Best UK plants for structure in the garden – plus how to do topiary
Structure is one of the most fundamental and exciting parts of garden design. Get your garden structures right – things like lines, solid shapes, spaces and voids – and they’ll give you a sound frame and canvas on which to paint your more changeable colours, textures and forms.
In the garden such structure can come from non-living elements such as walls, pergolas, paths and maybe a tasteful (or, if you prefer, tasteless) statue or two.
But it’s the living structures that are perhaps the most fun to play with, providing opportunities for ever-changing creativity. And some of our best structural plants are native species.
Traditionally, we’re talking about trees and shrubs that respond well to pruning. If branches readily re-sprout after repeated cutting they can be trained and formed into all sorts of shapes.
While small-leaved evergreens are the most popular, especially for hedges and topiary, there are deciduous options too. And for topiary in the garden you don’t have to limit yourself to balls, spirals or peacocks.
Here are some of our best UK native plants for structure in the garden.
1. Box – box hedges and topiary
In the world of evergreen structure, box (Buxus sempervirens) reigns supreme.
It’s so familiar that many are surprised it’s native to England, but a clue lies in some ancient place names, such as Box Hill (Surrey) and Boxley (East Kent).
The stems of box are clothed with pairs of small, oval leaves, bright green as they emerge in spring and darkening to a lustrous shine.
Left to its own devices box grows into a rather beautiful small tree, but it’s rarely seen un-pruned. Its clipped form is dense and solid with a smooth surface – ideal for creating shapes that are limited only by your own imagination.
2. Holly – pruning holly
I have a rather difficult relationship with holly (Ilex aquifolium). It takes pruning remarkably well and, although not as malleable as box, can provide wonderful structure – a very dense volume of glossy green, which is slightly shabbier than box thanks to its larger leaves.
But holly is just too spiny for me. Clipping, training and pruning are all about getting stuck into a plant, and that’s too painful an operation with holly.
There’s also that variegation – wonderful if it’s your thing, but variegated holly is not for me.
Holly really needs a bit of space, and only when it’s left alone to spread do you get lots of holly berries.
3. Yew – yew hedges and topiary
The perfect structural evergreen for me is yew (Taxus baccata). It’s small, glossy leaves emerge apple green and darken to a wonderful deep and lustrous green – darker than box.
This gives yew more weight as its clipped shapes appear more dense and solid. It’s surprisingly fast growing (up to 30 cm a year) and takes pruning extremely well.
Several yew cultivars are available. Some have more columnar or "fastigiate" growth – ideal if you want spires or columns – while others are wide and spreading.
There are forms of yew with yellow foliage too.
4. Ivy in the garden
Nothing softens the look of brick and stone walls better than ivy (Hedera helix). Although perhaps a bit too vigorous for a house wall, free-standing walls in the garden look great when clothed in a smooth mantle of green.
Ivy stems hug the wall closely, so the underlying structure remains visible and, when flowering stems grow out from the wall they can be trimmed back every few years.
Lovers of variegation can choose from a bewildering array of colours and patterns. Ivy is one of the top plants for wildlife too, providing a late source of nectar for pollinators such as bees, berries for birds, and shelter for all sorts of beasts and bugs.
5. Beech and hornbeam hedges
Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and the closely related hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) are in the premier league of hedging plants.
They’re able to reach impressive dimensions but always remain somehow open and not too dense – perfect if you want structure that’s not too overpowering.
If the hedge is clipped the previous summer the autumn leaves remain on the plant, providing a wonderful foil to the soft green leaves as they emerge in spring.
What is pleaching?
To try something a little different, many deciduous trees can be pleached. Pleaching involves training young shoots along a flexible framework to create narrow screens, which can then be used to edge walkways or raised off the ground to make tunnels and arbours (they’re sometimes called "hedges on stilts").
It takes time to achieve the effect but the end result is impressive. Small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata) is perfect for this, as are beech, hornbeam and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
But for something very impressive try a whitebeam (Sorbus aria) with its pale, downy leaves.
Top tips for cutting hedges and topiary
- Always cut the sides of evergreen hedges on a slight slant. This allows more light to the base and prevents a gappy bottom.
- Use a washing line tied taut between two poles as a guideline to help get a flat top to your hedge. The poles can also help with your vertical lines.
- Start with simple shapes. Cones, obelisks and spheres provide sophisticated highlights to paths and formal borders and look fantastic casting long winter shadows.
- Wire topiary frames make clipping specimens much easier. You can find frames online or at big garden centres. Choose your shape (squirrels, elephants and rabbits seem to be popular) and place over the young plant. Trim any branches that extend beyond the wire frame.
- Topiary sheers are an excellent investment, too, specially designed to cut with the minimum of effort.
Main picture: Yew topiary at Hidcote Manor, Somerset
©By VashiDonsk at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0