Gardening: Superficially sober, but mad underneath

The holly and the ivy are all very well, but isn't the box included? Anna Pavord advises on the best treatment for sturdy evergreens.
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The most pleasing bit of the garden at the moment is the border that runs under the east wall of the house. "Border" is too grand a word for it. It's a strip, only 3ft wide, and I can't make it any wider because it butts straight on to the drive. For years I fiddled around there with various herbaceous things, trying to make them look less like sullen teenagers lined up for a school photograph. Perennials don't take kindly to being set out in lines.

But topiary does, and this proved to be the answer for the strip - which is now planted with a line of box trees, cones alternating with balls. When I first put them in, there was room to plant groups of `Quail' jonquils in between. Now the skirts of the cones have spread and there is less than a foot to spare from one box tree to the next. But there is still space, just, for a thick line of aconites along the front of the strip. They are the first flowers I look for in the New Year.

Box needs clipping just once a year, some time around August or September. The only other excitement in my box trees' lives is their annual mulch: thick, dark mushroom compost which has just been spread several inches thick. Nobody could call them demanding plants. But they aren't wallpaper, either. I find them oddly schizophrenic: superficially sober, but underneath that grave exterior, essentially frivolous, mad even.

Lined up underneath the house wall, they are now the first things I see as I turn into the drive. In spring, they are overshadowed by the blossom of the cherry on the other side of the drive. In summer they are upstaged by the sheets of clematis that fall off the wall above them. But at this time of the year, they have no rivals.

Unfortunately, clipped box has become a cliche. You get no points for choosing it over some sexy newcomer with a name that no one can pronounce. And it is often criminally ill-treated, planted in pots either side of a front door and then left without food or drink for weeks. A box bush with bald patches looks more pathetic than a moulting parrot. Though it is tolerant of drought, it doesn't necessarily like it. To keep their glossy evergreen looks in pots, they need water and regular boosts of slow-release fertiliser. I use granules of Osmacote to feed box trees in pots. If you sprinkle it on in spring, it will last for the rest of the season.

If a plant is good, it can survive the humiliation of becoming a cliche. Those who plant box only because it is The Thing at the moment, will sweep it all away when the next Thing comes along. But they will be lucky to find another evergreen as adaptable and as handsome. Yew is good, of course, but on a small scale it makes coarser topiary shapes than box. Holly is wonderful, too, but cannot be clipped as easily as box.

Box works best for reasonably small, compact topiary shapes such as cones and spheres, because its leaf is so small. Shapes fill out roundly, whereas holly, which branches more sparsely, takes much longer to close up the spaces between its leaves. Box is box is box to new gardeners, but enthusiasts, such as Elizabeth Braimbridge, of the Langley Boxwood Nursery in Hampshire, grow more than 70 different kinds. The species most commonly used for topiary is the native Buxus sempervirens, the box of Box Hill in Surrey. `Suffruticosa', the type with smaller leaves and a dwarf habit, is the one you need to use for dwarf hedges.

It gets taken for granted perhaps because there's no one season when it is very much better than at another. Its flowers are microscopic. It doesn't have berries. That's where the holly scores, and is perhaps why the holly and the ivy had a carol written about them, while box got left in the cold. Ivy, like holly, is at its best now, and although its berries are nowhere near as showy as the holly's, there are more of them.

Some people fret about ivies, as though they were vampires, sucking mortar out of walls and the sap from living trees. They can certainly smother trees, but they don't appear to live off them in a parasitic way. Ivy grows from its own roots in the ground, and if you cut a stem that is growing up a tree, the part above the cut dies. The suckers that clamp on to the tree are there to hold the ivy in place, not to provide a mainline into the tree's own veins.

The suckers are tenacious, so that if you pull ivy off old walls, it will bring mortar with it. But only if the mortar was loose in the first place. We had this problem on an old retaining wall in the garden. It was bulging and dangerously fragile. In the end, I clipped the ivy against the wall, which brought it under control without the complications of trying to prise it off altogether. Now it looks more like a hedge than a wall, with the complicated interlacing of the ivy's stems, I think, keeping the masonry upright rather than bringing it to its knees.

It would be no good doing that on a wooden board fence. The bull-nosed growing tips of the ivy would push their way through the cracks between the boards and gradually force them apart. The same thing would happen on a larch-lap fence. But ivy can transform the hideous chain-link fences that developers sometimes put up round new houses. In small plots, a chain- link fence covered with clipped ivy has the added advantage of taking up less room than other hedging plants. Especially Leyland cypress. Any train journey shows you what hideous dark prisons these make of the average back garden.

But if you want ivy to flower and berry, you have to give it its head. Ivy can either climb or creep along the ground, depending on where it finds itself. If it climbs, it will change after a while into a completely different animal. A climbing ivy such as our native Hedera helix has lobed leaves arranged flatly in a single plane on either side of the stem. But when it has built itself up sufficiently, it launches out into great billowing side growths.

These stems don't need sucker pads, so don't have them. The leaves on the side growths lose their lobes and become much larger and more rounded in outline (though no less glossy) than the first kind of leaf. And at this time of the year, each of the stems finishes in a miniature explosion of berries. They are grouped in round heads, like the seedheads of dandelions, but much chunkier. The young berries are cream, then become green with brown tops, and finally blackish. They remind me of the complicated models of molecules that scientists build in Horizon.

Creeping ivy never gets to this stage, which is a pity, but it makes unparalleled ground cover under trees, and in other places where it is too dark and shady for grass. If you grow it as a carpet under trees, keep it off the trees' trunks. That is not because it will necessarily hurt them, but because you will lose the pleasure of the contrast between the two - rough-textured, elephant-coloured trunks rising out of a wash of glossy-leaved green. Add evergreen hart's tongue ferns and a few clumps of Iris foetidissima (spears of evergreen leaves and berries of an agreeably shocking orange), for a winter planting that will continue to shine in summer.

Box (including ready trained topiary) is available from the Langley Boxwood Nursery, Rake, near Liss, Hampshire GU33 7JL (01730 894467). Open Monday to Friday, Saturday by appointment only. Plants are available by mail order. Send four first-class stamps for a catalogue. More than 350 kinds of ivy are on sale at Whitehouse Ivies, Eggesford Gardens, Chulmleigh, Devon EX18 7QU (01769 580250). Open daily 9am-5pm. Plants are available by mail order. Send six first-class stamps for a catalogue.

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