In the topiary world, Jake Hobson is a bit of a rock star. The Dorset, England–based topiarist originally studied at the Slade—London’s premier art school—before a trip to Japan in 1997 that set him on a greener path. Intrigued by the fanatical approach to pruning in Japan, he returned for two years and worked at a tree nursery in Osaka. When he returned to England, he brought his newfound techniques with him, working first at Architectural Plants in Sussex where he continued to refine and develop his cloud pruning work. He now owns and runs Niwaki, which specializes in Japanese tools and accessories, and while a bad back prevents him from taking on professional topiary clipping anymore he continues to teach through workshops and lectures, as well as looking after his own— and his mother’s—collection of neatly clipped forms. We asked him to get the perfect boxwood shapes.
1. Cut at the right time.
Boxwood will put on major growth throughout May—sometimes around six inches (“Everyone thinks it grows slowly but actually it grows quite quickly for what it is,” says Hobson), which is why the traditional time to trim it is in early June. Cut earlier than this and the plant will continue its growth spurt and you will need to do another summer cut. In big gardens where there are different types of topiary to clip, this is traditionally followed by trimming evergreens such as Portuguese laurel or bay in July and August and then yew in September. For Hobson, a crisp finish after this June pruning is what that sets boxwood apart in the garden. “For the English and certainly the Belgians, this really tight clipping is what makes box so useful. It gives that sharp focus in a summer garden full of fluffy loveliness.”
2. Keep tools razor-sharp and totally clean.
Like other topiary pros, Hobson keeps a bucket of water alongside him as he cuts, occasionally dipping sheers into the water to stop the blade from sticking, but with boxwood he will add a glug of bleach to the water to ensure that it sterilizes the blade. “And if I was in a garden where I was at all concerned about blight, I would clean tools between each plant, too,” he adds. “When I do a workshop and everyone has their own shears, the first thing I want everyone to do is to clean them.” Keeping tools very sharp will also help to decrease the chance of disease.
3. Refine your technique.
“When pruning, it’s really about head, hand, shears, and getting into the groove and rhythm of it,” says Hobson, who says the one thing to avoid when clipping topiary is to make big erratic movements—small and steady will help you refine a shape. When cutting curves or balls, use the shears so that the blade curves around the plant and on straight surfaces use the flat side of the shears. Hobson uses Japanese Pro Topiary Clippers (£109) for really detailed work and also keeps secateurs on hand to cut back thicker stems that could damage the blade of the shears. As with most jobs, the best tools make this task so much more enjoyable.
4. Tidy up.
Be sure to clear up all clippings as you work (lay down a sheet underneath the plant and then it’s easy to scoop up once you’ve finished). But it’s a good idea to try to remove dead foliage from inside the plant too. For this Hobson uses a blower on a reverse setting which will suck up all the brown leaves. It may also take some topsoil away too, so add a layer of compost around the plant after you’re done.
5. Prevent disease.
As usual in the garden, the best way to keep pests and diseases at bay is with prevention rather than cure. Hobson ensures that there’s good aeration around the plants. If you have lots of herbaceous perennials around box, they can reduce air flow so try to keep a channel of air around each plant. And if you do spot any disease such as blight deal with it right away. Hobson suggests a severe cutback to remove all diseased foliage.
6. Don’t kill your plants with kindness.
Overfeeding can be a real problem, says Hobson. Plants will put on lots of lush growth, which will look lovely. But this vigorous new growth can be more susceptible to disease. A traditional winter mulch around plants is probably plenty or, failing, that drench plants every month in the growing season with a liquid seaweed solution. (Of course, unless you have poor soil plants probably don’t need to be fed at all.) “Walk around a hillside in the south of France where box is a native; no one ever feeds it there,” says Hobson, who doesn’t feed plants at all in his own garden. “These plants actually do quite well on a lack of attention.”
See more tips for care and pruning at Boxwood: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design and some of our favorite evergreen alternatives to box in our curated design guide to Shrubs 101, including Yew, Rosemary, and Privet. Read more about boxwood: