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You See a Hedge. He Sees Something Else.

When Tim Bushe decided to trim some hedges one recent evening, he attracted more attention than usual for a routine garden chore.

Walkers slowed to take photos and ask questions. Neighbors stepped over piles of leaf clippings to thank him. A driver honked and gave a thumbs up.

Mr. Bushe is used to attention. It happens every time he gives his two gigantic, furry elephants a haircut. They are just one set of a collection of hedges on residential streets that Mr. Bushe has transformed from overgrown plants into whimsical creations.

His hedge menagerie includes two cats, a squirrel, a hippo and a fish. There is also, experimentally, a reclining nude woman. He hopes a giant rabbit will join them this summer.

His hedges have for years delighted residents and bemused others who stumble across them. They even collect reviews as local landmarks on Google maps, from the no-nonsense (“Well maintained”) to the effusive (“My life is now complete after seeing this beautiful hedge.”).

Mr. Bushe, 70, an art college graduate and architect, has built many things during his long career, from schools and shops to homes and offices. But it may be his mischievous hedges scattered around north London that intrigue the most.

“I realize how much joy they give,” said Mr. Bushe, who donates his hedge-cutting earnings to environmental causes. “They lift the urban streetscape in a very positive way.”

Hedges have an ancient history in Britain, used to enclose land as early as the Bronze Age and surging in popularity during an agricultural revolution in the 18th century. And the idea of shaping those hedges also has deep roots: The world’s oldest topiary garden, founded in 1694, is at Levens Hall, a manor house about a five-hour drive north of London.

“Hedges provide much needed shelter for buildings, people, farms and livestock,” said Guy Barter, chief horticulturalist at the Royal Horticultural Society, adding that they thrive in Britain’s climate.

In more recent times, Mr. Barter said, a well-trimmed garden hedge has come to symbolize a certain kind of aspiration: a serious homeowner who took their neighborhood duties seriously. A bad hedge, however, has been considered egregious enough to spur legal disputes.

But wilder hedges are also coming into favor, Mr. Barter said. “Hedges are very flamboyant and an easily observable way of showing off who you are,” he said.

“It’s a bit like if you had a white picket fence, and something went curly in the middle,” said Tim Alden, a friend of Mr. Bushe who was inspired to trim his own hedge, in east London, into a topiary of a dog.

There was something about the surprising quirkiness of a dog-shaped hedge, he said, that seemed to inspire notes of joy in his mailbox. “Why not do something playful once in a while,” he said, “for no reason other than it makes us smile?”

Mr. Bushe is choosy about his commissions, and only takes on projects close to his home in north London. “I quite like the idea that there’s a collection of them around where I am,” he said. (And yes, he’s aware that his name more than suits the job. “Maybe it was my destiny,” he said.)

It all started about 15 years ago, with an overgrown hedge in his own front yard, Mr. Bushe said. His late wife, Philippa, asked if he could sculpt a cat for her. “I thought a cat might be tricky,” he said.

Instead, another shape came to mind as he cut into the hedge: a train. After that, he tried his hand at carving the head of a lizardlike monster. Neighbors began requesting that he turn their hedges into shapes, too, including one enormous set that he thought would make perfect elephants.

“That’s really where it kind of snowballed,” he said. His wife eventually got her cat in the hedges across the road.

But the journey from flora to faux fauna requires patience, persistence and the luxury of time. Mr. Bushe starts with initial cuts to shape the hedge. Then, it must grow. It can take three years or more before the pruned-down hedges take on their final shape.

“I could end up with one ear, for instance, and have to wait years for the other ear to grow,” he said.

Bringing his designs to life is a process more like sculpting than gardening. “I can visualize it in my head, the whole thing,” he said. “It’s just a question of finding it.”

Unlike marble, the common privet hedge soon outgrows its shape: Several trims a year are needed keep its form. “People get very upset when they get hairy,” Mr. Bushe said.

But, he added, they’re harder to maintain as he ages. Nature will be the final arbiter of how long these topiaries live on. Two earlier elephants were lost to the honey fungus, and dog hedge is balding thanks to some hungry vine weevils. “I live in terror that they’re going to get attacked,” Mr. Bushe said.

One recent evening, Mr. Bushe enlisted his dog, Spike, and Mr. Alden to transform what had begun to resemble woolly mammoths more than elephants. Electric trimmers in hand, they carved away, piles of leaves blanketing the ground. Legs, ears and trunks sharpened into view.

Simon Massey was among the neighbors who came over to express their appreciation. “It’s just a wonderful bit of art,” he said, adding that he’d seen all sorts of people come to the neighborhood to visit and photograph the creatures.

Abdirashid Obsiye, a science teacher, had walked past Mr. Alden’s dog-shaped hedge many times before noticing it had been listed as a tourist attraction online. He added a tongue-in-cheek review of his own, calling it “an inspired piece.”

Mr. Obsiye said he appreciated the effort it had taken to sculpt. But he also saw the funny side of the mundane becoming enticing. “Some people are wondering, why is a hedge a tourist attraction?” Mr. Obsiye said. “Why not? Who made the rules?”

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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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