The art of training plants

Elegant boutique standards surround a swimming pool. Photo by Scott Shigley

Making a garden more than just a collection of plants requires many facets to detail its outdoor space. Forming plants into unique shapes and patterns is a great way to personalize and dramatize a garden.


One of my favorite training techniques is the practice and art of wall bars. Often seen grown on a wall or as freestanding screens, an espalier specimen – just about any tree or shrub – can be a wonderful, uplifting garden item to enjoy for years to come. The intensive pruning and the years it takes to create a recognizable shape often forces people to purchase a pre-started plant, which will grow in the designated space and into the ultimate mature form. At Craig Bergmann Landscape Design we have growers for the start of the process and then our skilled gardeners prune – usually twice a year – to develop the ultimate garden wall ornament. Historically, espalier trees are fruit trees that can be harvested in the fall. Imagine strolling through the King’s Vegetable Garden in Versailles and seeing the ancient espalier fruit trees in many forms, it takes your breath away! We use different materials such as ornamental flowering trees, carnelians and redbuds for example. We also use viburnum and witch hazel shrubs, which usually take on a natural flat-backed shape that softens a fence or wall. I recently saw a spectacular eight tier climbing hydrangea vine with an espalier cordon that stands free in Riverwoods, simply spectacular! If you put your mind and time into it, the art of forming espalier plants can be very rewarding and absolutely stunning on any fence or wall, or when used as a division of a space.

An ornamental pear embraces the arched window. Photo by Scott Shigley


Whether it is the recognizable material of the boxwood or privet hedge, the real character and success of any hedge must start with an end result in mind and horticultural knowledge to make the effort a success. We do not intentionally overload the initial spacing between hedge plants, to ensure a suitable environment for good health and growth of the mature hedge. If one does not want to wait for intercalary growth to occur over time, the long-term lifespan of the blanket is significantly shortened. If you are looking for a flat top hedge, consider creating the hedge profile with a wider base and a narrower top. This allows the sunlight to spread evenly over all surfaces of the hedge and protects it from our heavy, wet snows that break off the brittle branches. You can also round the top of a hedge, but be aware that a wider base for this domed shape works for the same reason.

You can also cover shrubs, trees and some perennials for a more formal or geometric look. Know the growth patterns and final size of all your plants, especially if you plan to train and prune them other than by their natural shape and scale. If you want a small, low hedge, use a compact or dwarf variety to ease the effort of keeping it low. Always try to keep the plant at least a third of its mature scale over time to be successful. Examples of our hedges in the gardens at 900 Waukegan Road in Lake Forest are the arborvitae and hornbeam, as well as boxwood and yew, both straight and low. We even have a 60 foot indigo flowering salvia hedge “Wesuwe” as a front hedge with a blue border. Let yourself be inspired to shake up tradition and create a unique shape or variety of your hedges. All of this takes time, so you might as well be unique and personalized in your own efforts for your garden.

Various shapes and varieties of boxwood provide edges and interest. Photo by Linda Oyama Bryan


Many of us are crazed gardeners with images of Silver-Handed Edward at work on outrageous, dream-like shapes and sizes when we hear the word ‘topiary’. Others think of the elegant combination of standards of lilac flanking an entryway, or potted myrtles on a dining room server. I embrace the dedicated art it takes to create a topiary that is healthy and beautiful in form. Indoors or outdoors, there are a myriad of candidates to craft in topiary, from miniature to monstrous. I made boxwood into pears and apples, and more boxwood into chickens and peacocks. A confession – the peacocks came after I first met Christopher Lloyd in England and saw his giant peacock yew topiaries in his Teapot Garden. You think so and a topiary can be born! I will often look at the potential of a future topiary when I look at a plant that needs to be pruned to see if there is anything just waiting to be revealed. The men who tend our gardens sometimes think I’m crazy, but that’s why I have a garden, right? You must always have time to think outside the box or, in this case, the plant …

The towering, charming cylinder-shaped topiaries provide scale and permanence to the “green room” beyond.


Many people don’t follow the practice of planting the right plant for the right space with room for growth. The result can often be “the hydrotorture,” as our friends at the Chicago Botanic Garden have invented it. If done correctly, by putting the plant in a container instead of the soil, this effort can create the ultimate in plant training: a bonsai. I am terrified of the dedication to maintaining a real bonsai tree because I should be responsible for its well-being 24/7, 365 days a year. I have enough responsibilities and I have animals and plants to care for. It may be in my future when I retire. But then, I can’t retire, so maybe no bonsai! If you are thinking of taking the plunge: BONSAI! My suggestion is to attend a bonsai show to see your options and talk to people who specialize in all things bonsai. It is a fascinating and enviable profession or hobby. Hope this helps you navigate the art of plant training to some form of submission. Remember: the right plant in the right place with the right knowledge will make any effort you put in tenfold. Here is “the art of gardening!” – our landscape design mantra Craig Bergmann.

For more information contact Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, 900 North Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, 847-251-8355,

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