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Design Solutions: Topiary

If box balls and bay pyramids are all that spring to mind when you think of topiary, then it’s high time to sharpen your shears and think again. Here are some ideas to encourage some creative gardening

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is one of the best places to visit to see different styles of topiary. Large box balls, carefully clipped conifers and shapely hedges are all part and parcel of what makes a winning design and there are lots of different ways in which you can bring these ideas to your garden at home.

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What is topiary?

Topiary is the art of training and pruning plants into a shape or form they would not naturally grow. It’s a practice that dates back millennia. We know the ancient Romans used to clip box (Buxus sempervirens) into animal shapes, human figures and even letters depicting the name of the garden owner. However, the Romans were probably not the first people to practice topiary; it may have begun even earlier in some Mediterranean or Asian cultures.

Topiary is often associated with traditional or formal gardens but delve a little deeper and you will son discover that there are lots of innovative and contemporary ideas for shaping and training plants. Aside from adding a purely decorative or whimsical element to the garden, topiary works well as a focal point or to define areas within a garden. Clipped cubes, columns or domes can be positioned within areas of planting and borders, to create contrast, add structure and provide scale. They can also be used to add definition to the winter garden.

Plants to use for topiary

  • Plants with finely textured, small leaves, such as berberis, hebe, yew and lavender
  • Ilex crenata, Japanese holly – one of the most commonly used plants for ‘cloud pruning’, a term used to describe shaping a shrub into a series of rounded spheres to resemble clouds or large green pom-poms.
  • Buxus sempervirens, box. A popular plant for topiary, but in recent years it succumbed to box blight ) Cylindrocladium buxicola or Pseudonectria buxi). If you know there has been evidence of box blight in your area, you may wish to consider using an alternative plant.

Inspiration for using topiary in the garden

Box of delights

Topiary box hedges at the Marqueyssac gardens, Dordogne valley, France

The extraordinary gardens at Château de Marqueyssac take the art of topiary to new heights. Situated high on a hilltop overlooking the Dordogne valley, the garden contains more than 150,000 hand-pruned Buxus sempervirens shrubs, spread over 11 acres of terrace gardens.

Contemporary cubes

Contemporary topiary garden featuring large rectangles of box

Belgian landscape designer Chris Ghyselen has created a simple and contemporary topiary garden featuring large rectangles of box. Set at varying heights, the clipped box forms strong shadows and interesting lines. It will provide interest throughout the year and look quite different as the light changes throughout the day.

Human touch at Chatsworth

Taxus baccata 'Aurea' - Golden Yew topiary at Chatsworth Garden, Derbyshire. UK

The glorious gardens of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire are well known for several features, including the magnificent water cascade. However, this row of clipped Taxus baccata Aurea Group adds a humorous touch to the landscape. They have been allowed to grow at jaunty angles and look almost like wavering human forms.

Sculptural collars of box

Organic shapes

A large, clipped collar of Buxus sempervirens surrounds this majestic tree at Stavordale Priory in Somerset. Topiary specialist Jake Hobson of Niwaki now maintains this unusual sculptural piece.

Perfect peacocks

Topiary

This wonderfully theatrical garden in Kent was designed and created by the garden owner Charlotte Molesworth. The imaginative topiary shapes not only give the garden a sense of fun, but also add year-round interest.

Japanese holly

Hedges

With the threat of box blight becoming more prevalent, Ilex crenata is stealing the stage when it comes to topiary.  Neat, evergreen leaves similar to box are easy to clip and shape. Ilex will grow in a wide variety of soils and situations making it very desirable for creative topiary.

Bronze beauty

Bronze beauty

While evergreen shrubs may seem like the obvious choice for clipping and pruning, deciduous shrubs, such as Fagus sylvatica, are excellent contenders. Here at Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire the beech columns are in full winter glory retaining their brown leaves from the previous season, providing excellent contrast to rich, dark evergreens.

Cloud-pruned hornbeam

Cloud pruned hornbeam shrubs in the Tom Stuart-Smith 2008 Chelsea Garden

Tom Stuart-Smith’s 2008 Chelsea show garden designed for Laurent-Perrier, featured these elegant cloud pruned Carpinus betulus (hornbeam). When cloud pruning a deciduous shrub, such as beech or hornbeam, you should try not to cut through the leaves. This creates a looser, more relaxed look and the leaves will not brown.

Topiary with a sense of humour

Cutting edge

A sense of humour is such an important element in any garden and this wave-like hedge adds a comic touch to Le Jardin Plume in Normandy. Creative curves also act as a foil to the tall, airy perennials and grasses that move and sway in the garden on either side.

Use your imagination

Crowning glory

Marchants Hardy Plants in East Sussex is not only a marvellous nursery and an important destination for plant hunters but the garden is also full of inspiring ideas. Various shrubs and hedges are pruned in imaginative ways, such as this box where the top has been allowed to remain shaggy.

Cloud pruning conifers

Confers

Cloud pruning conifers is a really good way to keep them in check and at the same time provide an unusual green wall. The marvellous thing about topiary and cloud pruning is that you can experiment and let the plant shape be a guide to the way you create your design.

Old-style glamour

through the looking glass

Levens Hall in Cumbria is one of the oldest and finest topiary gardens in world. The garden was laid out in the 1690s and many of the large topiary shapes are more than 300 years old. Particularly famous are the King and Queen chess pieces and a Judge’s Wig.

Expert tips on how to cloud prune

Here’s a link to a useful practical video from Niwaki’s Jake Hobson on creating your own cloud pruning.

Further reading

  • The Art of Creative Pruning: Inventive ideas for training and shaping trees and shrubs by Jake Hobson (Timber Press, 2011).
  • A Practical Guide to Topiary by Jenny Hendy (Southwater, 2012).
  • Topiary and the Art of Training Plants by David Joyce (Firefly Books, 2000).
  • Topiary Basics: The Art of Shaping Plants in Gardens and Containers by Margherita Lombardii and Cristiana Serra Zanetti (Sterling, 1999).
  • Topiary Design and Technique by Christopher Crowder and Michaeljon Ashworth (The Crowood Press, 2006).

Where to see

Suppliers

  • Burgon & Ball sells wire frames for training topiary.
  • Crown Topiary is a nursery specialising in topiary, based in Hertfordshire.
  • Run by Jake Hobson, Niwaki one of the UK’s leading experts in topiary, selling top-quality equipment for the pruning and training of plants.
  • Romantic Garden Nursery is a specialist nursery with large range of topiary, mature shrubs and trees.
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Useful websites