A Pair of Felcos and a Dream


Hobson_CoverLet'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.  

My favorites are the many old yew hedges pruned into cloudscapes and buttresses and fortresses, though there is also a photo of an allee of yew standards in a churchyard that blew me away.

(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.


  1. While I wouldn’t call my design style formal, pruned, or controlled, I am salivating to buy this book RIGHT NOW! Thanks for providing the review. Plant porn at its best!

  2. The TROLL is feeling particularly peckish this morning and shows us quite well how poor reading comprehension skills and knee jerk emotional right wing thought can go hand in hand.

  3. First of all there is no difference between gardening and farming, that is until it comes to the desired results.

    Secondly, I appreciate and enjoy elaborate pruning. However, for my own yard the most creative pruning I like to see, is that when I am done it looks like the plant grew that way naturally and no cuts were ever made.

  4. I always feel like the large topiary gardens would be fantastic places to play hide and seek in at night! Can you imagine being at Longwoods with the lights out and a full moon, wow.

    Once upon a time I did bring back two yews from their escape into pretending they were lanky trees. I cut them off at 4 feet with a saw, and then got out my pruners to make them look like nice rectangles next to my front stairs. They did eventually look quite decent.

    But a number of homes later, I have to agree with Les, I am in the natural category now. I need to get out and prune off the Viburnum beetle egg parts before spring.

  5. I once used my telcos to dissassemble a locked bathroom doorknob…..a very long story involving a very pregnant woman, a toddler and a husband who installed all doorknobs with the locks facing outwards.

  6. Well, I think the Troll is right. There are plenty of yew “standards” in New Jersey–namely yews in foundation beds that lose all their lower branches because they aren’t pruned correctly. Sometimes they are intensely pruned on the sides and top, and look like popsicles with a shaggy fringe.

    What’s the difference between that incredible British church scene and New Jersey? Intention. Age. Commitment.

  7. Being a gardener of small spaces, I prefer the espalier that I can make out of fruit bearing trees along the fence. (it is time once again to think about pruning them.) I do have a box bush out front and your post sent me thinking about a row of them, nice and round and puffy…

  8. I have done nothing exciting with my shears beyond opening bags of birdseed with them, and occasionally killing Japanese beetles. Well, I’ve taken out vast stands of autumn olive, but that’s less “creative” and more “OH GOD WHY WON’T YOU DIE!?”

  9. The book looks lovely! I’m a big fan of niwaki, but i’m still years away as i’ve planted teeny trees, fingerlings in some cases.

    I grow perennials, and now food for my mom, but it’s the woody plants that float my boat.

    I’ll cut anything and everything. I’ve killed two huge trees in my yard by overpruning – that’s ok, they look more interesting as dead trunks.

    Somehow an apple survived, i’ve pruned it into a 3-arm umbrella of sorts.

    Cedars, firs, junipers, spruces – i’ve played with one into pom-pom like terracing, the others are all still so small, i can only limb them up a bit and wait.

    Tree form burning bush? I’m giving it a try from seedlings i found in the garden.\

    It’s always a push and pull between control and freedom, manipulation and natural. i think the big challenge is the patience required (with pruning, i think in 5-year chunks), as well as a bit of risk-taking.

    If you’re conservative about haircuts, i can’t imagine you’d like creative pruning. But if you’re willing to creatively prune your head – then i say: have some fun in the garden, too.

    Happy clipping!

  10. To my shame my boxwoods are not always nicely pruned and my yews are struggling for life against deer snacking and i can only hope the deer are as well. However I find my large pruning sheer wonderful for potato digging. I point them down closed, turn a bit and the potatoes come strait up.

  11. I love the fox and hounds topiary at Ladew Gardens and have always wanted to try something similar. Unfortunately there have always been more mundane projects that need to be completed first.

  12. I, myself, have not done anything amazingly creative pruning wise with my pruning shears. However, the rabbits, that frequent my garden, naturally have only the finest of pruning shears-their sharply honed teeth-which they use to create many an interesting remnant of a shrub or plant! Now beauty and art and pruning are in the eye of the beholder but still, I have learned much from the rabbits: have no fear, make clean sharp cuts and even when pruned nearly a little to far, most things come back again, beautiful.

  13. Not my own pruning, but this summer while on an edible yards tour, I met a gentleman who’d pruned a couple of Meyer lemon trees into cubic hedges. When asked what the variety was, he admitted to confusing many people by calling them “Boxwood Lemons”.

    As for my own pruning, I’m afraid my adventures don’t go further than keeping the fruit trees with reach my ladder or my picking basket … or keeping the Coleonema pulchrum from blocking the door. I do love the way creative pruning can “formalize” a garden space, but it’s not really my style. I do need to try it at our rental property, however, to add a little class to the landscape as its neighbors have done.

  14. This is my contest comment. It’ hard to read The TROLL first thing in the morning without reacting.

    The baby boxwoods were planted by the gas tank with care, except I cut the satellite internet cable line in the process, with the intent to hide the hideous thing with some evergreen flair.

    A visit to Pearl Fryar’s inspired plenty of thoughts. Much more can be pruned into boxwoods than just another square box. The Art of Creative Pruning would help me a lot.

  15. First garden/plant porn (and yes, some photos and some descriptions are just that), and then Margaret Wilkies’ plant bondage, of which I have been guilty myself. It’s kinky gardening.

    One day a sitter had just come over for my then-young son. I asked her if she wanted any food or kitchen porn. You should have seen the LOOK she gave me. I showed her the magazine or book, and said, This is the porn. She relaxed, and admitted she’d like to look it over.

  16. Obviously I am not entering, as the thought of having to prune a shrub horrifies me, but I walked Winslet’s avenue of shrubberies when visiting England in 2004. It is Montecute, in Somerset. The English definitely know how to pull this kind of thing off.

    What works on a grand estate in the English countryside generally does look dumb in American suburbia.

  17. Is Pearl Fryar included in this book or is it all English?

    The keys to pruning creative shapes:
    -starting when the plant is small
    -knowing what you want the final shape to be
    -frequent trimming/pruning depending on plant growth rate

    You must start small–you can’t cut a tree or shrub down into a shape, you must grow it up into the shape. For me, it helps to imagine an outline of the ultimate shape surrounding the current shrub (almost like an invisible mold surrounding it). You prune to help it reach that outline but never extend beyond it.

    The most creative thing I have done is start pruning buckthorn a la Pearl Fryar’s oak trees. They’re fast growing and if I screw up, no loss when I cut them down. Of course, there are no “mistakes” when you’re doing abstract designs.

  18. Hey Christopher NC: Fact is If this practice is so bad why should this blog even give pres time period.

    Anyway Michele Owens agrees with me.
    So there you Left Wing Compost Tea Drinking Tree Hugger!
    The TROLL

  19. Ya’ll will have to meet Buxom Bottom Busty Betty, a life size topiary woman who overlooks my front yard garden.
    Her chicken wire framed body is planted with creeping fig but her chapeau is a bouquet of succulents and bromeliads.
    My partner loves to make jokes when he sees me shearing her private parts. I’ll spare you the ‘well trimmed bush’ jokes. men will be men.
    She is particularly fun to accessorize around the holidays.

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