Clipped to perfection

PUBLISHED: 11:57 09 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:55 20 February 2013

Russell Coates of Langley Nursery trims a teddy bar. Photography: Leigh Clapp

Russell Coates of Langley Nursery trims a teddy bar. Photography: Leigh Clapp

Topiary, a craft with an ancient heritage, can add magic to the garden. Words and photography by Leigh Clapp...

Hampshire Life, November 2007

Topiary is the art of clipping plants into ornamental shapes and patterns. Your imagination is the only limit to what can be created. The result can be flamboyant with fanciful creatures or more simple geometric shapes. You can add touches of whimsy and humour or sculptural definition to the garden. As well as hedging and large scale creations, topiary works well as punctuation marks in the garden or in feature pots. Classic shapes of cones, spheres, pyramids and spirals bring style to both formal and informal gardens.

Past perfect
Trimming plants into fantastic shapes dates back to the decadent days of ancient Rome. Clipped box, bay and myrtle were frequently used in the gardens of the wealthy, with special gardeners being employed whose sole task was to create and maintain the topiaries. The word topiary derives from the Latin 'opus topiarium' which means ornamental gardening.

This desire to control and manipulate the shape of plants has also featured in Japanese gardens throughout history. Clipped evergreens represent mountains and hills - the organic, voluptuous forms adding to the tactile essence of a Japanese garden. Cloud topiary, where shrubs and trees are clipped to expose branches leaving foliage 'clouds' on the upper sides and ends of branches, is still popular today. This cross between bonsai and topiary results in living sculptures resembling wind-ravaged mature trees.
Topiary returned to fashion in the west in the 16th century, initially in the formal gardens of Italy, before spreading throughout Europe. The grand designs of clipped formality in 17th- and-18th-century French gardens, such as Versailles, continues today. In Holland by the late 1600s topiary had become a significant industry with exports of clipped peacocks, spirals and other shapes being sent to England to meet the growing demand.

Following Italy and France, English gardens featured topiary associated with the Renaissance designs. Queen Elizabeth I had an array of life-size figures, animals and flowers made from evergreens including rosemary in the Privy Garden at Hampton Court. Gradually the art of topiary filtered down the social ranks. The tradition of figurative forms continued at smaller country and town gardens with purer geometrical forms being used in the grander gardens.

Using topiary
Think of topiary as you would garden ornaments. Use them to draw attention to a particular area of the garden, for symmetry to adorn an entrance, delineate pathways and junctions, frame a vista or emphasize the geometry of a design. Plant them directly in garden beds or place in containers.

Traditional wooden Versailles containers flanking a doorway or rows of buxus balls in matching containers are classic ideas. A pair of topiary standards at a set of steps adds an instant touch of formality. Neat, simple geometric shapes work well in small spaces and suit the lines of man-made surfaces.

Unless you are creating a traditional formal garden, it is best to use a little restraint with your green sculptures. You only need a few to achieve the effect and remember they require a commitment to keep them in shape.
Simple outlines, such as a cube, sphere or cone can create focus amongst relaxed plantings and a single piece in a sea of wild meadow can be a magical juxtaposition. Non representational, organic mounds or forms could become an intriguing landscape or be part of a layer of hedges, trimmed clearly to catch the light. Geometric parterres of repeated patterns lend an air of control and uniformity. Figurative topiary needs to be appropriate to its setting.

Get into shape
Evergreens make the best topiaries and add interest all year in the garden. The winter frosts or a dusting of snow only enhance them and their dark green forms are wonderful foils against the billowing mass of spring and summer flowers or autumnal leaves. Small-leaved shrubs such as box and yew are best to keep the shape defined. Complicated shapes can take many years to fill out and need patient training. Many can be bought ready-formed and may have taken between three and eight years to train. Developing topiary from young plants is a long-term commitment, but you can also start with mature specimens. Remember that the less frequently a piece has to be clipped the better its shape will be.

For complicated shapes you can use a wire template, placing it over the top of the plant and trimming around it. You can also create 'false-topiary' by purchasing wire frames from garden centres and using climbing plants like ivy or trachelospermum to twine their way over the frames with a bit of encouragement.

Topiary tips...
From Langley Boxwood Nursery:

  • Box and yew are the best plants to use.
  • Small leaves add dense texture.
  • Box is a surface rooter and likes a cool, well aerated rooting area.
  • Water well until root system established.
  • Fertilize box lightly in spring.
  • Prune June and tidy up in October.
  • Never clip box in hot sunlight or it may scorch and burn.
  • Water pots regularly in summer.
  • Best box - Sempervirens, 'Faulkner', 'Latifolia Maculata' and 'Rotundifolia'.
  • Other plants to try include holly, bay, privet and rosemary.

    Local expertise
    As well as taking visual inspiration from many of our wonderful Hampshire gardens we are fortunate to have locally the well-respected Langley Boxwood Nursery, specializing in topiary and hedging. Established 25 years ago, Russell Hedley-Coates and his team have produced a vast array of topiaries for sale and hire using different plants, as well as holding a National Collection of Buxus.
    You can choose from spirals, balls, cones, animals, standards and obelisks or commission special pieces. The nursery also holds one day 'hands-on' topiary courses to help you create your own living sculptures. So pick up the shears and get clipping!

    Opening times:
    Langley Boxwood Nursery,
    Rake, Liss, Hampshire GU33 7JN
    Tel: 01730 894467;

The featured gardens are open through the National Gardens Scheme.2008 Guide available in February.

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