hedging and topiary in modern garden design

10 ways to design HEDGING and TOPIARY.

Hedging represents perhaps the most controlled expression of order in any man-made landscape. Whilst its primary purpose of segregation remains, horticultural and cultural expressions have progressed hedging into a specialist form of art. More than anything else, to me, a hedge is defined by monoculture and in the modern garden every minimalist line of a single plant, be it trimmed or not, is effectively a hedge – a geometrical form of living plants. It is the juxtaposition of various types of plants, turned into hedges, which gives us this modern sense of adventure. As most hedges are relatively easy to maintain, they have become a staple of modern garden design. Topiary in its various forms is a vast universal language from popular culture to social status. While in the modern garden the forms are simplified, new compositions emerge - expanding our perception of this art form.

1. Selection 2. Cultivation 3. Structure 4. Enclosure 5. Framing 6. Sculpture 7. Horticulture 8. Monoculture 9. Fun 10. Maintenance

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Many hedges that we use are native. With the exception of the evergreen Box, Yew and Holly, several are deciduous such as Beech, Hornbeam, Hazel, Hawthorn and Elder. There is something quite uplifting seeing these deciduous, agricultural hedges in a modern urban garden or roof terrace. In my own front garden a Beech hedge is standing tall at 7’- fast growing indeed and had reached this stature in 5 years. The coppery brown leaves remain attached until replaced by fresh ones in May. Combining evergreen with deciduous hedges is an art form – one that is a mastery of the Wirtz Belgian family of landscape designers. Whether sourced as bare roots, root balls or pot grown, native or their universal counterparts, in shade, sun or a windy cliff, the idea is to create an architectural line of beauty that is right for the location and a central motif in the design.

modern hedging design selection

St Paul's roof terrace


Every hedge should be in the least a modest feat of horticultural engineering. Depending on scale, it is imperative to plan the access for hoeing, feeding and irrigation and pruning, trimming and clipping. From my own experience I found that most hedges would grow unevenly if the ground is not prepared uniformly and the irrigation or natural water saturation along the hedge is irregular. Yet the beauty of growing hedges is that most of the time there is not a lot to do but admire them…

modern hedging design cultivation

St Luke's roof terrace


Even in the most irregular, disorientating site all it takes is one small hedge to inject order and a sense of scale. A hedge immediately denotes structure, and this is the first building block of any man-made landscape. While some ancient hedges have been growing for hundreds of years, with pot or field grown large specimens these days it is possible to create large hedging structures relatively quickly. The solidity of a hedge is a natural backdrop to the softer elements of a garden and its texture a surface contrast that can be dramatically juxtaposed with many types of foliage. The hedge is a privacy maker, a land divider, a wind shield or a gesture of power but for most of the time, for most people, it gives order and structure in their day-to-day life. In my own garden, I use the simple technique or running a half metre high Box hedge along the width of the garden on top of a 1-metre retaining wall. This simple hedge not only frames the garden visually but provides a safety barrier from the upper level considering the high change of level.

modern hedging design structure

My own garden


Interestingly, most residential spaces we encounter are defined, separated and embellished with green hedges. Even in city centres where civic spaces are kept open for safety, local parks are always defined by green architecture. Suburban front gardens, back gardens, greens, commons, playgrounds and playing fields are all compartments within a green network of living trimmed hedges. From an aerial perspective this affirms a land husbandry quality which exists equally in rural and urban areas. There cannot be softer yet solid, oxygen producing safety barrier to clutch us all together. This system succeeds in the micro scale of a modern garden or roof terrace where navigation through a space is organised around lines of hedging. Loose, trimmed, low and wide or high and narrow, a hedge can define a space within a space within a space.

modern hedging design enclosure  

Primrose Hill patio garden  


A hedge provides a static, nearly unchanging permanent line that is the perfect milieu to accentuate focal points in the garden. Running along an edge towards a tree, or across the horizon in front of a sculpture, a hedge has the ability to make a space appear wider or longer than it is while leading the eye towards the desired subject. When those vertical and horizontal elements come together to create arches and viewing apertures, hedging ascertains its meaning creating a foreground that is as important as the background.

