I Start with the Easiest

I spent an hour or so today working on my sculptures. Yes, they were out in the garden. No, they were not stone renderings of fish spouting water into a pond or of ethereal females sprinkling the ground with flower petals. These sculptures are quite large and, as you might guess, the are green, with leaves. 

Some of the sculptures have been completed; some are works in progress. The easiest of these sculptures are nothing more than short hedges, one of boxwood and the the other of yew. Each makes a cozy enclosure, the yew for my front stoop and the boxwood for a bed of Smooth (Hills-of-Snow) hydrangea, a hop vine climbing a trellis, and a Sweet Autumn clematis climbing a brick wall.

Yew at front stoopWith flat tops and nearly vertical sides, both hedges are quick and easy to prune. They both widen slightly from head to toe because, quoting from the “hedging” section of my book, The Pruning Book, “If the top is wider than the bottom, the bottom will become shaded. Over time, the shaded portions will die out, leaving gaps in the hedge.”

(Could these two hedges hardly qualify as “sculpture?” I contend that creating any three-dimensional object requiring aesthetic decisions as to shape and size qualifies as “sculpting.”) 

A hedge out in back of my home takes longer to prune because the hedge itself is longer as well as, in some parts, higher. This 50 foot row of privet bushes is waist height through most of its length except for the gentle upward sweep it takes as it approaches either end. After climbing 8 feet, the sweeps level out, continuing on to create the top of an arch beneath which is an opening through which I can walk, even drive my tractor.

Catty-corner to the swooping hedge (which, in its earlier stages, I was going to sculpt into a two-headed dragon) is another hedge with a pass-through. This hedge forms a high wall a few feet off the back wall of my workshop, and it’s pass-through iswide enough and, with its slight bump up above it, also high enough so that anything that fits through the barn door can also fit through the pass-through. 
Intersecting hedges
The plant that makes up this hedge is Tea crabapple (Malus hupihensis), an interesting plant not usually hedged. It produces seeds that are apomictic, a botanical quirk where, to quote from another of my books, The Ever Curious Gardener, the plant produces “seeds that are not the result of pollination, but that develop from the same kind of cells that make up the rest of the plant.” (All seedlings and the mother plant are clones of each other. These were extra seedlings from those I had grown for research use when I worked for Cornell University.)

Left to its own devices, a Tea crabapple would grow up to 40 feet high and produce fragrant, white blossoms and cherry-size crabapples. For decades, I’ve kept the row of seven of them only 15 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 9 feet high. They don’t mind except with all that pruning, flowers or fruit are rare.

Heads and Clouds

Now we come to the more difficult hedges, ones that are more sculptural. Both are yews, a plant that tolerates just about any kind of pruning. I have written about both hedges previously. Since I revisited them today with pruning and hedge shears, I thought it was time to revisit them on the page also.

The first is not a hedge, but a solitary, giant old yew bush that, at more than 40 years old, predates my tenure here. For most of that time, it was pruned to the shape of a 15 foot high and wide cone. More recently I’ve pared away at it to try to morph that cone into a giant head.

Problem is that the interior of a plant cone that size is dark, so the stems within lose their leaves. Some of them dry out and die back. As a result the yew head’s eye sockets and mouth, both of which were supposed to be green recesses are dark — and a bit foreboding.
Yew bush pruned to a head
Today’s pruning was geared to shearing the whole bush to keep it from growing too large, and shortening all the dead wood deep within the eye and mouth sockets. New sprouts should then appear within those once-shaded gaps. 

The other sculpting challenge started life very conventionally, as four yew hedges planted along the house wall. It was your typical “foundation” plants and planting. Years ago, for fun, I sculpted the hedge into a giant whale and, a few years later, a giant caterpillar. Easy.
Caterpillar yew
More recently, I decided to go more abstract and artistic, with “cloud pruning.” Or, as Jake Hobson more accurately terms it, in his informative and visually inspiring book The Art of Creative Pruning, “organic topiary.” He describes this pruning as creating forms that take “on a decidedly organic character, as though they were made of wax and exposed to the sun too long. Definition is lost, in favour of natural, flowing lines.” That’s my goal, thus far hinted at but unachieved. I find it difficult to unshackle the hedge from the three individual bushes that comprise it.
Organic topiary yew

If Only Michelangelo…

So much in gardening involves taking time to step back and admire your finished work. With these sculptures, even the simplest ones, it’s important to do so periodically while sculpting.

It’s all fun and very satisfying. If I make a mistake, I can just wait for the plant to grow back. Just think if Michelangelo could have stepped aside for a few weeks while his marble grew back for another round of being chipped away.

