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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Topiary

The Art of Topiary

The Art of TopiaryIntroduction to Topiary

The horticulturalists answer to sculpture first featured in the villa gardens of the Romans some 2000 years ago, and consisted mainly of formal, clipped hedges trained into decorative animal or figurative shapes at regular intervals.

Origins of Topiary

The practice of combining topiary with hedges in formal, geometrical layouts was revived in Italian and French Renaissance gardens, and on the great 16th and 17th century English country estates.

The Dutch, with their tiny, immaculately formal gardens, miniaturized topiary and hedges to create knot and parterre gardens, especially fashionable during the reign of William and Mary. Topiary fell out of favour at the end of the Victorian era, when natural style, informal and wild gardens were in vogue. Today, topiary is again popular, as compact, free standing or containerized plants in small gardens, and in a larger, more dramatic form where space allows.

Basic Techniques of Topiary

Ready trained topiary plants can be bought, but they are expensive, since they take at least six years to produce. Most people prefer to train their own and for large topiary hedges there is no choice but to do it yourself.

Topiary styles

Topiary ranges from huge living sculpture, made of many plants, to a single, clipped shrub, grown in an ordinary flower pot on a porch, patio or balcony. Tiny topiary can ever be grown in window boxes.

Topiary can be formal, informal or humorous in feeling and, according to the style chosen, complement a grand country house, cottage garden, suburban semi or urban front porch.

Almost any familiar, reasonably solid, simple object can be depicted in topiary. Animals, both real and mythical are favourite subjects. Where space allows, a complete scene can be constructed; one garden has hounds, horse and rider 'galloping' across a lawn. Chess pieces, numbers, alphabet letters, steam engines, teapots, boats  - all can be reproduced in foliage.

Many geometric shapes are worked into displays. Spheres, pyramids, obelisks, domes, cubes, cones and spirals are traditional, both free standing and as hedge decorations. Pyramids and cones can be tiered, with the stem visible between each section, and spheres can occur at intervals up a clear stem, like a string of knotted pearls.

Architectural shapes such as arches over gaps in hedges are traditional, but examples of free standing topiary arches and even three dimensional, topiary buildings can also be found in large gardens. Formal, straight sided hedges are made more interesting by clipping out windows, doors or buttresses. Large geometrical shapes, such as topiary columns, also create an architectural effect.

Training

Young or mature plants can be made into topiary, but it is easier to train young plants as their woody growth is still supple. Spirals are formed by winding a stem as it grows around and up a central cane, and clipping the side growth to form a tight band. When the correct height is reached, the growing tip is pinched out.

'Lollipop' standards are trained by growing a single stem to the required height, then pinching out, or stopping, the tip. The resulting side shoots sprouting beneath it are stopped at the required length to encourage sub side shoots to grow, which are stopped, and so on until a dense sphere is created. Side shoots growing on the stem below the sphere are removed.

More complex designs, such as birds or chess pieces, can be built up over hollow, three dimensional, heavy duty galvanized wire frames. These also help to support long narrow projections, such as tails and necks, and preventing wind damage. Sturdy wire frames are also shaped to support topiary arches and large architectural features, such as topiary follies and garden houses.

Turning established plants into topiary demands a good eye and steady hand.  Naturally conical, straight stemmed trees or shrubs can be made into spirals by marking out the spiral with twine, then cutting branches back to the main stem, following the line of the twine. In time new growth softens the appearance of the cuts.

Transforming established hedges into topiary is usually a several stage operation, especially if drastic pruning is needed.  Pruning saws, long handled pruners and secateurs are used to cut away unwanted major branches, to make windows, crenellations or doors, for example. Slight overcutting allows for some new infill growth. Hand shears or electric hedge trimmers are usually adequate to neaten or straighten the sides and top.

To create topiary features on top of a hedge, tufts of strong, upright shoots are left at the required intervals, then clipped and trained into shape.

Trimming and tending

Topiary needs regular trimming to maintain dense, compact growth. Timing and frequency vary according to the plant, but most are clipped in late spring or early summer, and again during the growing season, as necessary, until early autumn

A 60cm weed free zone around newly planted topiary shrubs or hedges helps them grow strongly, as does regular watering in the growing season until established and an annual spring mulch of well rotted garden compost or manure. Pot grown topiary plants need regular watering and feeding during the growing season and protected from strong winds. Prolonged frost can damage the roots of pot grown plants such as bay, so pots should be lagged or moved to a cool, sunny spot indoors, if necessary.

Choosing topiary plants

Topiary plants need to have a permanent woody framework and a naturally dense growth habit. Plants of moderate rate of growth are best; quick growing plants would need frequent trimming and also tend to be short lived; while very slow growing types, such as dwarf conifers, would defeat even patient gardeners!

Topiary plants have to tolerate regular pruning.

Small leaved plants such as box, are better than large leaved ones, such as laurel, whose leaves can look messy unless individually clipped with secetares.

Most topiary is evergreen or semi evergreen, but for large architectural and hedging topiary, deciduous plants can be used. All green topiary is traditional, but using variegated, golden, silver or purple leaf varieties for topiary can enliven a garden.

Plants to choose

Box, dwarf box and yew are the most popular species for topiary, but other options include bay, evergreen shrubby honeysuckle, elaeagnus, santolina, cypress, juniper, holly, privet and rosemary.

Deciduous plants include thorn, beech, hornbeam and lime.

Pleached lime walks, or allees, are included as a form of topiary.

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