Why your mother was right about evergreen shrubs..

June 17th, 2014 Posted In: Garden style & living

When did you last see evergreen shrubs taking centre stage in a garden? Apart from geometric box and yew?

For our parents’ generation, shrubs were at the heart of garden structure. But, for the past ten years, 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.

Evergreen shrubs provide year-round foliage contrast

Evergreens provide year-round foliage contrast

But evergreens have a role. They are…er…always 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 in Sussex.

Box topiary Architectural Plants

Two stunning yews at the entrance to Architectural Plants – there are birds nesting in one.

I think of shrubs as being mainly about the leaves, but there were bees buzzing happily in and out of flowers everywhere. However, the overwhelming impression of Architectural Plants is of the contrast of different shades of green. 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.

Garden bench

I wanted two matching plants for either side of this bench. Lollipop, mound, cone or spiral?

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 expensive. 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?


Beautiful cloud-pruned yew (taxus cuspidata) – but £12,000+ and beyond my budget

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.

tall plants with different heights

Box balls, elaeagnus as a half standard and  cypresses with contrasting foliage at different heights. –

Kylie and I became entranced by the repetition of the same shape at different heights. I already have two holm oaks on either side of the bench, which I am slowly turning into topiary. 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!

Different heights

An avenue of different heights – I love the effect. The conifer on the left is Podocarpus salignus, there are various elaeagnus, plus cupressus sempervirens pyramidalis, box balls and Golden yew

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.

aucuba japonica making a comeback

‘Proper gardeners’ always tell me I need to get rid of this aucuba japonica, and I did try. But it came back, and I do like it in a dark corner. Seen here with my attempt to hold the National Collection of Bindweed.

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.

pyracantha topiary

This pyracantha is on its way to being a smart topiary plant.

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….

Lav signage

This leads to a delightful wooden cabin in the woods…definitely worth a visit.

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.

Architectural Plants cafe

Lovely cafe. Lovely coffee too.

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.

Lollipop privets in garden

I’m delighted with the lollipop privets – they seem to make the garden feel more finished.

Click here for Architectural Plants’ website.

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5 comments on "Why your mother was right about evergreen shrubs.."

  1. Stephanie Wolfe says:

    Topiarised aucuba eh? A brilliant notion for this tough as old boots, brighten up a dark corner plant. I plead guilty to finding them very useful for those awkward corners along with the much despised eleagnus which can also be hacked about to shape. French gardeners on the whole seem much more concerned about shaping shrubs than often we Brits do and evergreens certainly add structure to even the smallest border. Just don’t be afraid to hack down when they start to outgrow their space. They don’t call me slasher Wolfe for nothing…..

    1. I think you met your match with my aucuba though, I’m sure we both hacked at it over the years, but it’s over 6ft high now. But safe now that Architectural Plants and Christopher Lloyd have deemed it acceptable – I can tell ‘proper’ gardeners that other proper gardeners don’t agree with them.

  2. I also like evergreens and have many bushes in my garden because as you said they offer and provide privacy all year round. I have them in different shapes and sizes and have a blast looking at them in the cold autumn and winter days because green makes me feel calm and somehow more at home :)

    1. And they’re very good value for money, too – one shrub lasts for years and years.

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