The Japanese art of cutting trees into cloud shapes adds a Zen-like beauty to any garden

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:51

I'm up a ladder being dangerous. I'm trying to rock it enough to make it fall over, but I'm not having much luck. Jake Hobson, an expert in the "cloud-clipping" of trees, is at the bottom, actively encouraging me in my recklessness. "See, it's amazingly stable, because it's got three feet," he enthuses. "I had a 70-year-old woman buy one the other week – a really big one – because she felt so safe at the top."

I have come to see Jake at his home in Somerset after becoming fascinated by the cloud-clipped hornbeams in Tom Stuart-Smith's 2008 Chelsea garden. Last year Hobson wrote a whole book on niwaki, the real name of this Japanese pruning art form – and I've asked him to show me how to do it.

Hobson trained as a sculptor; one art trip to Japan later, and he was hooked by the way gardeners there spend hours shaping their trees into gorgeous, billowy folds and mounds. They even tie branches to get them to grow in a prettier line. The rounded shapes look like clouds, but while the term "cloud-clipping" is poetic, it's not very authentic. "It doesn't really exist in Japanese," explains Jake, disappointingly.

But Hobson is fairly uninterested in being staunchly true to Japanese ideals, despite running a business with his Japanese wife Keiko, who he met there. "It'll never be accurately Japanese," he laughs, pointing out a beautifully shaped Phillyrea latifolia. "It's an Italian plant, growing in Somerset."

Instead, Hobson's passion is the way these shapes can work in the English garden. He takes me to see his parents' old stone house with its perfect English garden. Around each corner there's a new view, from cloud-clipped trees to lavender and a trampoline. The niwaki provide all the drama of yew hedges, with much more beauty and wit.

He doesn't do many trees for clients: "The kind of people interested enough to find out about it are the kind of people who want to learn to do it themselves." So instead he sells all the essential tools, from those ladders – which are gorgeous, to shears in delicate Japanese wrapping. I take an elegant pair of hakaribasami one-handed shears home, convinced they'll give my garden the visual kick I've seen here.

I never thought I could love something that looked like a giant bonsai tree, let alone think it could look at home in an English country garden. But, then, I never thought I'd find a garden ladder gorgeous.

Jake Hobson's 'Niwaki' is available now (Timber Press, £25). He sells tools andladders at, and will be at Hampton Court ( today and Tatton Park in Cheshire ( from 23-27 July

The rules of cloud-clipping

By Jake Hobson

Rule 1: Start on a big, overgrown evergreen. The best trees to begin with are holly, yew and box, but you could try Myrtus or a privet

Rule 2: Go and look at the plant a few times before you begin cutting. You might even find drawing a sketch useful, though I prefer to get straight in there

Rule 3: It's an art form like topiary, but it's about irregularity and natural shapes rather than straight lines

Rule 5: Other gardeners do little and often, but I like to give trees a good grow and then a big prune. I generally find that clipping twice a year is sufficient for most evergreens

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