Thursday, April 24, 2008

A New Found Respect for the Box Hedge

When I first moved to Melbourne my heart sank with dismay at the endless parade of box hedging and iceberg roses - I felt that Australia was a continent with such a wealth of plants that to rely on these two formulaic elements was very unimaginative. Ironically 7 years later I find myself living in a narrow terrace house with exactly those two elements in the front garden – and while if it was up to me I would without hesitation pull out the iceberg rose (I have nothing against roses per se I just think that there are more interesting alternatives than this particular variety) I have developed a new respect and fondness for box hedging. That box hedge outside my front door takes a beating. It is west facing and exists in baked, parched earth and thrives on little water and no love except for a bi-annual haircut and when spring comes that beautiful new growth in the most delicious green makes me feel ridiculously content. This little garden doer has brought to mind some of the more imaginative design uses of this fine plant that I've come across.

One of the loveliest garden spaces I have visited in recent years is the garden of the Chateau de Gourdon – and while it sounds grand the “castle” is of modest proportions and clings to a vertiginous cliff top not far from Grasse in the South of France. The garden by necessity is a terraced affair but the space that I refer to was on the small flat space outside the castle.

This particular space is said to be designed by Le Notre whose most famous work is the Palace of Versailles. He visited the Chateau in 1679 and at this time set out the design for the aforementioned garden.

The garden itself is simply designed with horseshoe shaped box hedges, grass and a couple of leafy lime trees but this simple combination created a space of great calm and peace. Which in the circumstances of my visit was fortuitous given that the drive was somewhat fraught (as many are when they combine winding roads with a four year old). My companions and I fortified by a delicious lunch in the village, descended upon the chateau and were delighted with what we found.

Regardless of its provenance it reminded me how beautiful simple green shapes and form can be. The colour green in gardens is perhaps often overlooked but here it was the key element.

The second use of box hedging that springs to mind was in a Chelsea Show Garden in 2000 - (I know - "show garden" you sigh - how unrealistic and they for the most part are but all the same we can marvel). The backbone of the planting of this Gold Medal Winning garden designed by Piet Oudolf and Arne Maynard was two long box hedges which framed the garden. Unlike traditional box though they were cut to resemble billowing clouds and were a marvellous foil for the rest of the garden which combined a series of circular pools and fountains and beautiful drifts of loose planting for which Piet Oudolf is best known.

It has to be said that the box hedging used was 40 years old so either we need to start early or have deep pockets and have excellent "hairdressing" skills to achieve this particular effect. Having said that I think in Australian conditions with its longer growing season it would not take quite so long to achieve a similar look. Excuse the photos here - the only one that I have showing the box hedging well is one when the garden was under construction. And my only shot of the finished garden only gives a glimpse of it.

So I raise my glass to the box hedge having coming to the conclusion that in the right place it can be more extraordinary than I had ever given this sturdy little plant credit for.


For more information on "Chateau de Gourdon"; Gardens Illustrated April 2006, Issue 112, "On a High Note"

For more information on the Piet Oudolf and Arne Maynard Garden; Gardens Illustrated September 2000, Issue 55. "Chelsea 2000 Best in Show"

For photos of "cloud hedging" and of the Piet Oudolf/Arne Maynard garden go to photographer Clive Nichols website and search on "cloud hedging"