Tuesday, December 6, 2011

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.


  1. Lust, how right... Ever since I saw photos of those overgrown box hedges at Jacques Wirtz' home, I too have lusted for something similar. A couple of years ago I planted a group of boxwoods in a raised planting area in my garden, and this summer the boxes have grown enough to start to knit together. I've really been surprised how quickly this is happening because the plants were not very large to start. But it's given me the courage to think about a cloud pruned box hedge in my small Brooklyn garden, which I plan to start next spring. I suffer lust, too, for those cloud pruned hornbeams in Stuart-Smith's Chelsea garden two or so years back. Good luck with the yew experiment. My bet is you will make it work.

  2. Hi Thomas,
    I did my version of Piet Oudolf's iconic wave hedges (in yew) in Pavilion Garden Depot Park here in Peterborough, NH. The first few years were an act of courage and perhaps insanity and they too looked awful. It was especially scary to try it out in a public space but about after 3-4 years it looked pretty good and after 6-7 years it working well, I think. It is especially pleasing this time of year when the structure becomes more evident. Be patient. It is one of the great lessons of gardening.

  3. Hi Thomas -

    I hope your cloud hedge is a big success, and I think it would play well against the lines of your house. It looks like a bold and fun experiment.

    But if you eventually decide to pull out the yews, you may want to take a look at your house without foundation plantings and see if you like it that way. Most houses tend to look better without foundation plantings (they meet the ground more decisively and feel like they're "in" the landscape rather than buffered from it) and there may be other places on your land where new plantings would be more effective than against the house.

    I've removed overgrown foundation plantings from a few buildings, and while it's always a little scary at the outset, the operation has consistently been followed by a huge sense of relief. Unencumbered by foundation plantings, the structure seems to breathe more easily (and so do I).

    In the meantime, best of luck with the yews!

  4. James,

    That's great to hear the smaller boxwoods have filled in so fast. Did you use a particular cultivar? I know some are pretty slow-growing. Hearing your success gives me confidence to try that as well.

  5. This is great...I love that you showed us the glamourous image that inspired you, but then also showed us images of yourself being very brave and testing the concept on your own hedge. I hope it works out! There is a two-volume set I've looked at on Amazon that showcases all the Wirtz gardens....it's really pricy, but omg, the pics are jaw-dropping.

  6. What a wonderful, informative post about creating cloud hedges! Particularly when you describe your challenges with it! Have a great day!

  7. Michael,

    I was so excited to hear about your public park experiment, I went to your blog to look at the photos. Beautiful! I'm working more and more on public sites and its a tremendous challenge to do gardenesque design, but one I think is worth the effort. I'm always captivated by designers like you who raised the bar for public landscapes. How is maintenance taken care of? Is there a friends group or garden club who take care of that? I can't imagine a parks department taking such good care of gardens.

    Really fabulous design. I am inspired. Thomas

  8. Tobias,

    It's a great point. I'm not particularly commited to foundation planting, though I find that the no foundation planting look is better when the architecture is good. Unfortunately, that's not the case on my house. We'll see. If the cloud hedge doesn't work, I'll try your approach. Happy gardening!

  9. Thanks, Mary. Don't you think the image of me on my ugly house was glamorous? I was in hair and makeup for an hour for that shoot ;)

    My previous firm had that two volume set. It's nice, but definitely pricey. If I can pull off the cloud hedges, perhaps I'll buy those books and see what other architectural hedges I can imitate.

  10. I've been reshaping my yew hedge for nearly 4 years now. I followed the admonition in a British pruning book to 'manure it heavily' after heavy cutting and sprinkled miracle-gro liberally underneath it. I've had excellent regrowth. But, in the future, reserve such drastic chopping for spring - this waiting's gonna kill ya.

  11. Make that Green Lust! LOL!
    It will be excellent to share the future of your yew hedge. I get a subtle feeling that the box wood/ yew hedges may be making a sly come back? I tell you I dream of a lovely hedge but with the limitation of finances to invest as you say, they pickin's are petite!
    Thanks again for a great post, I have already put a hold on the book referenced at my local library!

  12. This article on bonsai pruning was revolutionary in how I think about pruning.


  13. The versatility of the Yew is that, even when overgrown, it can be cut back dramatically into a more manageable size.

    I respectfully disagree with Tobias on the subject of foundation plantings. How reassuring that the subject of landscaping can accommodate such a large number of diverse opinions.

  14. Thomas,
    We have an excellent public/private partnership in Peterborough. It is a formula that I learned from Lynden Miller, the NYC public garden designer. The town does a lot of the big projects and volunteers meet every Wednesday morning for a couple of hours to do the detailed garden tasks. I have been fortunate to get over $40,000 in grants in the last dozen years for parts of the design that the tax payer might feel is too extravagant. You are right, though, you can't rely on the town to do the detailed, gardenesque maintenance.

  15. Also, the title of your post, "The Cloud Hedge Experiment" would be a good name for a 70's stoner band.

  16. Likewise lusting for a cloud hedge, although I wasn't aware of their provenance till now. In fact, I'd be satisfied with a cloud cluster -- a more affordable option, perhaps.

  17. If you do decide to remove the old yew, please contact one of the local bonsai clubs (See Potomac Bonsai Society). Members would drool over the old yews as potential bonsai material. You could maybe get the yews removed by them and you could watch just like Tom Sawyer and his painted fence!

  18. Tami,

    Thanks for the advice. I was wondering what kind of soil amendments to add in the meantime, so I'll take your advice. I've skinned them so hard, I'll be eager to give them some stimulus.

    Nancy, Yes, I do think hedges are making a comeback. Less the forgotten evergreen clumps we stick under our foundations and forget. More the artfully crafted, architecturally strong, and in contrast to lots of herbaceous plantings. We'll see how this one does. I give it a 50/50 chance.

    Julia, Thanks for the link. I never really thought about bonsai as an analogy, but it is rather obvious now that you point it out. Now Im excited!

    Hi Allan, yeah, I think I'm generally with you about foundation planting. For me, the architecture has to be pretty spectacular (historic farmhouse or modern glasshouse) before I would consider no foundation planting. My midcentury ranch is pretty boring and has undersized windows which the foundation planting really helps to soften. Of course, most foundation planting is pretty awful, but there are better ways to do them. Always enjoy your point of view as a designer!


    That's fantastic. I'm working on a number of public sites that I would like to use a model like that. Everyone keeps telling me to dumb down the design because nothing will survive, but I'd rather do something special that makes people want to invest in it. I'll have to follow up with you more offline to learn about your great success. It's very inspring.

    Mary--Ha, absolutely. I'm feeling high just thinking about it.

    Helen, I know! Love your "cloud cluster" concept. I think that makes so much sense for small yards and that makes it more affordable. the Tom Stuart-Smith model of clustering new shrubs of different sizes could be perfect for that. I'm planning on trying some clusters in my sideyard this spring.

    Jim, I had no idea! These yews are pretty huge. Could they really be turned into bonsai?


  19. Hi Thomas -

    Thanks for your response to my earlier comment, and for sparking such a great conversation. With the discussion of Boxwood here, I thought I should pass along this information on the arrival of boxwood blight in the US this fall:


    One more reason to work with the yews you've got . . .

    Best - Toby

  20. Any kind of gardening becoming an endless chore is forbidden in my book. Gardening is for pleasure and and enjoyment.


  21. Hey Tommy, how did your hedge turn out?


If you liked this post . . .

Related Posts with Thumbnails