On the other hand, he would not have to chip away at the finished piece every few months through summer to keep it in shape. These sculptures need multiple prunings through the growing season to keep their shape.


Lawn Nouveau

I’m taking up sculpture. Not in bronze, Carrara marble, or granite, but with plants.

My easiest sculpture is one I’ve been doing for years. I can’t really say “working on for years” because every year it vanishes, to be started anew each spring. It’s “lawn nouveau,” as I call it in my book, The Pruning Book, and then go on to describe the technique as “two tiers of grassy growth . . . the low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with a lawnmower. The taller portions are mowed infrequently – one to three times a year, depending on the desired look (and my need for hay) — with a scythe or tractor.” The sharp, defining line between the high grass and the low grass is integral to the design.
Meadow in September
I’m lucky to have a meadow bathed in sunlight bordering the south side of my property. But even a small yard might be able to accommodate lawn nouveau. My three-quarter of an acre yard did before the meadow shifted to my care. (Previous owners had maintained it as very large lawn with weekly or biweekly mowing.)

This sculpture has many pieces to it.

One is how I manage it with mowing the whole meadow either at the end or the beginning of the growing season, a necessary task or the meadow will naturally revert over time to forest. Even a once a year mowing might be insufficient, as I realized a couple of years ago with the increasing encroachment of woody shrubs and vines such as poison ivy, grape, and multiflora rose.

Repeated mowing during one season brought the meadow back in order, mostly with grasses. Over time I expect and hope for a resurgence also of more goldenrods, bee balms, and other herbaceous, flowering plants.
Meadow of an autumn passed
The look of the meadow is also influenced by a season’s weather. And by the progress of the season, the meadow’s appearance being very different as grasses morph from succulent green leaves in spring to late summer’s tawny shoots and seed heads. Late summer also brings on showy flowers.
Meadow in spring
Even the time of day; it’s early morning appearance is quite different than its appearance at various times throughout the day, all dependent also, of course, on what’s happening up in the sky. All this making for a very interesting sight of varying beauty.

A lot of this is either beyond my control or very unpredictable. What is neither is my mowing during the growing season. Each spring I lay out a path, maintained by mowing with my tractor, that wends its way through the meadow.
Meadow path
The goal is to make it inviting and practical. Practical because it carries you to the end of the meadow into a bosk of maples, river birches, and one large buartnut tree, and then on to a studio building.
Path leading to bosk
Meadow, looking north
This year I decided to also sculpt more edges of the meadow, cutting the high grass with a scythe to a pattern that matches the flow of the path within. One of my favorite views of the meadow is from an upstairs window, its height allowing me to visually swallow the whole view.

A Head for Yew

Another plant sculpture here is a large yew that I’m carving to become a fifteen foot high head. This one is easy enough because I’m merely copying one of a series of such heads living in a public garden in Britain.

The bush is old, 40 years at least, and has always been pruned to a cone shape with slightly rounded rather than straight sides.

Creating the facial features has involved some deep pruning down into the center of the bush. Yew is a forgiving plant, readily resprouting from even old wood. Problem is that some of those interior stems are old and dead.
Yew head
The challenge, then, is time, to be patient for sprouts to grow where light now is penetrating. And then to trim those sprouts so that all levels of the sculpture present green surfaces.

Cloudy Aspirations

And finally, my most difficult sculpture, one for which I each year claim improvement, but not success. The plants: yews again. In this case, there are four of them, all maintained four to five feet high so as not to block the windows of the wall they front.

Originally, they were pruned as a standard yew-along-house-foundation hedge. A few years ago, I morphed them into something more interesting and humorous, a giant caterpillar, with some success. (My inspiration here was the work of Keith Buesing, topiarist extraordinaire of Gardiner, New York.)
caterpillar yew
More recently for these plants, I decided to try a method of pruning known as okarikomi, a technique that originated in Japan. In this case, a group of shrubs, rather than maintaining their individual identity, are pruned to flow together to create a scene reminiscent of billowing clouds or a distant, rolling landscape.
Okarikomi yew
Thus far, I’m not pleased with my pruning. But every year I make some changes and it looks better than it did the previous year.

Plants are very forgiving. Every year, even during each growing season, I have opportunity to change my sculptures according to my whims or what looks nicer to me. What will the meadow, the yew head, and the okarikomi yews look like next year?

And Composting

In case you didn’t notice my previous post, I will be holding a composting workshop/webinar Wednesday, September 23, 2020 at 7 PM. For more information, go to