Organising a garden is an education for both the gardener and the foliage, says Justin Newcombe

Today's lesson is about tree training. If you lop off a branch so your gordonia doesn't scratch your car as you back down the drive way, you are tree training. If you're lopping off a few branches every 18 months or so to protect your sea view, you're tree training. If you trim the middle out of your feijoa to open the canopy up, you're tree training. If you trim your bay laurel into a nicely formed ball or clip the buxus into a poodle or your thuja pyrimadalis on to a spiral or your griselinia lucida into a plant wall (commonly referred to as a hedge) then you are tree training. Shaping and bending a tree to your bidding as you would a dog, a child or a vacuum cleaner hose; moulding them to your cast iron will ... that's what training is all about.

In most residential gardens a certain amount of tree training is required and much of it is for practical purposes. To avoid a lot of unnecessary maintenance, plant selection is important in the first place. When you plant trees you need to think long term. It's tempting to plant something fast-growing to form a hedge, for example, but this often ends with a lot of annoying tree work because fast growth doesn't stop just because the tree has reached the perfect height to block out the unsightly view. Fast-growing means left unchecked, your hedge could spoil 90 per cent of the day, casting your section in deep shade. You are often better off planting a more desirable, slower growing species of tree and waiting that little bit longer to gain your privacy.

Another practical training method is espalier, which is a great way to keep trees in a small garden. Instead of being planted in the middle of the garden or in an open orchard, the trees are trained to grow against the sunny side of a wall or fence. Usually fruit trees are favoured but it's not a hard and fast rule. As well as saving space, the wall used for the espalier will provide a thermal mass - more heat - that will improve yields for fruiting trees. Espalier is usually done in regular lines but clever pruning and some long-term planning can produce some interesting diagonal thatched effects, even waves.

Of course plant training is not just practical, it is also for the enjoyment of many a pleasure gardener (with time on their hands). The beautiful art form of bonsai is a classic example of this, being as much a meditation as it is a gardening skill. The aim here is to produce a tree of an almost spiritual dimension, twisted and bound to convey the ultimate beauty in nature, but in miniature. Not only is the foliage clipped and preened but the roots are also regularly and carefully trimmed. The vessel containing the tree is also important. It's usually shallow, making removing the tree relatively easy, and is ornately decorated.


The whole bonsai ensemble has a certain gravitas, a state of affairs that topiary doesn't manage, but topiary doesn't need to. Topiary is often a jolly, laissez-faire embellishment to a garden or patio. Yes, there are the formal academic boxes and balls endlessly repeated one after the other to produce a scene of control in your classical garden. But more contemporary exponents of the art use random shapes to give an eclectic mixture of form and volume. This is abstract topiary. Next time you bust out the hedge-trimmers or the secateurs, perhaps you might want to extend yourself a bit and get creative. You might not be Edward Scissorhands, but good things take time.