Making a garden more than just a collection of plants requires many facets of detailing one’s outdoor space. Training plants into unique forms and patterns is a great way to personalize and dramatize a garden.
One of my favorite training techniques is the practice and art of espalier. Often seen grown on a wall or as free-standing screens, an espaliered specimen— just about any tree or shrub—can be a wonderful, uplifting garden element to enjoy for years. The intensive pruning and years of time it takes to create a recognizable form often forces people to buy a pre-started plant, which will grow into the designated space and into the ultimate mature form. Here at Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, we have growers for the start of the process, then our skilled gardeners prune—typically twice a year—to develop the ultimate garden espalier ornament. Historically, espaliered trees have been fruit trees that can be harvested in the fall. Imagine trolling through the King’s Potager at Versailles and seeing the ancient fruit trees espaliered into many forms—it takes your breath away! We use different materials such as ornamental flowering trees—Cornelian cherry and redbuds, for example. We also use viburnum and witch hazel shrubs, which typically take on a natural, flat-backed shape that softens a fence or a wall. I recently saw a spectacular, eight-level cordon-espaliered climbing hydrangea vine that free stands in Riverwoods—just spectacular! If one puts their mind and time into it, the art of training plants into espalier forms can be very rewarding and absolutely beautiful on any fence or wall, or when used as a division of a space.
Whether it be the recognizable boxwood or privet hedge material, the actual character and success of any hedge must start with an end-result in mind and the horticultural knowledge to make the effort a success. We intentionally do not overcrowd the initial spacing between hedge plants, in order to ensure proper environs for good health and growth for the mature hedge. If one does not want to wait for the infill growth to happen over time, the long-term life of the hedge is significantly shorted. If looking for a flat-topped hedge, consider having the profile of the hedge created with a wider base and narrower top. This allows sunlight to evenly spread across all surfaces of the hedge, and protects it from our heavy, wet snows that break the brittle branches. One can also arc the top of a hedge, but be advised that a wider base for this domed form works for the same reason.
One can also hedge shrubs, trees, and certain perennials for a more formal or geometric look. Know the growth habits and ultimate size of all of your plants, especially if you are planning on training and pruning them into something other than their natural form and scale. If one wants a small, low hedge, use a compact or dwarf variety to ease in the effort to keep it low. Always try to keep the plant no smaller than one-third of its mature scale over time for success. Examples of our hedges at the Gardens at 900 Waukegan Road in Lake Forest are arborvitae and hornbeam, as well as boxwood and yew—both upright and low. We even have a 60-foot hedge of the indigo-flowering salvia “Wesuwe” as a front hedge to a blue border. Be inspired to shake up tradition and create a unique form or variety of your hedges. It all takes time, so you may as well be unique and personalized in your own efforts for your home garden.
There are many of us mad gardeners with images of Edward Scissorhands at work on outrageous, dream-like shapes and sizes when we hear the word “topiary.” Others think of the elegant pairing of lilac standards flanking an entry, or potted myrtles on a dining room server. I embrace the dedicated artfulness it takes to create a topiary that is healthy and beautiful in form. Inside or out, there is a myriad of candidates to craft into topiary, from miniature to monstrous. I have shaped boxwoods into pears and apples, and more boxwoods into chickens and peacocks. A confession—the peacocks came after I met Christopher Lloyd in England for the first time and saw his giant peacock yew topiaries in his Teapot Garden. You think it and a topiary can be born! I will often look at the potential of a future topiary when looking at a plant that needs pruning to see if there is something just waiting to be revealed. The men who maintain our gardens think I am crazy sometimes, but that’s why I have a garden, right? There should always be time to think out of the box or, in this case, the plant…
Many folks do not follow the practice of planting the right plant for the right space with room for growth. The result can often be “hortitorture,” as coined by our friends at the Chicago Botanic Garden. If done just right, by putting the plant into a container instead of the ground, this effort can create the ultimate in training of a plant: a bonsai. I am terrified at the dedication to tend a real bonsai because I would have to be responsible for its well-being 24-7, 365 days a year. I have enough responsibilities and have animals and plants to tend. Maybe this is in my future when I retire. But then, I can’t retire, so maybe no bonsai! If you are considering taking the plunge: BONSAI! My suggestion is to attend a bonsai show to see your options, and to talk to folks specializing in all that is bonsai. It is a fascinating and enviable trade or hobby. I hope this helps in navigating through the art of training plants into some form of submission. Remember: the right plant in the right place with the right knowledge will make every effort you make pay off tenfold. Here is to “the art of fine gardening!”—our Craig Bergmann Landscape design mantra.
For more information, contact Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, 900 North Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, 847-251-8355, craigbergmann.com.