Gardens Illustrated
portrait of James Todman, topiarist
© Andrew Montgomery

James Todman on the art of topiary

Published: July 19, 2022 at 3:53 pm
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As a self-employed topiarist, James is helping to raise the craft of clipping plants into an art form. Portrait Andrew Montgomery

First plant love A spider plant when I was about ten years old. I gave it a very short haircut, for no other reason than I wanted to see what happened. I think this may have been the start of my desire to shape plants.

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Who has inspired your career? Luciano Giubbilei, in particular a roof garden he designed for the Swiss private investment company Unigestion. He placed a series of green domes in a long curve, set against pale-grey gravel. The simplicity of the shape, with the effect of light and shadow playing on the form, really caught my attention.

What did you do before gardening? I studied hotel and catering management at university and then managed a delicatessen for many years but wanted to work outdoors. I began by working in some beautiful gardens that had a lot of topiary and undertook short courses at Pershore College to help me specialise in topiary maintenance.

Horticultural heroes Jake Hobson, for his cloud pruning and organic topiary. I also appreciate the skill and knowledge of Chris Crowder, head gardener at the historic topiary gardens at Levens Hall in Cumbria.

Favourite gardens I really admire the topiary at Les Jardins de Marqueyssac and Les Jardins d’Étretat in France, as well as Levens Hall. However, my biggest influence is the natural landscape. I try to emulate rolling hills with my cloud designs.

Most valuable training Practice; with topiary someone can show you what to do, but nothing beats picking up a pair of shears and having a go.

Three worthwhile tips Learn about the plant you’re working with. Each one will respond differently to clipping. When deciding on a design, work with the plant’s natural growth habit – don’t try to force a shape on it. For example, plants with vertical growth habits won’t suit being shaped into a ball. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you clip a plant and are not happy with the shape, in most cases it will grow back, and you can try again.

Favourite ‘weed’ you’re happy to have in your garden Ivy can be interesting as it can be clipped and shaped.

Do you have a particular aim in your gardening career? Topiary is seen as an aspect of horticulture, whereas sculpture belongs with the art world. I want to bridge the gap between the two by creating topiary that can be considered green (or organic) sculpture. I would like topiary not to be seen solely as a gardening process but also as an artistic creation, with plants being the sculptor’s medium.

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Contact jamestodman@icloud.com, @james_todman

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