Why your mother was right about evergreen shrubs..
Apart from geometric box, yew and bay, I haven’t seen many evergreen shrubs featured in garden magazines or on show gardens for ages. Yet for our parents’ generation, they were at the heart of garden structure. But we have largely thrown them out in favour of grasses and perennials. ‘A shrub garden’ is now perceived as an ‘out-dated’ garden….
So a visit to Architectural Plants in Sussex offered a refreshing new view of how these hard-working plants can look fresh and contemporary.
Shrubs were at the heart of British middle-sized gardens…
Evergreen shrubs were the backbone of the middle-sized British garden for most of the twentieth century. Carefully planned for a long flowering season, they were planted around a central lawn or lawns, punctuated by occasional statement conifers. Now I see gardens with grasses, annuals, roses…anything but shrubs.
But evergreens have a role. They are, er, ever green. They offer shape and privacy all year round. So when a group of friends gave me a voucher from Architectural Plants for my birthday. Kylie O’Brien and I set out one Monday morning to visit their nursery near Horsham, in Sussex.
There are enough flowers there to have bees buzzing happily around, but the overwhelming impression is of different shades of green. It’s always uplifting to look at something differently – both Kylie and I felt refreshed by the experience of focusing on shape rather than colour. When the British chucked out their chintz in the early 1990s, they grubbed up their shrubs too – and a trip to Architectural Plants will persuade you that it’s time to think again.
Lollipop, ball, cone or spiral?
Our mission was to buy two matching plants for either side of a bench in my garden. I wanted some winter shape, because I can see the bench from the kitchen window. My budget was £200. I had thought I might be able to get something ‘cloud-pruned’ for that, but anything that’s developed enough to have an impact is very much more than that. I’d also always had a vision of two spiral yews – but they, too, would be over budget. And there weren’t many spirals to be seen, so maybe their time has passed?
Box, yew, privet, holly, conifers or phillyrea?
I already have a number of trees along my back wall and thought that I couldn’t have too many bare trunks, or it would look too much like a line. So I thought I would have to choose a ball, cone, spiral or other shape. And, although I don’t have any box blight in my garden, I didn’t want box, just in case. It’s rare that I spend £200+ on plants and I want to give them the best chance possible. My gardening friend, Posy Gentles, suggested Phillyrea. I did fall in love with a huge dark glossy ball of Phillyrea (within my budget at £85), but there was only one left. I also liked the bright green conifer-type mounds of Cryptomeria Japonica ‘Globosa Nana’ (£115) but a sign advising that ‘drought could prove fatal’ put me off. We have some very dry summers in Kent.
Kylie and I became entranced by the repetition of shapes at different heights. I am trying to topiarise two holm oaks, which are also on either side of the bench. They will, I hope, be lollipop shaped one day. Maybe they would work with smaller lollipops beneath it and then a round ball beneath that? Once I’d visualised it, I fell for two very smart ligustrum lollipops, which only just bust the budget at £115 each. Victory!
Old favourites given a modern twist
As we walked round, I noticed that many of the labels identified traditional British garden shrubs. Photinia, choisya, privet, laurel, pyracantha and conifers were all in the typical 1980s garden. Here, they are sculpted and tailored into smart, 21st century shapes. They create year-round structure in the garden and need relatively little attention.
‘We’ve never stopped selling evergreen shrubs,’ says Ed Nugent of Architectural Plants. ‘But I think that people who haven’t been planting shrubs will re-introduce clipped forms as focal points and sculpture.’ I immediately bought a pair of Japanese topiary shears, so that I could cut any remaining traditional shrubs in my garden into modern shapes.
The most unfashionable plant of all is back…
And I was also delighted to see the yellow-spotted Aucuba Japonica ‘crotonifolia’ for sale. I have one, and all ‘proper’ gardeners keep telling me to get rid of it. I did try, but it is indestructible. And I like it because it brightens a dark corner. Until now, I have only been able to quote Christopher Lloyd in its defence.
And one for the road…
After a very happy couple of hours, Kylie and I settled down for an excellent cup of coffee and a quick visit before heading back on the motorway….
My plants were delivered two days later. I could have got them into the car if I had left Kylie behind (she would have been very happy to spend a week at Architectural Plants) but the chance of damaging the privets’ elegantly sculpted mop heads was too high.
A happy ending…
Here are the two lollipop privets on either side of the bench. Once planted, I asked Mr Middle-Size to come out and see my new acquisitions. He doesn’t know one plant from another, but is happy to say nice things. As soon as he reached the lawn, he stopped. ‘I do like this garden,’ he said, suddenly. He hadn’t noticed the shrubs – I had to point them out – he’s just aware that everything feels right. Definitely a result.
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