thought at first to be somewhat delicate and miffy, a few had been put fairly close to restrained subjects in a shrubbery. But they proved themselves very hardy and most quick and vigorous in growth, so that they were smothering their neighbours. To save the latter the loniceras were just dragged up piecemeal, not carefully trenched round and lifted like the yews. They were then put on to a rough bank beyond the region of watering and other attention, yet no piece, however roughly it had been torn asunder, succumbed to the drought, and such dying back as took place was more than made good by the next year’s growth. I had already noticed the facility with which cuttings struck and had put in a quantity. These in the autumn of 1922 were set as a hedge, which began to be clipped in the following year and which is now of admirable close growth and solid appearance, clipped back to a height of 4ft. The small size and good colour of the leaf make it as desirable in these respects as the yew, and though I by no means suggest or desire the disuse of the latter, or its dethronement as the Prince of evergreen and topiary-treated hedges, yet where an effective, inexpensive, easily grown and rapidly maturing substitute is desired, this lonicera fulfils all requirements.
Fig 4. At Rous Lench.
Mr. Lloyd, after valuable hints as to hedge clipping – how and when it is to be done and what shape, straight sided or more or less battered, it should be given – passes on to the consideration of how hedges may be varied and adorned by topiary treatment. He tells us that:
“Like every other art, it may be abused, but, treated with restraint, such clipped trees, introduced singly, in pairs or in groups, provide a certain atmosphere in a garden which is not to be obtained by any other means.”
“Restraint, restraint and again restraint ” should certainly be the bedside motto of the intending topiarist. There is no good thing more capable of abuse, and it was such abuse that produced Pope’s famous paper in the Guardian in 1713, with his imaginative but by no means overdrawn sale list, that included among “greens” offered by “an eminent town gardener ” such creations as ” The Tower of Babel not yet finished” and ” An old Maid of Honour in Wormwood.” Even the much more moderate practice of the art in mid-Victorian days produced the violent campaign of Mr. William Robinson against all formal clipping. Although he did not induce us wholly to abandon it, he certainly made us reconsider the whole position and limit formal hedges and, indeed, formal treatment of every kind to such garden areas as the house needed for its architectural outliers. In a house of size and symmetry, and especially if of classic kind, such treatment should be dignified, as we find it at Brickwall (Fig 3) and at Rous Lench (Fig 4), and it is only the cottage, or at most the little gabled manor house, that associates well with odd birds, beasts and other conceits, sitting on or emerging from plinths or domes of cut yew. Sparsely used and rightly placed, they are entertaining both to look at and to create. Mr. Lloyd photographs some of his pets at various stages of their existence, showing us, for instance, the first and second stages of “forming a peacock,” and how an archway flanked by cocks is coming into existence (Fig 2). He also illustrates very amusing old examples in cottage gardens at Frant and elsewhere. But from photographs that he gives us of the topiary garden at Earlshall and of his own at Great Dixter, (Fig 1), I am inclined to think that his zeal and interest in topiary work occasionally breaks through the bounds of his own principle of restraint. Quaint topiary work is certainly not out of place in conjunction with two houses of such ancient date and irregular architecture. But are there not, especially at Earlshall, rather too many of them, in too many shapes, too freely and promiscuously dotted about? It is by no means improper or displeasing to come across occasional examples of such liberal and fantastic use of the shears. But Mr. Lloyd, whose book I hope will become a standard work on the subject of evergreen hedge making, ought perhaps to have given a word of warning, and while very properly illustrating the two gardens alluded to and dwelling on their merits and fascination, should have insisted upon their remaining exceptions rather than the rule. Gardeners, like other people, are rather like sheep. They flock to a fashion, they make universal what should be singular, and drearily commonplace what should have individual character. Should this take place in the topiary sphere we shall surely get, if not another Pope with his sarcastic sale list, at least another William Robinson, breathing forth Savonarola-like rage against clipping, and lighting a vast bonfire for the consumption of every pair of shears.
Photographs: 1-4 by Country Life.
All images are available for purchase from the Country Life Picture Library.