Thinking inside the sphere

Just clipping my English box given the cool and cloudy weather, thus minimizing the post-clip burn that can decimate these otherwise bullet-proof plants.  Box manifests in three forms here – spheres; long, lumpy curvaceous grubs; and low formal hedging forming arcs around raised veg beds.

While snipping away at the spheres (now back at my place), it occurred to me that this is not like any other gardening job.  The transformation thus created is instant, which is rare in gardening.  It’s a chance to exercise a bit of perfectionism – also rare in gardening.  But it’s also a kind of solidifying – an almost alchemical process of adding weight and substance – taking soft, fuzzy planted forms and turning them into something altogether more architectural.  It’s as if vegetable matter takes one step towards masonry.

As I moved onto the lumpy, amoeboid plantings, I lost that sense.  These forms are, I guess, inherently more organic.

I’d previously considered that the transformation to the quasi-architectural was primarily about the crisp edge that clipping produces, but the solidifying effect was so much stronger with the spheres that I’ve started to think that it must also be the forcing of a plant into a recognizable geometric shape that is largely responsible for the blurring of the otherwise clear distinctions between the built and the planted that occurs during the ten-ish minutes of clipping.

This morphing into stone is, even at best, only partial, but it’s real.  Its incomplete nature was reinforced when I was perusing (for about the three thousandth time) the phenomenal pics in Louisa Jone’s book about Nicole de Vesian over brekkie this morning.  In most of the pics, the spherical or domed shapes of the clipped shrubs are anchored by the presence of small stone spheres in the same view.  There’s no way of overstating the power of this real stone in adding layers of temporal complexity to the scene, and that lovely juxtaposition of ancient and immutable against the fleeting nature of planting, and in this case, the even more fleeting nature of the grooming these plants receive.  I wasn’t in any doubt about the anchoring power of this stone, but when I put a thumb over each of the stone spheres (thankfully there were only two, but I guess any other finger would have done just as well), the loss was incredible.  Planting, despite my proposal that it can take on a non-plantish solidity, simply can’t fill the brief that’s required of stone, or solid built objects in the garden. I don’t have any original images, and can’t find the image I was using online, but try the same thing for yourself here and here.

But I’m leading – in typical style – from what clipping can and does achieve, to a probably unnecessary discussion of the limitations of what can be achieved with it.  Lets just table that clipping box (or any shrub for that matter, though the finer the foliage, the crisper and clearer the consequent outline) into strong geometric forms can take it almost into the realm of non-plant, adding solidity and gravity that usually eludes plant-life.

Afterthought:  It occurred to me later that the ‘burn’ in the pic of Hatfield may have been caused by late frost on the new growth.  I experienced this myself this year in Woodend, Australia, for heaven’s sake.  Nevertheless, it’s a fair representation of how box can look if it’s trimmed while the new growth is still very soft and pale green, and during sunny hot weather


  1. I wonder if creating other geometric shapes like cones and square-edged hedges can have a similar effect though? Not sure that they do for me. I think it is the power of the sphere that attracts us too, just like circles on the ground or vertical planes. When I clip the ragged edges of my dwarf murraya (as I don’t do buxus) back to its neat spherical shape, I feel a compulsion to pat it, it looks so like a pleasing and adorable little pudding. So weight plus anthropomorphism for me!

    1. So vegetable morphs into animal AND mineral. Miraculous

  2. Hi Michael, when before Christmas another kinder mum and I got the chance to go to only one open garden each (we went to Musk farm and Paul Bangay’s garden) we met up at the kinder drop off very excitedly.. both very keen to compare notes..I declared “I am going to grow big balls” and she countered with “I’m going to start trimming my box” we both looked at each other and realized what we had just loudly proclaimed outside the kindergarten room and burst into hysterics waiting for the Benny Hill music to cue. Without meaning to get all ‘Better Homes’ on you are there some hints for trimming a geometric-ish sphere… my attempts are rather unattractive and elliptical.. it’s rather put the kybosh on my plans for ‘big balls’! Trimmed box hedges seem more achievable!

