Living sculpture: Topiary plants a little less ordinary

Shrubs trained as topiary are at home in any garden.

From a cottage setting where intriguing forms nestle casually between flowers and vegetables, to a much grander scheme where repetitive shapes are rigid and regimented, topiary can be both charming and formal.

And let’s not forget that when you trim your humble garden hedge, you’re creating (a relatively simple form of) topiary!

European topiary originated in Roman times, where the atriums that were so common in the grand houses of the day became home to geometric shapes and fantastical creatures clipped from evergreen shrubs.

The formality and grandeur often associated with topiary began in the late 15th century with the Italian Renaissance gardens.

These gardens were based on the idea of achieving beauty through order and symmetry, and the clipped forms of topiary as a design feature were used extensively.

Topiary grows in popularity

Inspired by Renaissance ideas, French garden designer Claude Mollet began to develop parterres.

These low clipped hedges, innovatively edged with boxwood, filled expanses of flat courtyards and were laid out in rigorously symmetrical and intricate patterns, which in turn created compartments for other planting.

The trend spread across Europe, with the most famous and impressive example being the gardens at Versailles.

These grounds stretch over nearly 2,000 acres with parterres and topiary providing the backbone of this epic design.

By its very nature topiary, in its clipped sculptural form punctuates a garden and provides year round structure.

Traditional topiary forms include balls, cones, obelisks, spirals, cubes, pyramids and parterres.

They can also include more whimsical forms, from animals, people and man made objects to amorphous shapes in dreamlike landscapes.

Plants for topiary

Typically plants used for topiary are evergreen, to provide a constant shape throughout the seasons.

Buxus sempervirens (Common Box) and Taxus baccata (English Yew) are our two most favoured choices.

Both are slow growing and small leaved, meaning it is possible to sculpt them in great detail.

Box is the classic choice for use in parterres, while Yew, being slightly faster growing and naturally larger is great for tall hedging and more exorbitant displays of topiary.

But there are many slightly more unusual plants that can be used to great effect when clipped into topiary. Lonicera nitida (Shrub Honeysuckle) is a great alternative to Box; it is very similar in leaf size and shape but extremely fast growing and tough. It makes a wonderful hedging or topiary plant and can be clipped into very detailed forms.

Ligustrum ovalifolium (Green Privet) is another fantastically tough and fast growing shrub with neat evergreen foliage. Being slightly larger leaved is often used in the more simple forms of standard and multi-stemmed pom-poms.

Berberis (Barberry) looks wonderful clipped into mounds or balls (especially the purple-leaved variety). Although these shrubs are not evergreen, they can be used to anchor a more informal planting scheme in a border, or to provide symmetry within a design.

Pyracantha such as ‘Orange Glow’ or ‘Red Column’ can be trained against a wall too, providing impressive geometric displays of topiary, and with their lovely berries providing startling colour through autumn and winter.

Other larger leaved evergreens can be used to create bold specimens such as lollipops, obelisks or cones on a larger scale. Hollies such as Ilex aquifolium are wonderful for this purpose, providing that lovely spiked leaf texture.

A deciduous decision

But topiary doesn’t have to be evergreen. Clipped deciduous trees can create strong, bold statements, with changing seasonal interest – real living sculpture!

A thicket of branches clipped into an architectural form can be a stunning addition to the winter garden. The falling leaves create a spectacle, the solid sculpted form becomes see through, an intricate framework which allows you to view the space beyond. These specimens lend themselves to large, strong forms such as cubes and domes.

Use Beech hedging plants in their green or purple forms. Purple is perfect for this use. Its gorgeous copper leaves will cling to its striking form and shimmer in the breeze, creating a magical sense of movement.

The same treatment can be given to a number of other trees, including Carpinus betulus (Hornbeam), as well as cultivars of Crataegus (Hawthorn) – with the added benefit of its blossom and berries.

Acer campestre (Field Maple) can be used in this way too, providing stunning autumnal colours. Using native trees in this manner is a lovely way of linking your garden to the greater landscape beyond.

Keeping topiary in trim

Depending on the intricacy of your design, topiary can provide easy, low maintenance features for your garden. Existing specimens can be trimmed once or twice a year in spring and summer to maintain their shape.

For plants with softer growth (such as box) secateurs, long handled shears and topiary shears will do the job. But for larger plants and trees, with thicker woody growth, you may require an electric hedge trimmer and some heavy duty loppers.

If you are starting from scratch, and are feeling confident, clipping can be done by eye alone. This can be straight forward when creating for instance domes, cones or balls.

Advanced topiary!

If you fancy something a bit more unique and original, but feel you need a little help, there are a multitude of frames available to help you.

These wire frames are placed over the plant at an early stage, and the plant is left to grow through the frame until it starts to protrude. It can then be clipped annually to keep it within the frame.

For box parterres, the ground should be thoroughly dug over and plenty of organic matter added. Add a good dressing of bonemeal, and then carefully mark out your design using a line or coloured sand.

Plants should be planted at exactly 20cm apart, as evenly as possible. They need to be kept moist in dry weather, and once they have established and put on some new growth they can be clipped as needed.

All topiary will benefit from a mulch in spring with a good layer of organic matter and a top dressing of general purpose fertiliser.

The only limit to the art of topiary is the imagination… so go on, get creative!

Any other ideas for shrub varieties that lend themselves well to topiary? And have you seen any interesting topiary shapes?! Please do let us know!

By Ashridge Support

Ashridge Nurseries has been in the business of delivering plants since 1949.

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