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Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Join me in exploring the everyday spaces of our city to see, appreciate and value the complex beauty of our urban ecology.

Previous blog posts about the interaction between people and place  and extraordinary feats of walking had a theme of stories from regular everyday parts of the city. In keeping with that theme, today we have the story of a remarkable man who has taken another unremarkable plant and transformed it over many years into something truly extraordinary.

The Setup

I drive around a lot for work, but on this particular day I was on foot passing behind my old high school when I saw this…

ElmTopiary_338   image courtesy of Mike Burbidge

I had to stop. Double take. Triple take. Who could imagine shapes like this? Who has the skill to prune shapes like this?

I admit I am a total voyeur when it comes to people and places. I like to think I know something about the homeowner from what is growing on in the front garden. This garden mystified me and the truth is I had to go back several times to contemplate what this one was all about. Let me break it down for you.

The Tree

Ulmus pumila (Siberian Elm pictured above) is a common tree to the Toronto area. It has distributed itself from seed all over North and Central America.


                image courtesy of Virginia Tech Department of Forest Research and Environmental Conservation


In addition to being very common, Siberian Elm offers little or no value to the the average gardener. We routinely remove this shrub from gardens as our first order of business. This is in part because if left unchecked it will establish itself along fencelines or in existing hedges becoming a costly maintenance issue down the road. Siberian Elm is also listed as invasive in our area according to the Evergreen Native Plant Database and the Toronto District School Board.

The Man

So we have established that Siberian Elm is very common, considered a nuisance and is classified as invasive. So why would anyone want to spend so much time and effort on Siberian Elm creating these fantastical shapes that look like they came out of a 3D computer simulator?



     Image courtesy of Mike Burbidge

Oh wait I forgot to mention the mystery pruner is a next door neighbour and doesn’t even OWN THIS PROPERTY! Just a master pruner with an eye for shapes with no name. I mean this goes way beyond Topiary. Can you see in the image above this is a work in progress?




     Image courtesy of Mike Burbidge

Each section is an impossibly 3D shape produced over time with only secateurs and imagination.




    image courtesy of Mike Burbidge

I think the technique involves allowing a leader to grow over time and pruning the foliage to fill in the space to create wonderful concave swooshes and curves. Either way it is clear to me that the process takes years to complete and is a labour of love. Who would invest this kind of time and energy into a tree so common, that isn’t even on your property?



    Image courtesy of Mike Burbidge

I have tried on several occasions to meet the person behind the secateurs. The person who lives here told me that it is the neighbour who prunes the shrubs. On another occasion a passerby told me that the person is male, elderly, German and lives in a yellow brick house a few doors down. When I knocked I was told by a friendly landlady that I had just missed him.

In some ways the story has already been told. The deft hand of a master has left a new chapter every year to this visual story as it continues to unfold. I hope to someday catch up to this mystery man. In the meantime take a look around you.  Try and see something extraordinary happening in the most ordinary of places. Let me know how it goes…

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10 comments on “Extraordinopiary”

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