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Mexican Boxes and Flat-Tops

by germinatrix | May 17th, 2009

a town square, or 'zocalo', with big palms a-plenty a town square, or ‘zocalo’, with big palms a-plenty

 The heat and humidity of the tropics makes plants grow and grow – everything is bigger, lusher. How thrilling! But there is one thing I’ve noticed – it’s a bit of a small detail in the overall tropical scheme of things, but it’s big to me, since I’m designing a garden here and don’t want to plant anything that will ultimately be an obstacle to the success of the venture.

It seems to me that here in Mexico – or maybe just in Merida (well, actually … everywhere) there isn’t much of an understanding of how to deal with shrubbery. Big leaved tropicals rule here, and it is fairly obvious that when they need cutting, you cut out an entire leaf, or cane. But look what happens when a maintenance gardener is confronted with a shrub :




I know topiary has been making a comeback, what with the work of Jacques Wirtz and others who champion dynamic plant sculpting – but this isn’t that. This is … a default. Someone doesn’t know, hasn’t been taught, how to prune shrubbery – so they do the only thing they’ve seen. They try and make a hedge. Even if it is a single plant. And a one – plant hedge is a what? A box.

Sometimes a shrub doesn’t have enough available leaf mass to turn into a box, so what tends to happen then? I’ll show you :


It becomes a mushroom. 

There are no open, leafy, naturalistic examples of shrubbery anywhere. I looked! If it wasn’t a palm, or a philodendron or any other tropical, then it was sheared into geometric abstraction.

flat topflat top

I don’t understand this impulse. Certainly we can all agree that a more natural shape would be a nice contrast to the large tropical leaves. Pruning isn’t really difficult – thin out crossed branches, open up the center so light can get to the crown, check for visual balance … I know that’s overly simplistic, but it’s a good way to get started weening a compulsive hedger from this overly orderly cutting method. But it seems so ingrained, this odd tropical topiary fixation, that I am not even going to risk it. I am going to eschew all small leaved shrubs that might even slightly look like they could be clipped or sheared or hedged. 


see? boxed. hedged.see? boxed. hedged.

Better safe than sorry, right?



17 Responses to “Mexican Boxes and Flat-Tops”

  1. Humans. must. control. nature!

  2. Maybe there is anger at all non-palm-based foliage.

  3. I think you are right, ChuckB – it could be that shrubbery is seen as a plant stand-in for the northern corporate imperialist oppressors. The crafty indigenous garden workers are showing us what’s what with a flick of their clippers! They think we are squares!

  4. We saw that all over San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico a few years ago. Strange, isn’t it?

  5. Grrr. Bad pruning makes me angry. It’s not quite literally everything around Portland, but there is a lot of that pruning-into-submission going around, and they turn their wrath on trees, too. I just want five minutes of time with someone who masterminds this pruning to figure out whether they think it really looks better, or they think the plant will eat them if they let it get big enough, or what exactly the deal is. Unfortunately, I think the answer would be a shoulder shrug, and something about billable hours for the maintenance crew.

  6. When we were in the Yucatan, everything was hedged in some shape, form, or fashion – in one park they had trimmed big ficus trees into dinosaurs. But I’m with you – we can’t compete with nature’s own design.

  7. LOL. Go to any former European colony in the world and you will see all these “box cut’ shrubs by the hundreds. That’s what they were taught as gardeners under colonialism-the formal hedges and shrubbery of Western Europe as the ideal garden look. Anytime I hire a gardener to clean up I have to supervise continuously or else all my shrubs will be cut into boxes!

  8. Megan has it right, there are quite a few examples of this here in Portland. Camellia’s fall prey – they make great lollipops! And there is a shrub near my house that is pruned to look like an Easter basket. Scary.

  9. I don’t know, I kinda find it humorous in a light hearted sort of way.
    It used to irk me to see shrubberies pruned into geometric submission but now I shrug it off and consider the poor gardener who probably has little to no education in ornamental horticulture and who is trying his / her best to instill some semblance of order within the landscape.
    These gardeners have probably seen photographs or scenes on the TV of formally clipped gardens and are just trying emulate what they have seen.
    It would be great if someone would pass along the documentary video ” A Man Named Pearl” to these gardeners so that they could see that there is more to shaping a tree into just balls and boxes.
    Imagine spirals, floating cloud shapes, diamond and arrow shapes, coneheads, fat flat tops and three story mushrooms !
    Now that would be fun for both the gardeners and those viewing the gardens !