    1. Yeah, there’s no quick-fix I’m afraid. My plants took at least three years before they started to look convincingly spherical, and even now (as you’ll see from the pics) they’re not perfect. Plants at purchase are invariably taller than they are wide, and it takes more discipline than most gardeners have to keep trimming the top down while the sides swell out to match it. Even then, the balls mostly grow more strongly on the top, so require that they be clipped more aggressively up top than on the sides.
      Having said all that, I trim mine back lightly, then step back and tip my head right and left trying to decide what now needs to be taken off to get a more spherical result. Sometimes its easy, and at others, you just can’t identify what is ‘unspherical’ about it, but know its not right.
      Very, very often its to do with the extent of ‘undercut’. To get a sphere rather than just a dome, there’s got to be a sense of the curve continuing underneath. This is problematic, as an undercut plant won’t want to grow in this zone, being shaded by the overhang of what’s above, so it’s often a matter of just hinting at this curve beneath with a slight undercut. It’s amazing the way our eyes (or our brain, rather) gets the idea and fills in with the rest of the sphere, as long as this undercut is suggested.
      So, in a nutshell – two most common errors of the attempted sphere – the lack of a undercut, and the reluctance to cut hard enough on top so as to make the shape as wide as it is high.

  3. Agree with Catherine that perhaps other geometric-shaped plants don’t always provide the same pleasing effect of spherical clipping but I do feel manicured balls in close company with planar forms (hedges/Cupressus exclamation marks, horizontal/vertical garden structure) can be deeply satisfying to be around; as if one form complements the other. Gardening friends comment that this type of styling is the outward expression of a horticultural control-freak; hmmmm perhaps. Thank you Michael for making us think more about the non-ephemerality that stone can bring to a garden space… my obsession with stone is yet further consolidated.

    1. I don’t agree with your friends. Seems to me that to have something very tightly clipped with a really crisp edge can ‘carry’ or cover for a whole lot of wanton mess around it. Piet Oudolfs own garden at Hummelo had those fabulous waves of clipped yew as perfect contrast to the very soft, apparently natural plantings of perennials they backed up. Same goes for those clipped waves behind the diaphanous feathery thing at Le Jardin Plume. Not suggesting either of these gardens are messy, but my own experience is that my own anything-but-controlled perennial plantings (which can get very messy late in the season) gain enormously from some solid clipping nearby. I wonder if your friends would suggest that the rules of sport are unnecessarily controlling, or if they provide a framework for the freedoms of the game?
      And stone. Yes. I’m similarly obsessed. I don’t think it’s possible to have too much of it. If you find a source of affordable stone balls and old stone well-heads/troughs, please let us know..

    2. Have found a couple of nice things from Kyo in Ocean Grove. Most of the stone items are from China and aren’t always a warm biscuity colour, rather grey granite…. but sometimes you can find something quite special. Was very lucky to score a groovy trough with a patina only the passage of time can create, courtesy major birthday voucher combined with darling husband’s generosity – Kyo’s stone is probably more affordable than some metro suppliers, but still, such a thing so beautiful will cost some $$. I feel compelled to offer some context to my friends’ comments; I do clip/shape a large amount of our garden – friends’ remarks regarding my micromanagement of balls, hedges, blobs, clouds and puddings are also coupled with the question “why on earth do you make so much work for yourself?”.

    3. My uncle saw a pic of mine in a 2014 calendar, showing the berserk box clipping at Marqueysacc, France. His immediate comment – ‘What a waste of time!’. Funny how much we all differ in what constitutes time waste. No one seems to question the value of watching cricket or tennis for hours on end on TV. And neither am I. But I do know not to inflict my own values about time use or waste onto anyone else. Having said that, I’ve gotta add that I’m often asking myself the question your friends ask you when I’m out in the garden – particularly when I’m totally overrun with jobs to do and feel like I’ll never catch up. But that question is usually countered by asking myself what I’d rather be doing.
      And as for Kyo, the two fabulous old stone troughs I have both came from there. Wish I had about twenty of ’em.

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