Topiary – Sculptures From Living Plants

Topiary is a way of making sculpture from living plants. By training and clipping you can make bold, often imposing structural shapes, including ‘walls’ and arches. You can also create birds and animals, trains, chess sets or simply cones, ball shapes as spirals, which can create formality or points of interest in even the smallest garden.

Do not choose to have topiary in the garden unless you have time and patience (or a gardener) to care for it well. Every time you clip it, you are removing all the young, strong new shoots and leaves, which weakens the plant. Feeding, watering and weeding are therefore of the utmost importance. Use a slow-acting organic manure, which will improve the structure of the soil as well as provide nutrients.

Using topiary. There are many types of evergreen shrubs that can give shape and solidity to a design, whether formal or informal, or anchor the corner of a bed to a neighbouring path or the house itself to its surroundings. Most evergreens have a distinct habit. Some are naturally tall and slender, such as Cupressus sempervirens ‘Green Pencil’, which can add height without taking up too much precious space or light.

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Others can be clipped into various shapes. If you want to use topiary next to the house, you could echo some architectural feature of the building with your topiary shape. Topiary goes well with almost any paving material and in gravel. If growing your topiary in containers, it always looks best in very simple ones. The main interest should be in the shape of the plant, not in the container.

Single plants can make individual points of emphasis in the overall plan; pairs of plants can form or identify a gateway, or you can use rows of clipped plants to line a path or avenue.

Plants clipped into similar or contrasting shapes can be grouped together to make a dramatic show against a plain background such as a stone or brick wall.

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Simple topiary shapes. Simple geometric shapes are the easiest to create. Box is particularly good for these because new shoots develop from the center of the plant. Yew and shrubby Lonicera also respond well. To create a standard topiary shape – a round head on a bare stem – you can train a single leader up a cane then pinch out the top growth regularly until you have created a firm, rounded shape. This is usually quite easy to do by eye. The culinary bay tree (Laurus nobilis) turns into a neat little mop-headed shrub, which looks good in a tub.

Trees that naturally grow into a conical shape, such as yew and Cupressus macrocarpa, can be shaped easily into geometric cones by making a wigwam of canes and placing it over the plant before cutting, to use as a guide.

To make a spiral shape from an established cone, choose a plant at least 3 ft high. Tie a length of string to the top of the plant, wind it in a wide spiral around the bush and secure it to the stem at the base. Following the spiral marked by the string, cut away the outer branches with secateurs. Try to keep the tiers even all the way round.

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Topiary on hedges. In some gardens you can treat the top of a hedge as topiary. It can be clipped into spheres, cubes, castellations or birds and animals. Simple scalloped shapes can be effective too. Always use string or wire to measure and mark out the pattern before you cut.

Columns and buttresses can be created in large hedges witn an interesting architectural effect. You must allow the sides of the hedge to grow out at regularly spaced points and take up to three years to trim it into shape. Round windows in a hedge can act as peepholes into the view beyond. They can be created by training pliable young branches around an iron frame on a rod firmly fixed into the ground.

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