How to cut back plants to create clean lines and tidy gardens

Don't dig up your garden to transform it, take a tip from the experts and cut back plants to create clean lines and hide hard edges.
Tommasso del Buono
Top landscape architect Tommaso del Buono's signature style is clean lines, strong green structures and unfussy detailing
Tommaso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitz are the design team behind many a well-crafted, contemporary London garden. Their signature is clean lines, strong green structure, unfussy detailing; their recommendations are worth noting.

Whether you're bringing in a designer or reworking your garden, the pair's advice is to keep what you can. Del Buono says: "We hate taking everything away. It is very difficult to achieve an air of timelessness if everything is new."

This could be a tree that might benefit from having its canopy raised to let in light - or a climber that needs drastic taming. In a garden with a curtain of ivy obscuring a low wall behind a bench, the pair cut back the ivy to make a thick green ruff above the wall, then planted two clipped box rectangles either side of the bench to be the same length as the wall behind, making a harmonious, all-of-a-piece feature.

"We like to hide built edges, like walls and steps, so we plant hedges in front of them," says Gazerwitz. "It looks less urban. In one garden, where the kitchen looked out on to a terrace at lower ground level, and faced a large, curving retaining wall, we planted a yew hedge in front, so the clients felt like they were in a big green room."

Although a sense of enclosure is important, Gazerwitz cautions against using trellis all around the garden - or it will look like a boxing ring.

"You don't need to treat all the boundaries the same; just see where there are issues of privacy and address those areas," he says. In one London garden, the pair used a row of pleached hornbeam along one boundary and squared trellis screens along another; they might use horizontally slatted fencing, so that sunlight creates a stripy effect, as with Venetian blinds.

"You don't want to highlight the boundaries," says Gazerwitz. "It's the same with lighting: washing walls with light works indoors but outside, detracts from the garden. Instead, light up the tree in your neighbour's garden - borrow their landscape to add depth to your own."

In a town garden, evergreens create the framework. Del Buono says: "We always give a garden a good strong structure that creates a powerful, year-round presence. There are plants that look great in the country, but in town, by the end of June, start looking tatty, like Alchemilla mollis. What works best are tough, glossy leaves. Camellias, Trachelospermum jasminoides, box, yew are London staples."

The pair make plants work hard for them: in one overlooked patio, a quartet of mulberry trees, pleached to form a flat, leafy canopy, provides a shelter of dappled shade that also affords privacy. In another garden, a high-level hedge of pleached ornamental pear Chanticleer makes an effective screen and, says del Buono, is a useful space-making device in a small garden.

The danger with a contemporary garden, where so many elements have to be incorporated — dining, children's play area - is that the planting gets relegated to one little strip, says Gazerwitz.

"The greener the garden, the better," he adds. "A garden should always be about plants. In a country garden, where there is space and light, you can have a herbaceous border, and it doesn't matter if there's a hole where the peony has flowered, but in a small town border, you don't have that luxury, so we use plants that perform over months, like euphorbias, Erysimum Bowles' Mauve and Hydrangea Annabelle."

They treat lawns as restful, green spaces. Del Buono says: "Most clients want a lawn, and sometimes you have to say that it's just not going to work. But if space and light levels allow, a lawn is calming to look at and lovely to walk on barefoot. What works is to have a strong, geometric shape with no fuzzy edges. It makes the garden look furnished and is a lot tidier. A London garden is similar to a boat - you just have to be careful how you manage the space."

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All photographs by Marianne Majerus

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