The Cloud Hedge Experiment

Lust.  The first time I saw a picture of Jacques Wirtz's cloud hedges, I wanted them.  Of course, I often look upon glossy magazines of European gardens and covet one thing or another.  But the overgrown boxwoods that the Wirtz's clipped into iconic cloud-like shapes stayed with me. They were both solid and structural, yet light and whimsical.  Artificial yet organic.  

For years now, I've been thinking about using cloud hedges in a design or my own garden, but to be honest, I haven't been confident I can pull it off.  After all, cloud hedges are more about garden craftsmanship than design acumen.  So I was delighted when I saw Jake Hobson's new book, The Art of Creative Pruning.  I hoped I would find a step by step tutorial on how to create this effect.  The book unfortunately is more of an illustrative coffee table book than it is a how-to manual.  The images themselves are instructive, and Mr. Hobson does give some useful advice for creative pruning.  But I found his advice for creating cloud hedges to be a bit too general: " Rough out the basic forms, following the flow of the plants."  So I went outside and looked at an overgrown yew hedge in my front yard.  I wasn't seeing too much "flow" to work with.

One of the simplest ways to create a cloud hedge is to create one new.  I recently saw this technique used by Tom Stuart-Smith in his 2010 Laurent Perrier garden for the Chelsea flower show.  Stuart-Smith simply assembled a bunch of mature boxwoods into the forms he wanted for the temporary garden.  A few weeks of growth and voila!  Instant cloud hedge.  Of course, this garden used huge mature boxwoods which probably cost the average home owner a fortune.  The same effect could be done starting with smaller shrubs that eventually grow together, but this could take up to a decade before they have the desired effect.  I recently planted groups of five and seven boxwoods in irregular clumps for a client.  I plan to have them shaped over the next few years into these gumdrop shapes.

Large boxwoods pre-selected for the show garden, image from Chelsea Flower Show blog
Cloud hedge in its place.  photo by Allan Pollack Morris
Since I can't quite afford fifteen mature boxwoods, I decided to see if I could transform the overgrown yew hedge in front of my house into a cloud hedge.  My wife and I recently bought a dilapidated ranch house and were considering removing the overgrown yew hedge in favor of a more layered, softer foundation planting.  However, the yew hedge--while not particularly interesting--is mature and relatively healthy. And that means we don't have to spend several hundred dollars in replacement plants.

Inspired by images from Mr. Hobson's book, I went out this weekend and started to hack at our hedge.  I tried to follow the "flow" of the plant, but this hedge had been shaped as a rectangle for years, so the branching structure was pretty uniform.  I started by outlining the contours or folds of the clouds, but found it hard to compose.  I would stand back at the street and try to visualize some cloud-like forms, but when I got back and starting hacking, it was easy to lose the concept.  I found it particularly difficult to create the amount of contrast in height that I wanted by merely shearing the plant.  I didn't want to cut the yew back down to its structural branches. I've done that before and it took years before it leafed out.  But I did cut it back to bare branches, knowing that it would fill out again in the spring.

I started to outline the contours or folds of the clouds which required skinning the shrubs down to bare branches in some places
I quickly came to the realization that to create the amount of contrast between peaks and valleys, I could not simply rely on shearing/subtraction alone.  Instead, I would have to wait for some areas to grow out in order to get the necessary dips and valleys. 

How did it turn out?  To be honest, I have no idea.  Right now the hedges look pretty awful.  Kinda like Bill the Cat from Bloom County--some parts skinned, some parts poking out wildly.  But I figure we'll see how it goes in the spring.  Since we were planning on ripping these out anyways, there was no harm in trying.  Hopefully, within a few years, I'll have delightfully unique, dreamy hedges to contrast with all the perennial and grass plantings we have planned in the future.  Until then, our poor neighbors will have to suffer through more of my horticultural experiments. 

Have any of you done any creative pruning?  What's worked for you?  How long did it take?  I"ll be sure to post on the hedge's progress next summer.

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