Maybe it’s time for a truly low-glam plant.
Every garden needs modest, background plants to create the stage on which the ‘A-listers’ can really shine. They’re as important as the ‘extras’ in movies. But when I told me wife that I was planning on planting a hedge of Viburnum tinus, she just couldn’t take it in. ‘That ugly shrub with the white flowers in winter?’ She asked, with exaggerated incredulity. Then added ‘No one will take you seriously as a garden designer if you plant that thing’.
My wife can really rattle my confidence. But in this, I remained steadfast. I knew that I wanted a darkish green hedge to make a huge arc around our giant old prophet of an oak, and that it would have to survive with no water at all. It also had to be tolerant of the occasional really brutal cut back into old wood, as all hedges eventually grow too stout. The only two plants that ticked all the boxes were bay (Laurus noblliis), and laurustinus (Viburnum tinus). While liking the colour of the former better, I decided against it due to its habit of sending random, outrageously long unbranched shoots beyond the outline of the hedge, totally undermining the intended shape after only a couple of months of neglect. The viburnum, however, just acquires a five-clock shadow if it’s unpruned for a while.
So I planted it, against the express wishes of my wife. It has survived without any watering (beyond the first year, to help it get established), apparently without complaint. But with the competition of rough grass growing right up to it, it’s slower than I thought. It probably took about eight years for the hedge to get to the desired height of about 1.5m tall. With a little watering, and some mulch to reduce the competition from the grass, It would have achieved that size in half the time or less.
My ideal is to clip it once a year, in late autumn. That way I cut off most of it’s flowering potential (and thus minimise its offensiveness to my wife), and also get the longest time period of crisp clipped-ness before its late spring/early summer flush of growth.
But while clipping to deliberately minimise flower, I’ve decided that there’s something really lovely about the colour of the buds, and the way that colour sets off the white of the flowers. Thirty years ago, I recall going nearly dizzy with desire for the very recently released Viburnum ‘Onondago’ when I spotted at the Chelsea Flower Show. The lacy white flowers lit up the deep, dusky, red-pink buds. The pink was a bit like the staining that creeps into the white flowers of some dogwoods, or that flushes through many white hydrangeas as they age. It’s not at all like a normal floral pigment. It’s kind of muscular, and more like a ripening than a new-born colouring. Having swooned over what was then an impossibly difficult to get plant, it took me decades to realise that the flower-buds of boring old Viburnum tinus carry exactly the same pigment. It totally changed the way I looked at this otherwise modest garden staple. I still wouldn’t use it for anything other than a background, structural plant, or perhaps to clip into balls, which it tolerates brilliantly.
And love it or not, you can’t help but be grateful that it’s just so unbelievably tough. In the very worst of our drought years, the green has yellowed only slightly, as if it’s doing everything it can to brave the challenge, and smile through the stress.
In this last autumn, as a result of the time the first Covid lockdown bought me, it had its first perfectly-timed and carefully executed trimming. My wife (following twelve years of silence on the subject) later let out an unprompted, and very casual ‘Yeah, I really don’t mind that thing now’.