Topiary goes in and out of favour like hemlines going up and down. For a few years it’s all clipped box hedges, parterres and standard bay trees, then informality is ‘in’, with billowing borders and wavy grasses.
The clipping and pruning of evergreens – box, yew, and bay – goes back to classical times. The pleasure gardens of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and probably the Persians before them, were full of formal low hedges, and trees cut into fantastic shapes. Pliny the Elder wrote about topiary cut into the shapes of sailing ships and hunting scenes.
Back To The Topiary Theme
More than a thousand years later, Italian Renaissance gardens went back to the topiary theme with intricate designs as they rediscovered the writings of antiquity. So it went on – geometric, clipped gardens ripped out by the English landscape designers, Capability Brown, and the rest before formality returned in the nineteenth century.
Some gardens survived. Levens Hall is the oldest topiary garden in the country, with venerable examples that have been trained and clipped since the late seventeenth century. Not always grand gardens enjoyed topiary, as many cottage gardens continued the art long after it had gone out of fashion. Driving around you may see large topiary birds or even railway engines in a cottage front garden – obviously done to amuse passers-by, or why would they put them in the front?
What about the politically incorrect hedge atKnightshayes Court, near Tiverton inDevon, where the fox is forever being chased by hounds? That dates from 1925, not a particularly fashionable period for topiary. But then it never really ever goes away.
These days smart city gardens boast at least a standard spiral box tree or a standard globe bay by their front doors. You too can try it, and with wire shapes available in all sorts of animals or birds – even teddy bears – it has never been so easy to achieve.
Choose from globe shapes, cones, spirals, irregular shapes such as birds and animals. Large forms are more difficult, using several plants or a multi-stemmed plant, tying the shoots into a basic framework while young and pinch back tips to encourage branching, then train new shoots into any gaps.
Cloud pruning follows the natural shape, removing some side branches to expose the main stems, then trimming branch ends into stylised shapes – sometimes resembling open umbrellas piled on top of each other.
Just remember to stand back to check your work of art as you clip away, or you may end up with something lopsided and completely unrecognisable. And don’t be in a hurry. It can take between six and ten years to get a good result from a large plant.
How to create topiary shapes
- topiary plants need good well-drained soil, shelter, and sun
- choose young, well-proportioned plants with dense, healthy growth, particularly near the base
- use secateurs to start off, hand shears for large-leaved plants and sprung topiary shears for finishing small-leaved species
- shaping starts when the plants are young
- for potted topiary choose a pot that’s in proportion with the plant and matches its style
- cover drainage holes with crocks, use John Innes compost and a decorative mulch
- if using a wireframe, work from the top downwards
- for making globe shapes, trim a circular band around the middle first, then start shaping the top and bottom
- to make cones or pyramids, use a cane to make a vertical shape before tackling the sides
- keep standing back to check on your progress
Be inspired by some great topiary gardens
HidcoteManor, Gardens, near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
Great Dixter, nearRye,East Sussex
Villa Gamberaia, nearFlorence,Tuscany
Choose the right plant
Small leaved plants that give a fine finish include:
box, juniper, Thuja, cypress, yew and myrtles
Larger-leaved evergreens for bigger topiary specimens include:
holly, bay, camellia, Eleagnus, Pittosporum, Viburnum Tinus, and semi-evergreens like privet ends