Jake Hobson, Cloud Pruner/Organic Topiarist, explains…
Just what is Cloud Pruning? The term is thrown around fairly indiscriminately these days, but there are basically two camps. The genuine, hardcore Japanese stuff – individually pruned trees, trained and shaped to represent stylised caricatures of themselves, sitting within the landscape of the Japanese garden. And the western version – the big blobby hedges that I refer to as Organic Topiary. Once proud, formal things, they’ve been allowed to slip, deliberately or otherwise, and now occupy a fascinating place somewhere between man and nature.
Neither usage is incorrect – they both get the point across, and to many people the two styles appear similar, but look more closely and they are a million miles apart. The Japanese seek to create an essence of the tree, scaling it down, distilling it to a more workable scale. Some trees, notably the pines, can look decidedly cloud-like, but interestingly the term cloud pruning is not a translation from the Japanese – pruning is so much the norm in Japan that they barely bother defining it, but when they do, the generic term niwaki defines all pruned trees in the garden. Some can be clipped to resemble dense, broccoli-shaped trees, others look more like bunches of grapes, while some trees have branches that extend for twenty or thirty feet in a meandering way across the garden.
Whether Japanese or western, what they both do is create a sense of landscape. Nowhere is this clearer than at Levens Hall in Cumbria, one of the most magnificent of all the topiary gardens in the UK. Here, scattered amongst the traditional topiary, lie vast shapes, almost pulsating they’re so organic, like trees within a cityscape, breathing life into their surroundings. Time, the elements and imaginative gardeners have all played a part in their creation, and nature itself often lends a helping hand – damage from heavy snowfalls and fallen trees is seized upon as a positive, constructive opportunity for change.
In the garden, cloud pruning provides the volume and mass that traditional topiary does – the solid bones of the garden – but also introduces a less formal, more intimate feel through its organic lines. Rather than evoking architectural forms such as columns, pyramids and cubes, the descriptive terms always evoke nature: large friendly mammals (whales spring to mind) vegetables like mushrooms and broccoli, even melted ice cream.
Yew, box and other traditional topiary plants all work well, as do pines and other conifers, as well as beech and hornbeam – in fact, almost anything that one sees as a hedge can, with a bit of imagination, be transformed, with a sharp pair of shears and an open mind.