Clipped box may be a cliché, but it can't be matched for long-lasting hedges and topiary

 

TOB JOB FOR THE MONTH

Clip evergreens such as box and yew. It's unfortunate that over the years clipped box has become such a cliché. As a gardener, you get no points for choosing it over some sexy newcomer with a name that no one can pronounce. 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 its glossy evergreen looks in pots, it needs 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 cliché. Those who planted box only because it was The Thing at the moment, will have swept it all away when the next Thing came 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 makes coarser topiary shapes than box.

We took it 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. But then, after the humiliation of becoming a cliché, box collapsed with a ghastly blight and gardeners found out the hard way that nothing else was quite as neat, or as malleable for pieces of topiary or low hedges. Ilex crenata has emerged as the most popular substitute, but it is very slow and does not knit together in the accommodating way typical of our native Buxus sempervirens, the box of Box Hill in Surrey. 'Suffruticosa', the type with smaller leaves and a dwarf habit, has been the one most used for dwarf hedges, but has proved even more prone to blight than the larger-leaved kind.

I have a few theories about box blight. As box is so often used to line paths, and paths are so often treated with residual weedkiller, I wonder whether its continual use begins to affect the roots of box, which are wide ranging and very close to the surface. I wonder, too, whether box hedges might benefit from being clipped once every two years instead of every year. There is no doubt that a mass of fresh-cut leaf edges gives the fungal spores the maximum opportunity to do their damaging work.

It's also stressful for the plants to be beaten back so regularly. I've noticed in our garden that the unclipped box bushes (we've a lot of them) have not shown the slightest sign of blight. We also tend to forget that box hedges and topiary like treats as much as any other plant in the garden. I regularly drench our box hedges and topiaries with seaweed-based Maxicrop. You can also give box a vampire's feast of dried blood in early spring and mulch during autumn or winter with muck or compost.

Ponds need topping up with water during summer Ponds need topping up with water during summer (Alamy)
Unlike Leyland cypress, box and yew only need one clip a year and you can fit that in any time between now and late summer. I favour hand shears, because a powered hedge clipper is a heavy thing to hold. They also make a loathsome noise. If you clip too late, frost may burn off all the soft new growth, leaving it an unsightly brown. Blunt clippers will have the same effect.

Most of the lollipop bays, the clipped cones and balls of box and yew that > you find in garden centres (or in Columbia Road Market in London) are imported from Belgium or Italy. Buying a ready-trained bush of box or yew is undoubtedly the easiest way to go about things. If you think of the price in relation to a statue or a piece of sculpture, it will not seem so expensive. Box and yew are the classic subjects for topiary, but if you want to make your mistakes less expensively, try privet for a maquette. Privet is quick and gives quite good results. But its leaves are much bigger than those of box or yew, so the final result is coarser. Shapes need to be kept simple and clipped frequently.

In town gardens, topiary specimens are particularly valuable; yew, box and bay all survive shade, thin soil and drought, though naturally, they do better without. Established specimens can be kept in pots indefinitely. They become difficult to repot entirely, but you can scrape away the top few centimetres of compost each year and replace it with a fresh mix. In towns, evergreen foliage gets dusty in summer. Refresh it with a spray of water.

FIND TIME TO

Top up water in garden ponds. Fish need oxygen and if you don't have any kind of fountain, splashing water about is an alternative way of bringing it to them. Thin out pond weed if the growth has become too dense.

Prune rambler roses by cutting out some of the old growth as soon as they have finished flowering. Tie in the new growths, which at this stage are bright green and sappy, fanning out the stems as much as possible. Use soft twine or flexitie so the soft new stems are not damaged. If no new shoots seem to have been produced, cut out one old growth entirely and prune back the side shoots on the other stems. This kind of drastic thinning often kicks a rose into action. If you have inherited a rambler rose that is completely out of control, you can cut the whole thing down to the ground and wait for more biddable new stems to appear. The cutting is easily done. Disposing of the thorny jungle afterwards is not.

THINK ABOUT

Lavender cuttings. Choose 7-10cm/3-4in cuttings from shoots of lavender that have not flowered this season. Stick three or four round the edge of a pot of sandy compost and keep them watered. When you can see roots poking out of the bottom of the pot, it will be time to shift each cutting to grow on in a pot of its own.

Clear up the haulms of peas and beans that have finished cropping. They make good compost.

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