Trimming and shaping plants is age old, but in the right context, topiaries and hedges can be successfully incorporated into modern gardens
The clipping of plants, known as topiary, is an ancient art dating back to the Greeks and Romans. The word comes from the Latin “topiarius”, meaning ornamental gardener.
When a Roman villa was excavated in 1961 at Fishbourne, on the Sussex coast in Britain, it revealed a formal Italianate garden with an internal courtyard of clipped hedges with alcoves for seats and statues.
The whims of fashion
“Cloud pruning” was, and still is, a form of topiary popular in Japanese gardens in which trees are cut in layers to resemble clouds. The Dutch created animal topiaries in the 15th century, while the French preferred geometric shapes. Topiary was considered an essential part of the formal garden in the 17th century. At the Palace of Versailles, trees and shrubs were carved into geometric or fantastic shapes and placed in rows along the main axes of the garden, alternating with statues and vases.
While we might not desire, or have the space for, fanciful giant chess pieces, peacocks perched on nests or hounds chasing foxes across hedges in our gardens, we can admire these grand and often eccentric topiaries still to be seen in many classic gardens throughout the world.
Popular author and gardener, Rita Buchanan said: “Shaping a hedge is the closest most of us will ever come to doing sculpture or erecting a monument. It gives you an exhilarating sense of control and achievement.”
A traditional maze usually has winding pathways between high clipped hedges, the challenge being to find a way to the centre and back to the entrance. Hedge mazes became popular in Tudor times, the most famous is the one designed in 1690 at Hampton Court Palace.
Clipped hedges of the magenta cherry (Syzygium paniculatum), dune crow-berry (Searsia crenata), Cape leadwort (Plumbago auriculata), African boxwood (Myrsine africana) and Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) for boundaries and backgrounds to flower borders are among the most useful and simple forms of topiary, serving as windbreaks and as screens for privacy.
In knot and herb gardens, clipped box, rosemary and santolina are traditionally grown as low hedges. Lavender makes an attractive low edging, but is often short-lived in our climate. Lavenders and rosemary must be clipped and trained while young and then regularly trimmed, as they resent being cut back into mature wood.
Abelia “Dwarf Gnome”, Cuphea “Lemon Squash”, Eugenia (Syzygium paniculatum “Globosum”) and common myrtle (Myrtus communis “Nana”) are also suitable as low hedges.
Topiaries of today
Whether elegant or whimsical, decorative gardening in the form of topiary will add structure in your garden, with the trend favouring cushions, cubes, pyramids, spirals and mopheads. These are particularly suited to formal gardens, decorative vegetable gardens, called potagers, and herb gardens.
Standard shrubs and roses add accents in borders, elegance at entrances and interest on patios. These “lollipops” add height in small gardens, freeing up space at ground level for bulbs and small plants.
Potted topiaries are popular on either side of doorways as well as in courtyards.
Shrubs suitable for clipping include Brunfelsia (yesterday-today-and-tomorrow), Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata), euryops, Ficus “Millennium”, honeybell bush (Freylinia tropica), fan-leaf indigofera (Indigofera flabellata), September bush (Polygala myrtifolia), blue potato bush (Solanum rantonnetii), Australian brush cherry and magenta cherry (Syzygium paniculatum).
While some gardeners get great pleasure and a sense of achievement from clipping and shaping plants from scratch, if the process is too slow for you, nurseries and garden centres have suitable plants and frames for topiaries, as well as established topiaries.
Kay’s top tips for trimming topiaries
Why should you consider shaping certain plants?
◆ To control growth
◆ To anchor and add stability to a design
◆ To contrast with informal plantings
◆ To introduce a sense of humour. What should you trim?
◆ Slow-growing plants that are able to take regular cutting
◆ Foliage should be small and grow all the way along the stem, not just at the tip, otherwise bare stems will be seen when cut back
◆ Cut a small amount of growth each time, using tools with sharp blades
◆ In windy gardens, pyramid shapes are best able to cope with wind
◆ Standard roses and shrubs are top heavy and need sturdy support to the tips of the heads to prevent the heads breaking off in windy weather.