It takes, time, patience and precision but topiary is not just for the experts says Toby Musgrave
I will nail my colours to the mast and say I am a fan of topiary, because as well as being fun – and all gardening should be fun – it offers so much.
Deciding on the shape is a comment on your creative spirit. It is also stimulating and challenging to learn the art of physically shaping it. And since topiary can be ‘cut to size’ – anything from towering monsters in excess of 5m to a small 30cm work of art in a pot – you can make a topiary to fit your garden, irrespective of its size. Moreover, the range of shapes that can be trained and clipped is enormous.
This makes topiary very adaptable and it will work in a wide range of different garden types. For example, it can be used to settle contemporary look, complement a formal feel, or imbue a romantic cottage garden ambience. Finally, topiary can be used to achieve a wide range of effects; for example as focal points, to introduce a vertical element, to give a formal structure, and even to enliven a hedge – let some plants grow taller than the height of the hedge and clip into topiary shapes so that they look as if they are sitting there.
However, with the possible exception of gnomes, there are few garden ornaments that rouse such strong feelings as topiary: There is no middle ground, it’s one of those things that gardeners either love or loathe. This polarity of views has existed for the millennia or so that topiary has enhanced our gardens. At the peaks of its popularity it has graced the gardens of kings (Henry VIII had loads at Hampton Court) and it has fallen so low that its banishment has been called for by pro-natural gardeners, including William Robinson. But the fact that topiary has been in and out of fashion for as long as gardens have been made in Britain says something about its resilience and relevance.
The word ‘topiary’ itself, used to describe evergreen shrubs such as Box (Buxus sempervirens), Yew (Taxus bacccata), Evergreen honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) and Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) clipped into interesting shapes, has been in use since medieval times, with a more-recent addition to this definition being the use of climbing plants such as Ivy (Hedera spp.) grown over shaped wire frames. However, the origins of the word are much older and originally had a different meaning. Garden makers in Ancient Roman times certainly made use of clipped greens, but the Latin word topia literally translates as ‘contrived effects of natural scenery’, that is to say a designed landscape, while a toparius was an ‘ornamental gardener’.
So, how do you make a topiary that will enhance your garden, amaze visitors, and bring you pleasure? Step one is to decide if you want to opt for a ‘real’ topiary or the wire-framed variety. The latter requires less work and will establish more quickly – the framework gives an instant structure which fast-growing ivy will soon cloak. Another advantage is that because ivy is tolerant of shady conditions, this type of ‘topiary’ can be used to enliven an otherwise gloomy corner. Frames are available from many garden centres, but to be a bit ‘different’ it would be possible to shape your own using chicken wire, or have a blacksmith bespoke one to your design. And, instead of ivy, the frame could be clad with self-clinging annual climbers such as Sweet pea (Lathyrus odorata) or Nasturtium.
Creating a traditional topiary is a longer and more complex procedure. Always start with a small plant, as it is much easier to bend a young plant to your will when young, rather than teach an old dog new tricks. And for my money the best plant to use is Yew – it grows tightly, clips well, and if you do inadvertently slip with the shears, it is forgiving and regrows well. For variety you could also choose a golden-leaved form (there are also golden-leaved forms of Evergreen honeysuckle or Privet and variegated Box).
The choice of shape should depend on the garden style you are aiming to achieve, but there are basically two options: either a zoomorphic form – an animal, bird, or even a butterfly; or a regular geometric shape, such as a pyramid, cone, spiral, or ball. Into this latter category I also place the lovely Japanese concept of cloud topiary. This is created by training the tree trunk so that it is kinked rather than straight and removing all but a handful or two of side branches. The branches are then trained roughly horizontally, trimmed to different lengths, and at the end of each one is clipped a ‘blob’ of foliage that is reminiscent of a cloud shape.
Geometric shapes work better in miniature – tiny doves are finicky to make and do look a bit daft – but are equally effective on a large scale, such as the whole garden of towering forms at Levens Hall in Cumbria. To make geometric forms is relatively straightforward: for uncomplicated shapes such as a cone, cut by eye in the early years, and as the plant reaches the height you want, begin to clip using guides – pieces of straight wood, or for more complex shapes, make a wooden frames that slips over the topiary. And if you use a bit of forethought, it is also possible to ‘cheat’ and to place a metal frame over the young plant and use this as an ‘internal’ clipping guide – this is especially useful with very complex shapes.
For zoomorphic topiaries, a more complex arrangement of sturdy poles and wire, augmented with chicken wire to give a more precise shape is necessary. Additional, temporary canes can be used to train specific branches in a particular direction. Tie in the shoots to the structure using soft twine when still they are young and pliable. More care is also necessary when clipping rounded and curved shapes (including geometric ones), and it’s often easier to clip by eye.
The tools of the trade are shears for a large-scale clipping, but for delicate work hand-held sheep shears offer much more control, so you are less likely to snip the wrong bit! And in terms of ‘when’, a topiary will grow just like any other plant, and to keep its good looks it will require regular clipping – just how often depends on the plant, the season and how fussy you are, but on average once every couple of months will keep it looking perfect, although you can get away with clipping Yew only once a season, if you don’t mind it looking as if it needs a haircut for a while!
To look after your topiary, feed three times during the growing season with a balanced fertiliser, and for good measure I would recommend mulching the surrounding soil with well-rotted horse manure in spring. And, of course, to avoid the plants suffering stress keep them well-watered, especially in dry periods. All the above is also applicable for topiary in a pot, but in winter, they must also have their roots protected from the frost. Insulate the container with bubblewrap or straw surrounded by hessian sacking.
Toby Musgrave’s latest book Cottage Gardens (£20 Jacqui Small) is now available from all good bookshops, for information visit www.TobyMusgrave.com