Deck the Walls (and Hedges)

hedge pruning

An American holly (?) hedge clipped into swags and star shapes. (Canon G11)

In late  January, as our local Garden Conservancy Open Days committee was finalizing its selections for the 2010 Open Days tours in the DC area, we found ourselves walking down a street in the District with an amazing hedge. Two of the designers among us (pas moi, I can’t tell an American holly from anything but a Foster) thought it was a hedge of American holly. It was beautifully maintained and its crisp, deep green color was a welcome addition to the winter landscape.

What really impressed us, however, was the fact that some talented gardener had carefully pruned it to include a repeating pattern of swags and circles along its upper regions – punctuated with stars every so often. The photo doesn’t do it justice. Slanting afternoon light, peeping in and out of the clouds, raked across the tops of the swags, making them stand out when the light was best.

Seeing this work of art – for that’s what it was – made me think of other walls I’ve seen adorned with living art. Most of them are expanses of brick or stone, either house walls or retaining walls, that have been softened with flowering shrubs or (less often) trees.

Sculpting shapes out of climbing plants can be relatively easy (see the inverted ivy “V” shapes below) or more challenging (think thorny pyracantha, sorry, no photo available). Definitely less appealing than the stars and swags hedge above, but much better than the unadorned brick retaining walls would be without the ivy.

At the Australian Ambassador's residence in Washington DC, inverted "V" shapes of ivy break up a large expanse of brick retaining walls (Canon G11).

Much more appealing is this espaliered climbing rose on the walls of the garden at the British Embassy, which was open to the public for a day several years ago.

British Embassy garden, climbing rose

A climbing rose adorns the wall of the British Ambassador's residence in Washington DC. (Nikon D200)

In England on a tour of public and private gardens in 2002, I saw how even a lowly barn wall can be transformed by climbing roses and evergreen plants.

Eastleach Manor

Climbing yellow roses and an unidentified evergreen climber beautify a barn at Eastleach House in the Cotswolds. (Nikon N80)

Trees are harder to use as wall sculpture. In addition to fruiting trees, Magnolias are favorites of garden designers for this purpose.

Mt. Cuba Center, Magnolia grandiflora, espalier

A Magnolia grandiflora espaliered against a wall at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware. (Nikon D100)

I’ll close with my favorite living wall adornment. At Swarthmore College, the entire campus is a renowned arboretum. It was here I first encountered a cousin of the climbing hydrangea, Schizophragma hydrangeoides, or Japanese hydrangea vine. I love this plant because it will flower in shade and grows relatively quickly; a few years ago I planted it on my north-facing front wall. Here it is in flower at Swarthmore. Thank goodness I had my camera.

Schizophragma hydrangeoides, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore Arboretum

Japanese hydrangea vine in flower at Swarthmore Arboretum (Nikon D100).

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6 Comments on “Deck the Walls (and Hedges)”

  1. Edith Hope Says:

    Dear Melissa, This is such a fascinating and absorbing posting. I love each and every one of the wall sculptures you have shown here but, possibly, the swagged holly would be my number one choice.

    I have a friend at Bourton House in the Cotswolds [you may have visited her garden] who has done something very similar with pyracantha on a side wall.

    • Melissa Says:

      Edith, it doesn’t surprise me that the holly is your favorite! I have to confess it is probably mine, too, even though recreating it for a client would take more work than planting one of the other options. Seeing it gave me the idea for this post.

      I haven’t seen Bourton House, although the tour I went on in 2002 (about which I will write more soon) did include a trip to Eastleach Manor, a private garden open by appointment. Do you know it?

  2. gardeningasylum Says:

    Melissa, Beautiful photos! I love how brick works as such a beautiful background for plants – we don’t seem to use brick up here as much as you do, and it’s too bad. I’m wondering if what you call Schizophragma hydrangeoides is actually hydrangea petiolaris?

  3. gardeningasylum Says:

    Sorry – I’m wrong, never mind! Hope you’re back home and digging out okay from the latest event!

    • Melissa Says:

      Whew. When I read your first post I thought maybe my memory was faulty, although I remember taking notes when I took that photo because I’d never seen Schizophragma before.

      Miraculously so far I have not lost power in this second round of storms. I got home on Monday mid-day when we had power back and so far, so good although I’m not sure when I will get out of the house! (More time to work on the blog, between knocking ice daggers off the gutters . . .)


  4. What interesting photos. I have only seen some formal espaliered plants (Bougainvillea does well here in the desert). The swags are unusual, but it really works. However, the roses are my favorite :^)


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