At this time of the year, many gardens (my own included) can look a bit messy and unkempt and it is when I crave solid, sculptural elements in the garden for visual satisfaction. I always admire manmade sculptures in other people's garden but am too scared of choosing something for my own garden, in case I make a terrible mistake. So I prefer instead to use plants to provide that sculptural element in my own garden and make a statement against a background of amorphous foliage.
Evergreen topiary shapes are one way of introducing strong, bold forms that last all year round in a garden. One of the most amazing topiary gardens I have ever seen is in the Lake District in England, where at Levens Hall, in Kendal, a vast number of 300-year-old topiary shapes , including animals and chess pieces, are to be found. English gardeners use yew (Taxus baccata) a lot for their topiary; however, here we are more likely to make shapes from Buxus or Murraya. Clipped evergreen hedges also bring solid form into the garden.
Another method is to train vines into shapes on walls to create a display. I have seen ivy and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) used very effectively in this way. This needs vigilant attention to maintain the pattern but is a good way to decorate a wall.
There are also plants that naturally have incredible shapes. Many of these seem to be succulent-type plants. The big rosettes of the smaller perennial forms of Aloe and Agave are amongst the most dramatic and they retain their good looks every day of the year. Like all plants with a definite appearance, they look best if they are not crowded in by other plants of a similar size. For that reason, they look very effective in pots, or else planted on their own with only low-growing plants around them to provide a strong focal point in the garden. They are drought tolerant and useful for dry parts of the garden in full sun.
Kalanchoe - which belong to the broader Crassulaceae family of plants - are among my favourite succulent plants and offer a huge diversity of shapes and sizes and are low-maintenance, drought-resistant specimens. Kalanchoe synsepala (ht 50cm), from Madagascar, has enormous fleshy leaves with a red margin. It produces baby plants at the ends of long stems, which eventually weigh down the stems to touch the ground and take root, giving rise to its common name of walking kalanchoe. If the plant is grown in a pot, these baby plants trail attractively over the containers edge. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora (ht 60cm), sometimes known as flapjacks, has rounded leaves, strikingly edged with red, especially if it is grown in full sun. Kalanchoe can be grown in sun or bright shade - the latter position is recommended as the ideal one for them by some experts. On a smaller scale, Echeveria also belong to the Crassulaceae family of plants, and have striking shapes. Their fleshy leaves form rosettes which are decorative in containers or can be used to create fascinating effects if massed.
Palms also have beautiful silhouettes and give good form in tropical style garden borders and in pots. A stunning variety I once saw in the Sydney Botanic Gardens is the silvery Bismarck palm from Madagascar pictured at the start of the blog (Bismarckia nobilis), which can ultimately get very tall; smaller gardens should settle for more compact palms!
Bromeliads also have eye-catching shapes and some of the larger ones grown in pots can create a strong feature in a shady area of the garden. Vriesea bromeliads include some of the bigger specimens, such as the stunning banded Vriesea hieroglyphica, which can spread 1.5m wide eventually. Vriesea platynema is another large, handsome species, with some lovely cultivars. Many Vriesea can tolerate direct sunlight as well as being useful for shaded spots. Most can be grown epiphytically in the forks of trees.
Another epiphytic genus with an arresting shape is Platycerium, which includes staghorn and elkhorn ferns. The unusually shaped leaves provide an interesting feature when tied to a board attached to a tree or a fence in a shaded part of the garden, where they capture leaf litter and other organic matter for food. They really do remind me of those stuffed deer-heads on wall s in grand English houses. Many other types of ferns - such as tree ferns and bird's nest ferns - also have robust architectural shapes throughout the year for shaded gardens.
There are many other plants with good form that can satisfy our eyes for beauty in the winter garden, including Phormium, Cordyline and Acanthus mollis. Most are from warm climates - and we are very fortunate that our mild climates allows us to grow these plant sculptures!
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