Topiary is a form of gardening art in which trees or shrubs are trained and clipped into interesting shapes. Almost anything is possible – from clean geometric forms to complex green ‘statues’.

History of Topiary

Topiary has been practised in Europe in since the Roman era, featuring everything from elaborate animal shapes and green obelisks to entire miniature landscapes. Exactly when the art of topiary became common Great Britain is not entirely clear. However, we do know that is very popular in the sixteenth century, when both manor houses and country cottages commonly included topiary in their gardens. Classic topiary forms were often geometric, such as cubes or pyramids. This also includes low box hedging clipped into a sharp rectangular shape, with obelisks at each corner to provide vertical interest. These box hedges were also often planted in the shape of a maze. A good example of relatively simple topiary created with box hedging can be found in the famous gardens at Versailles.

Topiary went into decline in aristocratic gardens during the eighteenth century, only to be revived again in the late nineteenth century. Since then it has again become a steady feature in formal gardens. One of the first and best examples if this revival, are the gardens at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire, which featured entire green ‘rooms’ that enchanted nineteenth century crowds. Having never gone out of fashion in country gardens, topiary became seen as quintessential part of the ‘traditional’ English garden – a concept that largely came into being in the late nineteenth century. Another classic topiary form is the buttress hedge. Buttress hedges are created by planting smaller hedges at right angles to the main hedge. These side hedges are then pruned into a sloping shape that resembles buttresses used in architecture, thus giving the impression the hedge is being supported.

Hedging Plants Suitable for Topiary

Many traditional hedging plants are suitable for topiary, including favourites such as box and privet. Certain species of thuja, bay laurel, holly, myrtle and yew are also commonly used. All these species of hedging plants share certain characteristics which make them so well suited to topiary – evergreen with small leaves or needles and a dense growth habit. Due to these characteristics, topiary created form these shrubs will stay solid looking and green all year round, ensuring that the shapes created remain clearly discernable. Although topiary may look daunting, simple topiary is most definitely achievable for the average gardener. And with enough practice, who knows? You may discover a hidden skill. In fact, hedging itself is also a form of topiary, as it also requires shaping a group of shrubs to form a well defined shape.

Creating Topiary in Your Garden

Should you wish to incorporate topiary in your garden, it would probably be best to start with a freestanding, perhaps potted, juvenile shrub or tree. This will give you the opportunity to experiment with minimal risk to the overall appearance of your garden. Ball or cube shaped potted box shrubs are a good first project. These simple geometric shapes will look quite impressive lining a pathway or framing a terrace. If you have a tall, slim shrub available, a cone form is also relatively easy to create. This requires much the same technique as a sphere, but of course gradually becoming smaller as you approach the tip. It is also possible to create a traditional obelisk shape a similar fashion. Once you have mastered a neat hedge and simple geometric shapes, it might be a good time to consider trying something more complex, such as animal shapes. Whatever form of topiary you choose, remember to use proper clippers to ensure best results. Otherwise, feel free to let your imagination roam. Who knows what you’ll end up creating?

Using potted box, or anther suitable shrub, is a fairly recent topiary trend that started in America. As mentioned above, using a potted shrub for your first project minimises risk. However, should you truly wish for a quick fix, pre-shaped cube and ball box shrubs are also readily available. These shrubs can be included in your garden as potted specimens or planted to created a low hedge. This is particularly well suited to cube shaped box – planted in a compact row you can create a nice angular hedge almost immediately. Another classic topiary design is the maze hedge, which can also be created in this fashion. Unlike modern mazes, topiary mazes use low hedges. The design is meant to be admired from above, not for you to get lost in! Maze hedges combined with gravel pathways were often used to frame statues, but you may wish to create something more modern. Topiary is a multi-facetted art form that can offer something to almost any garden. You can make topiary as complex or as simple as you’d like – don’t let yourself be intimidated!

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