modern hedging design framing

Primrose Hill patio garden  


Whilst the 300-year-old Yew hedge at Bathurst Estate in the Cotswolds stands proud at 40’, most of us would prefer to avoid a cherry picker to shear our own humble hedging. Yew, Box and Japanese holly provide some of the best evergreen natural materials from which to sculpt a long lasting living piece of art. It is not surprising then that in both Eastern and Western civilisations, topiary, bonsai and hedging have evolved into highly skilled forms of gardening. As every plant grows slightly differently in varying locations and every gardener has slightly different horticultural views, every hedge is an individual creation in the same manner that every garden is an individual achievement. Hedges can be unique expressions of sculpture.

modern hedging design sculpture

The Circle roof terrace


Many a Leylandii hedge have caught the public’s attention in neighbours’ disputes over obstruction of natural light. What was meant to be an innocent horticultural introduction has evolved into an unruly menacing green monster… Whilst our suburbs are blighted with ghastly hedges such as Privet, Griselinia and Cherry Laurel, nurseries in the UK are introducing beautiful new varieties of hedging material. With recent disease problems among Buxus hedging, the use of Japanese holly has increased and new varieties of Ilex crenata are being selected across Europe. I personally have been using this plant on projects although in my own garden I am very proud of my Box hedge – front and back. A hedge provides enormous horticultural value. Whilst the great Yew hedge at Bathurst Estate produces 1 tonne of clippings per pruning session, smaller hedges too contribute greatly to green recycling. Growing hedges these days certainly defines a return to native species, native wildlife and an indigenous way of gardening.

modern hedging design horticulture

St George Wharf roof gardens


Even a traditionalist cannot avoid a touch of minimalism when planting one single species in a line – a hedge. Selecting this single specie means choosing carefully as the conditions must be right not just for one of a kind, but for numerous clones. In the modern garden the paring down of elements brings visual peacefulness and ease of maintenance and garden designers in Northern Europe have been practising these principles in both the private and public realms. A roof terrace I created in Shoreditch displays only 4 types of plants arranged in clipped and loose hedging. The simplicity and contrast in texture, height and colour are expressed through groupings of grasses, bamboo and Box balls and in turn provide the setting for an Eastern Zen-like garden.

modern hedging design monoculture

King's Cross roof terrace

  9. FUN.

There is perhaps nothing more humour-giving, satisfying creation a gardener can produce than to maintain an intricate piece of fun living art. Whilst hedging and topiary can have an austere, sombre effect in some traditional surroundings, with some imagination, planning and patience great figurative and abstract art can be produced in most garden settings. Allain Provost, the great French landscape architect, has been introducing such qualities in public urban spaces in London and Paris over the last 30 years. Using geometrical shapes, curves and 3-dimensional blueprints he has been able to introduce to the public a tactile, entertaining and all-inclusive pieces of modern garden art using hedging and topiary.

modern hedging design fun

St Paul's roof terrace


Depending on scale, maintenance of hedges is relatively simple as most require one or two shears per year. On the other hand, the great 40’ Yew hedge at Bathurst Estate requires 2 men, 2 days and a cherry picker at a cost of £5,000 per annum to shear off a tonne of clippings, and it has been growing for the last 300 years! Indeed there are quite a few trimming techniques which very between the various types of evergreen and deciduous hedges and one needs to learn the appropriate ones. From a physical point of view, higher and wider hedges as well as woody ones will present a grapple for anyone trying to tame them quickly or without knowledge or experience. The older a hedge or topiary becomes, the tougher it is to restrain them yet the completion of a hedge’s haircut is a rewarding one whether one is the owner, the gardener, or a mere spectator.

modern hedging design maintenance

Debden large country garden

To successfully combine hedging and topiary in a modern garden is to update traditional rudiments using restraint and imagination as well as a good knowledge of plants. Whilst Box balls remain one of the commonest, easiest to care for popular topiary in gardens, the use of Box in new forms of hedging continues to be explored in contemporary landscapes. Every now and again a new design comes along and changes our perception of what is a hedge.

amir   Written, photographed (unless indicated) and posted by Amir Schlezinger.

modern hedging design

St Luke's roof terrace

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