Years ago I attended a gardening seminar featuring a noted garden designer. Her presentation was basically “Things to Avoid,” with a variety of photographs on the big screen of various gardens, many of which were located in nearby areas. What a relief that none of mine were shown! One of the pictures she focused on longest was of a row of evergreens along a sidewalk, all pruned into balls. “This is one of the worst mistakes a gardener can make,” she declared adamantly. “Green meatballs! They don’t belong in the dining room, and they don’t belong in a garden either.” I took it to heart, never forgot it, and never pruned a shrub into a ball. However……..
A decade or so later, (for my 50th birthday!) I traveled to England to visit many gardens that have been praised by experts, some for hundreds of years. Lo and behold, I found many “green meatballs” in distinguished gardens. I took the photo above in Rosemary Verey’s potager, where there were several examples there, including this one as well:
This one is from Hatfield House, the famous Dowager House maze and garden:
And this one is from the famous Powis Castle gardens in Wales (one of my very favorite gardens!)
I discovered that “green meatballs” not appear frequently in England, but years later in trips to France, Italy, Ireland, and Germany notable gardens included them as well. (You’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m not sorting through all those photos!) Finally, taking courage in hand, I asked the owner of one excellent garden why she pruned some of the shrubbery into balls. “Oh, that’s a good question,” she began. “You see, the human eye finds the ball shape comforting, a good place to rest, especially if there are a lot of other shapes and colors in view. That moment of eye-rest allows the viewer to appreciate the entire picture more pleasantly, more completely. It’s a shape not commonly found in gardens, other than allium blooms, so it’s good to create it.”
When I planned the front island border last spring, I thought about those green meatballs and decided I wanted some. So, I purchased ten boxwood plants, pruned them into balls and added three to that garden. I chose boxwood because I like it, it’s evergreen, and because it can survive growing under black walnuts, which are the majority of the trees in our front yard. I liked them so much I’ve added two more in pots by the potager entrance, plus a double on the right for height. Three more were planted in the front garden, along the sidewalk to the front door and a gold gazing ball echoes the shape.
I’m really happy with my green meatballs. They provide interest right now when the rest of the garden is flat or bare sticks. They provide unity as a design element throughout, linking the various gardens visually as people stroll from one to another. They make me happy every time I see them. I think I’m going to add more this season. So, the lesson is, listen to the experts but realize no one else should make the rules for your garden. Some “experts” hate green meatballs; others love them. Develop your own tastes and follow your heart.