  10. Hi Pam! I thought that if anyplace in Mexico would have more of a sensitivity to the natural shape of plant material, it would be San Miguel de Allende! There are such beautiful gardens there – but these pruning fiascos are the result of something deep. There is a fear of unruly growth. One doesn’t really have to do much intervention to a palm or a philodendron or a ginger – you cut it down or clean it up. There is no issue of shaping, of detail work. Hmmm…

    Hey there Megan – I agree! I wonder – do they REALLY think these shapes look good? I have asked a few of the many maintenance workers I’ve had to train as part of my residential design work (setting up clients with gardeners is crucial) why they do this automatically to every shrub, and the answer is always ‘because the client wants things neat’. I think that is crap. People want things beautiful, and they want a measure of control … most people don’t want plants blocking access to paths, patios, gates, etc. These over zealous cutters are trying to make things easier for themselves – they don’t want to think about anything, they want to go on auto-pilot. Also, those strict shapes mean it is easier to get in between the plants to clean up fallen leaves and other debris (which they are all too eager to do, not wanting to do anything like accidentally feed the soil). It is SO SO very hard to get these guys to understand that nature is okay. Hmmm…

    Hi Mary Beth! You know, I have alot of empathy – Much of the Northern part of the Yucatan, where I am working, is tropical deciduous forest. The trees are very close together and they lose their canopies in the dry season – everything looks weedy and out of control. So I kind of get the impulse to assert control when you can – but they CAN’T think this looks good! I just can’t believe that! I think it might be a colonial impulse – copying these shapes that they’ve seen in pictures of strict English gardens, rather than allowing a shrub to take it’s form, and then pruning to enhance and lightly shape it.
    But like we’ve all said, this happens EVERYWHERE … it happened right here in my garden before I left for Mexico (I haven’t even been able to post about it, it hurts too much!), so it isn’t just that the eyes of people used to tropical plants can’t understand the essence of perennial and evergreen shrubbery. It’s the not wanting to think about it. It’s taking the easy way out.
    IT HAS TO STOP! Right? Like you said – we can’t compete with nature’s design … let’s work WITH it!

  11. Hey Loree, your comment came in just as I posted my comment… OMG – Camellia lollipops happen here, too! What the? I get that some people like that look (whatever!) but really, does gazing upon a shrubby Easter basket really give them a sense of being at one with nature? Do you think thy look at it and think “Look how beautiful my garden looks today, the basket it clipped just so!” Ha ha! I don’t get it. I never will. maybe I need to start a Guerilla Garden squad devoted to Toppling Topiary Terrorism!

    I’ve got to check and see what you and Megan got plant shopping this weekend!

  12. Wow! I’ve gotten all wacky/crazy out of order on commenting to your comments, everyone!

    Michelle D.! My favorite deviant! Congrats on seeing these shapes as whimsical – it shows that you are much more highly evolved than I am. All I see is the auto/default. If they were actually doing what you said, being ambitious – clouds, moons, tetrahedrons, -even Easter baskets – I’d be thinking, ‘well … cool!’ But … and I KNOW you’ve also come up against the blank stare of a maintenance worker when you ask them to stop shearing shrubs … it’s that lack of thought that gets me. It’s true, they are copying what they think is classical, or correct – but when someone (me, you …) comes along and suggests that there is anther way – why not TRY it?
    I must say, I have, in my 14 years of design work, managed to change the shearing habits of 2 men. THAT may be my biggest gift to gardening, because they maintain dozens of gardens between them. Gardens that now have shaggier shrubbery!
    Thanks for stopping by, Michelle!

    Hi Nicole – thanks for commenting! You KNOW! I do give alot of credence to the whole ‘identifying with the colonial oppressor’ thing – afterall, the history of gardening has been very much about European imperialists imposing their classical, geometric order on the sexy chaos of the tropics and other exotic lands. And hundreds of years of that kind of thinking is very hard to undo. So here’s to eternal vigilance, lest our gardens look like a line-up of SpongeBob Squarepants!

  13. Hi Ivette.
    This is very strange phenomenon indeed, I remember this “SpongeBob” infatuation in the Yucatan, it is especially prevalent in the resorts, where it takes on a much larger, Disney-esk scale!

    A very funny observation, and very funny pictures!
    How about that shroom…and the “Borg” boxes are simply fantastically wrong! “Resistance is Futile”…apparently!

    I think the crews executing this crime against the natural order are genetically related to the same creed of landscapers that every year whack back poor crepe myrtles to within an inch of their lives, (just for something to do). The same gene is inherent in the people who insist on blowing leaves from one place to another with the dreaded leaf blowers…aarrggh just stop it, immediately!


  14. ESP – leave it to you to bring The Borg into this! You are so RIGHT! I can just see what you would have done with this post on your blog – The Green Cubes in league with the Borg Cubes … Capt Picard as Locutus … yes, it seems like ‘Resistance IS Futile’!

    What can be done about this Phalanx of landscape drones? I may need to do what a good Germinatirx should – dress up like the Borg Queen and assimilate them. That’ll show them.

    Or I could just dress up like the Borg Queen anyway- she was HOT!

  15. Ivette, there is some credence to “because the client wants things neat’ because I have had comments about how my garden “needs a good trimming”-right after I’ve had it trimmed!

  16. Nicole – who would say that to you?!? I can’t STAND neat, tidy gardens – I love the wild and the exuberant and plants getting all in each other’s business!
    We all know the value of a good trim, but too much of a good thing and you get – crazy boxes and flat tops!

  17. Suasoria says:

    Along with imitating the colonial culture, I think people believe that the clipped, manicured look is more formal or upscale. In public spaces like this it implies order and says someone is taking care of things. It’s more psychological in that regard.

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