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On a Chalk Hillside December 2021

On a Chalk Hillside - Developing our garden.

The topiary in the front garden

When we arrived in 2004 there was what looked like a meter high Christmas tree planted in the middle of a sea of concrete in the front garden.  We thought no more of it – there were a lot of Christmas trees of varying sizes and shapes planted throughout the garden, which we had to remove gradually as we developed the garden.  Here is a shot of it which is a photo of a photo I took in August 2004, pre-digital, so please excuse the quality:-

I don’t know how long the yew (Taxus baccata) had been planted there, and for a few years it didn’t grow much.  Then its roots must have reached extra water/nutrients and it suddenly began to get bigger and bigger.   When the road was resurfaced in 2010 photos show it was taller than me but still looked like a shaggy spindly Christmas tree.  At some point in the following couple of years I began to topiarize it.  (Naturally, I have no pictures of this!)  
Topiary has been a very familiar sight to us all our lives.  When I was a child, we used to visit Packwood House which has very famous topiary – here from a very soggy visit in May 2013:-

Most stately homes seem to have some topiary somewhere – Levens Hall springs to mind, naturally.  Or what about The Courts, Wiltshire taken on a visit in August 2016:-

I was egged on to take the secateurs to our yew by my friend Mary who was visiting one September.   Unlike all the shapes above, I originally intended to make a spiral, as we had hoped to do to our box pyramids in pots either side of the front door when we lived in London.  This is the sort of thing I had in mind – a beautiful topiary from a yellow book garden we visited in September 2018:- 

I started at the bottom of the tree, but by the time I was half way round the circumference, I realised it was TOO COMPLICATED, the tree didn’t have growth in the right places and I didn’t want to put wires in to pull it to shape, so I chickened out and made the shape you can see below.  This photo is from Jan 2015:-

When I first started I could reach all parts with my secateurs and loppers to prune it to shape from the ground.  In only a couple of years himself had to finesse the top of the top section for me, and as you can see above by 2015, whilst I could define the separation between the middle and top section, and the shape/girth at the very bottom of it most of the top section had to be cut and shaped from a ladder by himself.  My husband’s only criteria on the shape was that it had to have a shelf so he could put “Christmas presents” on it.  To begin with it was just foil-wrapped empty boxes (eg cereal boxes or tissue boxes), then as the tree grew it got some lights, some baubles, and even a huge snowflake jammed in the top.  Perhaps you can see some of these from December 2015:-

This was taken from the same position as the first photo in this article – so you can see how much the yew has grown in 11 years, and how topiarizing it has made it bushy and a much more compactly growing plant (if you can use that adjective on something that even at that point was a minimum of 2.5 m diameter and height.)
People talk about yew being slow growing, and in some ways it is.  Box, that other traditional topiary subject needs at least two prunes a year, and as you could see from the spiraI photo above even then it makes twiggy bits here and there that need a tidy up quite regularly.  I only prune the yew (Taxus baccata) once a year in either late September or October, and as you can see from the photo two up at the end of Jan of 2015 the 2014 hair cut is still crisp.   In May 2016 the cut from the previous September is still looking tight and even, seen from above:-

But by September 2016 the yew has grown out of it haircut like this:-

Please note all the space round it – usually there are lots of building materials stored all round it, which is how I can confidently say there is a space at least a meter cubed all round it at this point.  I cut and shape the bottom quite ruthlessly where necessary – using secateurs to identify the shape and girth.  As you can see from this “during” shot in 2016 I was very severe with some of the shaping of the bottom two rungs, cutting into old wood and exposing bare stems.  Yew grows back from any point, so whilst it looks bald for a while it quickly grows back.  The top section is now the province of himself, as I can no longer reach it, and this year he was shaping it like a cupcake (very influenced by Bake Off!):-

By the following year, it has clearly become too much for me to cut all of the base and second tier by hand with secateurs, and so I make the shape/size in a couple of places, and himself makes use of his new-to-him toy (given to him by his Step Mother-in-Law who can no longer wield the beast) and follows the lines I have created:-

 

Then, once himself has done a pass over it with the electric hedge trimmer, I go over it all with the secateurs again – as you can possibly see here, sometimes there are bare stalks sticking up that the hedge trimmer has left, or sometimes the yew’s branches grow slightly differently and need to be coaxed into consistency, and sometimes going round the level of the shelf is different when you get to the other side…..:-

Only when we are happy (we being the royal we here, meaning ME), do we move onto the upper tier, so that it is in proportion to the bottom.  As I say, nowadays, I cannot reach the upper layers from the ground, so he has to tackle them from the stepladder.  The tree is so tall that even with 7-step step ladders whilst shaping the top point he had to resort to the long loppers - the Mohican is temporary, honest:-

You might also note, the top blob is now smaller in proportion to the other two tiers.   In 2019 he decided to merge the top two tiers and make it into more of an acorn shape.  Here it is after its haircut in Sept 2020.  As you can see already there is only the slightest of kinks in the line of the top section where there used to be a shelf to divide it into two tiers:-

And so to this year.  After all the hot/wet/mild/wet weather which has promoted a great deal of growth on all sorts of shrubs and trees in our garden here it is on 1 October – hugely wide, tall, and for the CHOP:-  

I had hoped that you would be able to see the very technical method we use to form the shape/line for cutting, but it is so buried in the foliage that you cannot see there is a cane tied in there at the requisite angle/height as a guide for him to work to.   His brief from the client (that’s me) was make the top no taller than the top of the step ladder.  His first attempt shows what a “tall order” that was:-

He was quite worried on his first pass straight across the top that it exposed a “hollow” inside – bare branches, with all the greenery on the outside.  Here it is from the bedroom window with its bald patch exposed:-

He regrouped inside for a cup of tea and a think.  After lots of horticultural reassurance about how yew regrows from old wood, the next day he resumed, cutting the top section a bit lower before tackling the base – not to my specification, I still think it needs to be at least 15cm thinner all round both top and bottom, but have agreed that this year he can leave it like this and let the top regrow inside, before being more drastic with the base.  What shape would you call it now?

As this is the December article, I shall end with a seasonal shot of the topiary dusted in snow in February 2015 and wish you all a Merry Christmas and all my best wishes for 2022:-

Next time how having to replace the plastic cover on the polytunnel causes one thing to lead to another….

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

2 Comments To "On a Chalk Hillside December 2021"

Mary Ann On 21.02.2022
Love this post! I have planted 3 very small yews in front windy garden in October 2021. in 5 months there is no growth so I'm hoping they will grow down this summer. I've taken comfort from thiese great pictures, thank you! Reply to this comment
Sheila May On 22.02.2022
Hello Mary Ann, I'm sure that when we eventually get spring (!) the yew will start to grow - even in these three named storms this week the buds are beginning to break on some of our deciduous trees. Thanks for your comment.
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