Pleaching is a technique we use to create screening and walkways and avenues by weaving tree branches together to create a single structure from its component parts. But in modern garden design, it is so much more…think drama and pleasing structure.
The formal definition of pleaching is to entwine or interlace (tree branches) to form a hedge or provide cover for an outdoor walkway but of course when raised to an art form in the garden, it is so much more than that and often used in a similar way to topiary where we shape trees and shrubs through pruning for visual impact. With pleaching, identically-sized trees are planted to grow in a line – usually a straight line – with the branches of one tree tied to the branches of another and then clipped to form a flat plane above the bare trunk. These branches are tied onto canes or wire to create tiers at different levels and then regularly pruned to ensure they maintain and keep this rigid shape.
For today’s gardener, pleaching has become a less daunting option thanks to the availability of ready-pleached trees whose branches have already been started to be trained and are tied to a bamboo frame which can be moved as a whole structure. (Getting started may be easier but maintenance is still key and can be demanding). If you do decide on pleaching as an addition to your own garden space you need to think carefully about what size the structure will reach when fully mature. Try and imagine how the dainty and delicate pleached screen you plant today will look five years from now, then 10, then 20. What size will it be and how will it fit, once fully mature, in your outdoor space?
You can use pleached hedges and screens to create intimate enclosures within your garden but you need to remember the trees themselves will grow far wider than the frames they are tied to so again, scale and future scale is important to consider. And when you do decide pleaching is for you and you have just the right space for it in your garden, make sure you plant with enough space to give you access all the way around and then invest in a ladder because you’ll need to be able to reach right to the top of the trees to keep them clipped and pruned and in pristine pleached condition.
Most of your pruning work needs to take place at the end of the year, in November and December when you will need to cut back new growth to ensure the trees stay the shape you want. You’ll need to loosen ties that are in danger of cutting in to the growing branches and remove any buds that have appeared either on the main trunk or the main branches. You can also do a light pruning in July/August, which will also help keep the line neat for the summer. At Versailles, a laser line is used to keep the trees in a perfect line but you’ll probably have to perfect the art of doing this by eye. There is something about symmetry and repetition in the garden – and wherever else you find it – that is supremely pleasing to the eye and pleaching is no exception. Perhaps it is simply sight of something that has been beautifully crafted and ordered out of what might otherwise be an overgrown chaos; whatever it is, pleaching when done well is highly pleasing and works well as a vertical aesthetic in its own right.
And whilst the red-twigged lime (Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’) is the tree most commonly used for pleached walks you can also pleach using ash, beech, chestnut, hornbeam and plane trees, and even apples and pears!