Gardening: box plants and beyond

12 October 2018

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AS A heritage gardener, I am very familiar with the annual clipping of box plants to keep a strong structural framework. Sadly, many box hedges look dishevelled and patchy owing to a fungal disease known as box blight.

Our much-loved television gardener Monty Don has ripped out and burnt long-established, but disease-ridden, box hedging from one area of his garden, Longmeadow. I have done the same around a herb garden at work. In another area, where the damage seemed less, I have left it unclipped for two years, in the hope that the absence of wounds will hinder the fungus. So far, it looks encouraging: new green shoots are emerging from previously bare patches. But, of course, the tight geometry is lost, and now there is another problem on the horizon.

The box moth, Cydalima perspectalis, is an alien invader from eastern Asia. Its caterpillars are a greeny-yellow colour with black heads. As they mature, they develop black and white stripes and cover themselves with white webbing. Beneath this protective layer, which makes chemical control difficult, the caterpillars can completely defoliate the box.

So I had already began to feel that we gardeners should be shaking off our commitment to box and looking elsewhere when, during a holiday in the Luberon area of France, I found myself chatting to Sylvie and Pascal Verger about the simple beauty of clipped evergreens. They moved into “La Louve” (“the she-wolf”) four years ago, becoming the latest custodians of a garden created by the late Nicole de Vésian, a Hermès textile designer who, on retirement from the world of fashion, in 1986, moved to the property in Bonnieux, a hilltop village.

Sylvie and Pascal described their joy in working to maintain such a beautiful creation. The garden is terraced, and unfolds through a series of rooms that offer subtle elements of surprise around each corner. Pathways, steps, walls, containers, fountains, basins, and benches made from the local stone unite each area. There are few flowers. Instead, living sculptures, formed by clipping a restricted range of evergreen subjects, including some box, but also Bupleurum fruticosum, Elaeagnus x submacrophylla, Euonymus japonicus, Myrtus communis, Ligustrum japonicum, Osmanthus x burkwoodii, and Phillyrea angustifolia, create a hummocky tapestry of green and grey.

There are some quirky touches, too. Some shrubs have been cloud-pruned into shapes that reveal a network of branches ending in tight fists of green. Most of the Italian cypresses have been lopped to give a flat top at about two-thirds of their would-be height.

We may be reluctant to rely as heavily on tightly clipped shapes as La Louve, even when avoiding the problem-prone box, but just a few organic sculptures can be satisfying to create and anchor the more ephemeral elements of our gardens. And it doesn’t necessarily mean buying new plants. That taken-for-granted yew, holly, rosemary, or Lonicera nitida could take on a new character with some judicious shearing next spring.

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