January 23, 2014

Cloud pruning boxwoods and yews in a Toronto garden

A way to introduce structure and winter interest in a formal garden

I'm a little grumpy at the moment: stuck in the dead of  a harsh Toronto winter with terrible windchill temperatures making it unpleasant to go outside. Anything resembling spring seems far, far away.  The term "winter interest" keeps popping up in my mind: ornamental grass stalks and seedheads, desiccated rosehips  and crabapples, how the snow lies on my Cornus alternifolia (Pagoda dogwood). I also thought of a project underway for one of my clients that maybe could inspire you.

When I first came across this part of her garden (at the rear of a rectangular yard, more or less), I immediately thought of a "teatro verde" or "(open air) green theatre" which, I admit, doesn't make make a whole lot of sense. The small area is really just a raised bed with a flagstone patio. The neighbour's 20' tall cedar hedge (Thuja occidentalis) makes up the backdrop or curtain of this "theatre." There were an assortment of shrubs (red-twig dogwoods, rhododendrons, a rose of sharon) and hostas in the bed, nothing too exciting and a bit busy. Flanking both sides of the curved retaining wall were two large yews (likely Taxus baccata) in the shape of, well, big lightbulbs.

For some reason only known to the "design muse," I recalled the "cloud pruned" hedges and topiaries of Belgian designer Jacques Wirtz and the Japanese tree pruning tradition called niwaki. I wanted to create an atmosphere of serenity and calmness with a bit of drama and tension. 

Oxymoronic? Contradictory? Incongruous? I knew I was on the right track....

cloud pruning boxwoods by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
The beginning of a cloud hedge with yews and boxwoods 
(I couldn't move the umbrella base!)

The client bought three large (5 gallon container) yews (Taxus x media "Densiformis") and a few "Green Velvet" boxwoods (Buxus) that, luckily, were on sale as larger specimens are pricey. The other boxwoods were  "repurposed" and transplanted from other parts of the garden.

boxwoods cloud pruning by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
Looking at one corner of the curved raised bed...

boxwood cloud pruning by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
now at the other corner. The lighter green balls are boxwoods,
 the darker green are yews

cloud pruning boxwood by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
Looking down the curved bed, the neighbour's
white cedar hedge poking through
the chain link fence on the right 

You're right! All I see too are a bunch of little meatballs scattered throughout the bed. Of course, this is a multi-year project before the shrubs start "knitting" together to form the much desired cloud effect.

I'll update this post over time with pictures of my attempt at niwaki with the two large yews on opposite sides of the curved wall and the newly planted boxwood and yew spheres.

With time, luck and sharp pruners, we'll get cloud formations that will look heavenly when laden (not too heavily) with snow.

Did I give you some ideas for "winter interest" or maybe even saving an ancient juniper or yew? These could be useful for those of us who don't have pretty flowers to look at for a third of the year!


  1. Hi Paul, I too have permanent frown lines from this weather - by the time spring comes, I fear my face will be frozen. Very interested to see how this project knits together. I hadn't seen yews used in this way - just box, but am thinking it would be much faster wouldn't it?

    1. Hi Barbara, I'm glad the client was open to the idea for this project. The reality was we had a whole bunch of small boxwoods here and there throughout the rest of the garden with two very old yews. I find the growth rate for the yews vs. boxwood a little faster, but as you know, neither are fast growers. This is at least a 5 year project but the client is patient, lucky for me. Yes, spring is somewhere, just not in Toronto at the moment...