Let's face it, as a gardener, I am mainly a farmer. Yes, I have strong opinions about the aesthetic questions in gardening. No, I do not have a fascinating yard. Too busy planting food and cooking it!
Nonetheless, I was really inspired about a decade ago by a photograph of a Dutch garden in one of Penelope Hobhouse's books. The perennial beds in this garden interspersed boxwoods strictly pruned into balls among the mound-shaped herbaceous plants. I loved the mix of hard and soft, and formal and informal. So I tried to reproduce it in my own desultory, diffident fashion–in a colder climate where we can't grow English boxwoods and have to settle for coarser Korean hybrids. In seven years, I've probably pruned the boxwoods just three times.
Nonetheless, just this week while picking up the mail, I looked down at the shrubs by my front door, and thought, wow, they are starting to have some shape! This miniscule success so inflamed my ambitions that I decided it was time to read a new book, The Art of Creative Pruning by Jake Hobson.
Come spring, I will almost certainly ignore the shrubs once again in favor of the vegetables, but no regrets–what a fantastic book!
Hobson, a Brit, definitely attended the Penelope Hobhouse School of Garden Pornography, in that the writing here is far livelier and wittier than it really needs to be, given how tasty the photos are. There is some how-to in the book, all of it of a very high standard. Here is Hobson on shaping boxwoods into a mushroom or blob:
The trick is to keep moving and never dwell too long on one spot. To get a good finish, I find it helps to get down to the same level as the plant, so you are looking down at it, not drawn into it. If you have trouble getting clean outlines, imagine you are a lathe-like machine that is set on automatic, and cut to an invisible outline. In some places, you will take more foliage off, in others you might barely touch it, or even clip through thin air, but this helps to iron out any irregularities and in time will give a much better outline.
Though the recommendation here is to see things the way a machine would, this is very unusual gardening advice, in that it actually sounds as if it was written by a human being.
But Hobson has the good sense to make this book much more than mere how-to. Its real subject is his wild enthusiasm for the dreamy unreality that plants treated as sculpture add to a landscape. And Hobson–a triple-threat who photographs beautifully as well as gardens and writes–includes ample evidence of the surreal contributions pruners have made to his native Britain.
(For cinematic proof of the power of yew topiary, take a look at Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, namely the scene where Kate Winslet rushes out into a grand garden at a moment of grand romantic despair.)
I love Hobson, however, for his unsnobbish appreciation of well-pruned plants all over the world. For example, he is very enthusiastic about the insanely artificial quasi-Japanese style of landscaping you see in suburban yards in Northern California. He also has the nerve to prefer this suburban exuberance to California's more museum-like Japanese gardens:
Personally–and I will probably be shot for this–I feel that the residential gardens of the California suburbs have much more to offer than the larger Japanese-style gardens, however authentic and well-done they are. Having seen countless gardens in Japan, I have seen very few foreign imitations that quite lived up to their aspirations. Outside of their native country, to me niwake seem more interesting when removed from their native context and placed in the real world.
A garden writer who prefers real gardens! Fantastic.
The Art of Creative Pruning is a tribute to all those gardeners all over the world who turn reality into a dream–hence, the perfect book with which to escape a few of these excessively real hours of slushy mid-winter.
Publisher Timber Press has kindly agreed to give away a copy. The commenter who has done the most creative thing with his or her pruners wins.