Great Dixter

Control of nature: how gardening is about shaping the natural world

From the man-made lakes and hills of grand country estates to naturalistic prairie plantings on more modest plots, the secret of a successful garden always lies in how you choose to shape the natural world. Words Andy Sturgeon

Gardening is fundamentally about the control of nature. We mow the lawn to keep it short. We let the Virginia creeper scramble up the house but we remove it from the gutters and don’t let it grow across the windows. Even the most naturalistic of perennial plantings is entirely our own contrivance, combining plants that would rarely rub shoulders in the wild. A hedge is not a hedge if it’s not kept under control. On a vast scale, the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton altered nature by digging lakes, making hills and planting woods simply to improve a view.

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The allées and clipped parterres of Britain’s palaces and stately homes were surely a demonstration of power and a mastery of the uncontrollable, but even in our relatively modest gardens we are always trying to manipulate or to enhance nature.

A grid or a row of almost identical trees can bring formality and order to even a small space

A recent fashion has been for the multi-stem tree. A finely worked branch structure and an umbrella-shaped canopy. Amelanchiers were the first of these but now nurseries will train anything they can to quench the thirst of the gardeners. Crataegus, Osmanthus, Parrotia –nothing escapes the secateurs. From a design point of view, a grid or a row of almost identical trees can bring formality and order to even a small space. The branches are like a piece of sculpture, textured or silky smooth yet often unnoticed if not ‘cleaned up’. These are easy to create but you must start early. Begin with a small shrub such as Pittosporum tobira and check it has three or more stems growing from very low down. Lift the skirts and routinely snip off the side shoots and clean up the stems. Sometimes older larger shrubs such as Viburnum tinus can be transformed from full, amorphous blobs into majestic, multi-stems with a few well placed chops so it’s worth peering inside existing shrubs to see if they have potential.

Nurseries produce many forms of plants from roof-trained trees to ready-formed hornbeam arches, yet there are countless other possibilities requiring only minimal effort but large amounts of time and a dose of creativity. I’ve planted bosques where each tree in the circle has a 45-degree lean on it before being allowed in time to grow skywards as nature intended. This brings an idiosyncratic flavour to a garden that can’t be provided by any of the more expected clipped topiary and hedge forms. By bending over the ‘leader’ and tying it in to its opposite number it is possible to train a tree into a dome. To create a perfect curve, a temporary metal armature of framework can be used and then removed after a number of years. These sort of projects are best started as soon as possible so you can witness the fruits of your labour.

On the ground I am a huge fan of clipped ivy

A bit of clipping can bring welcome order to a loose and possibly even unruly planting design. A simple low square of yew sitting among autumnal grasses and seedheads will immediately restore order and visually tidy the whole thing up. Despite its various woes, box is still used as clipped balls or domed pillows but there are other candidates including Osmanthus x burkwoodii and Phillyrea that do the job well, their dark foliage contrasting well with perennial leaves through different seasons and giving evergreen structure to large areas and even meadows. In extreme cases there are some wonderful examples of a single plant species clipped into undulating mounds spilling on to paving and very little else.

Pleached hedges have now entered the vocabulary of gardeners. A legacy of the grand gardens, they are now deployed on a smaller scale in smart town gardens as a living fence to shield the prying eyes of the neighbours. This hedge on sticks takes up little or no space on the ground and although limes, hornbeams and beech are common
it is possible to train evergreen oleasters, magnolias, oaks and photinias. The result is often a useful, regimented framework on which to hang a more relaxed style of planting within the garden.

On the ground I am a huge fan of clipped ivy. It is highly underrated. This fantastic groundcover will grow in the dry shade of trees and will smother weeds and prevent the growth of other plants. You can cut it away from path edges with shears or large areas can be done with hedge trimmers making a neat edge and a wonderfully uniform carpet of evergreen foliage. Being low growing it can put space into a garden and become part of the rhythm between more complex plantings, calming things down and highlighting the excitement elsewhere. It’s also a useful device for minimalistic gardens. You need to keep an eye on it so it doesn’t get out of hand but that,
I suppose, is the point; you are in control of it.

Andy Sturgeon is an internationally renowned landscape and garden designer. He is the winner of eight gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, including Best in Show in 2019. andysturgeon.com

In good order

In del Buono Gazerwitz’s 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden, roof-trained  lime trees turn living plants into architecture, while clipped pillows of Phillyrea angustifolia inject a calm structure into  the planting beds below.

Joie de vivre

At Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan in France, the ivy that nature intended to run rampant across the walls has been brought under control with secateurs and shears. The resulting heart motif injects personality and humour into this manicured garden.

On the lookout

Great Dixter
© Andrew Montgomery

At Great Dixter they excel at the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas. With regularly trimmed topiary sentinels watch over the comparatively unruly and naturalistic apron of the wildflower meadow,

Shades of Green

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Clipped blocks of hedges and rosemary, combined with rectangular monocultures of perennials, bring extreme order and a Mondrian-like quality  to Marcus Barnett’s overtly regimented 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden.