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Notes from the Nursery Gardens - December

Head gardener Darren Topps writes this month about the quiet beauty of topiary.

The quiet months within the garden require us to look closer to appreciate the subtle beauty, often within decay, as the planting dies down for winter. The kaleidoscope of colour of windblown leaves collecting in the corners, the skeletal remains of perennials providing the scaffold for cobwebs that catch the dew, the scent of fermenting rotten fruit drifting in the air, marking the passage of time, the cycle of life, a truly beautiful thing to observe and all brief instances that are as ephemeral as the products of such beauty. Or something like that! The pragmatic gardener may also see it as an opportunity to assess any lack of structure and solidity within the garden at this time of year. One way to remedy any short fall in this regard is the use of evergreens within a planting scheme, which can help maintain structure, form, scale and rhythm through the winter months.

There are many candidates for such use within the garden depending on the situation, soil and style. Topiary can look fantastic within an herbaceous border, used as formal geometric shapes or as more organic blobs. Their evergreen presence is the main interest through the winter months and look great with spring bulbs peppered around them and will fade out of focus as the more dynamic and floriferous perennials take centre stage. Yew, Bay and Holly are the classic choices to perform this role, but there are many alternatives. Not all need to be ‘topiarised’ and can be left as their natural form, others may need only a light pruning to keep them within bounds.

Certain species and cultivars of Osmanthus, Pittosporum and Eleagnus make a great evergreen presence within a border and have lovely scent when in flower. Osmanthus heterophyllus, a tough slow growing plant, looks fantastic clipped into tight domes. As does Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’, with the new lime green foliage contrasting well with the older purple foliage. The quick growing Eleagnus x ebbingei is tolerant of a range of conditions and has inconspicuous flowers that have a wonderful fragrance in the autumn. If you have a semi shaded area and would like something that really adds to the garden in winter with both evergreen structure and intoxicating scent Sarcococca confusa is a good choice. In the Buxaceae family, Christmas Box, if clipped after flowering can be kept as a tidy dome and can also be used for hedging. It can handle any soil as long as it’s moist and free draining (that old chestnut) and even in full sun if the roots are kept cool but happier in shade or semi shade. It’s a slow grower but the dense foliage gives the shrub a solidity and the scent on a winter’s day is so delicious that it is certainly a plant to consider finding room in the garden for.