A Growing Concern: how Charlotte Molesworth’s tremendous topiary takes shape
In her idyllic Kentish plot, the artist and gardener talks figure, form and foliage – and shares her tips and tricks for handsome hedges
“And what’s this one called?” Charlotte Molesworth is walking around her glorious garden, pointing at various species of box hedge. “Elegantissima! Exactly. Jolly well done.” In her former life, Charlotte – spry, enthusiastic and utterly engaging – was an art teacher; it seems she hasn’t lost her pedagogic tendencies.
Now, however, she occupies herself with the plot surrounding her charming cottage, not far from Sissinghurst, in Kent. It is a romantic, rambling place, one that certainly keeps her busy – not least as she opens it up to the public, both privately and as part of the National Garden Scheme. While she has a little help these days, much of the work is done by Charlotte and her husband, Donald, a pair of faithful rescue hounds trotting a few steps behind. The couple spend more time than most halfway up a Niwaki ladder or balancing on one leg, secateurs in hand, tending to the tremendous topiary that shapes the skyline here. “Garden yoga!” Charlotte twinkles. “It does keep you fit.”
Gardening, Charlotte says, “is all about orchestration, observation and editing. Oh, and patience.” She would know – for when she and Donald moved here 40 years ago, theirs was entirely overgrown. Armed with the yew seedlings they had asked for as wedding presents, they got to work. In the intervening years, it’s the topiary that has come to matter most to Charlotte – her chess pieces and cones, dogs, peacocks and pretty helical swirls. On our visit they were woolly, awaiting a trim once the birds have left their nests. Until then, Charlotte will be thinking about shapes.
Today there isn’t a corner of the garden that isn’t cultivated, from the succulent section of the terrace to the generous veg patch, by way of the winding grass paths with self-sown borders and the nuttery (“enough for us and the squirrels”). Everything is done organically and she and Donald keep chickens and bees too, as well as sheep and a donkey – all rescued. The larger animals live in a paddock presided over by a large lime tree, whose blossom Charlotte uses to make a fragrant tisane. It’s over such a cup that she shares her topiary tricks…
Think outside the box
“Yew is the king of topiary and box is the queen – but there are options you can explore too. Lots of common shrubs can be shaped, such as lavender and some herbs. Even camellias can be topiarised and will continue to flower – they are popular on continental Europe. That said, I’ve never tried to clip one myself…”
Look out for pests
“That first bit of advice is particularly useful if you live in London, where it’s almost impossible to grow box now – the city is rife with the dreaded box moth, which is real headache. Keep a watchful eye on your plants, as you have to catch them as caterpillars; once they pupate and mate it’s too late, really.”
“You want to start training hedges as early as possible – and to think of the scale of what you’re designing. Scale and balance are some of the most important things.
“That said, you can always change things. It’s like a haircut – it will grow back! I once made a topiary dog, but his tail was too high to clip. In the end, we turned him into a rabbit, but that wasn’t quite right either. I think he looks like a dove now. Eventually, I’ll clip him back – I just have to be careful of not cutting the box’s harder brown wood, which it doesn’t like.”
Use cuttings where you can
“Many of my hedges I grew from cuttings I took from my mother’s garden. She grew old-fashioned roses and box, so I get the genes from her. I’ve used cuttings from all sorts of places – churchyards, from when I used to do wedding flowers, for instance, or nurseries, like the brilliant Elizabeth Strangman’s, which has sadly gone now. I’ve been on cutting pilgrimages to places I admire.
“Not only does using cuttings create a wonderful horticultural connection, it’s also much cheaper than buying plants. For box, start with a pot of very free-draining soil. I’d recommend a 50/50 mix of grit with either your own compost or some peat-free stuff. You can put multiple cuttings in one pot. Water them very heavily, put a plastic bag over them and keep them in the shade.
“Get familiar with the weight of your pot. As long as it’s heavy, it’s got enough moisture. If it’s light, you’re in trouble. Other than watering, though, you should hardly touch the cuttings for about a year. All that peace and quiet allows their nodes to turn into fleshy roots, which is extraordinary when it happens. At first they’ll be fleshy and white; after two years they’ll be brown and wiry.”
If in any doubt, come on one my courses
“Darren Lerigo, a topiary artist, and I run workshops here every September. We teach people how to grow and how to shape. They’re great fun!”
- A Growing Concern: Nigel Slater on finding quietude in chaosGardens
- Bud Wiser: five gardens to know about at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower ShowGardens
- A Growing Concern: the magic of McBean’s Orchids – and how to grow your ownGardens
- A Growing Concern: some last minute tips for a beautiful spring garden (even if you haven’t started yet)Gardens