Horticultural dress-ups

Squirrel topiary at Great Dixter in England.
Squirrel topiary at Great Dixter in England.

WINTER is the ideal time to analyse your garden and see what it lacks. Forget about filling in the gaps with annuals. Think verticals and structure. Do you need some height or architectural interest? Does an area need screening to hide an ugly fence? Do you want to ''close off'' a bed and create a parterre garden for either plants or vegetables?

One solution is a hedge, but they can be frustrating in that plants die when you least expect them to. I created a hedge of Lavandula dentata along the driveway. It was my pride and joy for three years but it ended up dying off.

I replanted with the long-flowering 'Blue Lagoon' rosemary, which looks wonderful and the bees love it. It's a narrow bed, the soil is poor and the only water it gets is from the sky, which is probably why it is doing so well.

Also unsuccessful have been hedges of 'Glabra Cadabra' westringia, a new cultivar in the coastal rosemary family that was introduced a couple of years ago and has pretty purple star-like flowers. But now, some plants have died - probably because it's been so wet - so I fear they may have to be pulled out as well.

There has been a resurgence in topiary in England - it was everywhere at the Chelsea Flower Show - and that can add interest to a garden. Yew makes a striking tall hedge or column, and box (Buxus) is good for creating bird, animal or cloud shapes. Let your imagination run riot with these horticultural accoutrements.

I have 10 westringia balls by the pool and they look like sage-green boulders about to roll into the water. The same has been done with olive trees to stop them getting unruly, especially in a small garden.

Box is wonderful for a hedge or in pots and you can create any shape you want if you're deft with a pair of shears or hedge clippers. Craig Irving from Sunnymeade Garden in the Strathbogie Ranges recommends English box, saying it stands the test of time if you prune and feed regularly.

Irving has also created a pleached hornbeam walk from Carpinus betulus, a deciduous European tree, and a purple-and-green fagus hedge. (Pleached literally means a hedge on stilts where all the bottom branches are cut off leaving clear space underneath for underplanting. Very French. )

If you're thinking of creating one at home Irving recommends regular pruning in the early days plus plenty of compost to improve the soil.

Sunnymeade has open days in October, November and December but will open at other times for groups of more than 20.

For a dense hedge, try orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata). It grows to about three metres with lush foliage and perfumed flowers in spring. Laurel and bay leaf, cyprus, pittosporums, lily pillies, Acacia cognata, callistemons and also camellias are good hedging specimens.

It's important to choose the right plant for the right aspect. It's no good putting in something that needs full sun in dense shade because that's a recipe for disaster.

Again, box is ideal for creating garden ''rooms'' if you want to contain bulbs, annuals or herbs and vegetables for a classic potager or kitchen garden.

For a low hedge around a herb or vegetable garden mass plant curly parsley. The results are pleasing and make a change from Buxus.

With any hedge, always have a spare on hand in a pot so if one of the plants suddenly turns up its toes you've got a replacement of the same size.

This story Horticultural dress-ups first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.