Topiary is the art of clipping plants into ornamental shapes and patterns and your imagination is the only limit to what can be created. The result can be flamboyant with fanciful creatures or more simple geometric shapes. It allows you to create year round interest, living architectural flair and structure. Topiary’s versatility and range of possibilities suits all types of gardens, from containers and courtyards to formal and contemporary spaces. You can add touches of whimsy and humour or choose more sculptural definitions. 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. Trimming plants into fantastic shapes dates back to the decadent days of ancient Rome when 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.

Great British Life: Topiary takes patience and lots of clipping (c) Leigh ClappTopiary takes patience and lots of clipping (c) Leigh Clapp

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 1600’s 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.

Great British Life: Topiary and parterres work well together and reveal structure through winter (c) Leigh ClappTopiary and parterres work well together and reveal structure through winter (c) Leigh Clapp

Think of topiary as you would garden ornaments as garden author Marylyn Abbott of West Green House explains: ‘Topiary is the most useful garden design tool! Fashions in gardens fluctuate but precisely cut topiary is invaluable in adding the anchor of form and structure a garden needs.’

Great British Life: Cloud topiary draws the eye in containers (c) Leigh ClappCloud topiary draws the eye in containers (c) Leigh Clapp

Use topiary 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, while repeated forms lend an air of control and uniformity. Spirals are mostly marked out and then cut from cones with a central trunk and fairly horizontal branches. Simple outlines, such as a cube, spheres or cones can create focus amongst relaxed plantings and a single piece in a sea of wild meadow can be a magical juxtaposition. Beyond the usual green box, yew and privet you can shape a wide array of shrubs and trees, both evergreen and deciduous, flowering and fruiting. Think of variegated and silver foliage, as well as ornamental and productive specimens.

Great British Life: Topiary comes in all sizes (c) Leigh ClappTopiary comes in all sizes (c) Leigh Clapp

Ready-made shapes can be purchased from specialist nurseries and garden centres or have a go yourself as Rachel Orme, Topiary Manager at Agrumi Limited in Lymington, explains: ‘’We design and create topiary frames by hand in our workshop. We then add the plants, such as Ligustrum delavayanum. As the hard design work is already done, one can focus on moulding the stems and foliage into the frame’s shape. The framework also acts as a guide to clipping. Simply prune back the new growth to the shape of the frame. There’s no chance of accidently clipping off a limb! Pruning should take place during the growing season in spring and summer. Every time you clip the plant you encourage new growth, the more you clip, the denser the foliage will be. A phrase our company director, Stanley Jackson, often says is ‘growth follows the knife’. You must avoid pruning around the time of the frosts though as new growth will be damaged.’

Great British Life: Have fun with topiary (c) Leigh ClappHave fun with topiary (c) Leigh Clapp

To make a statement standard you can select a plant with a straight trunk of the desired height, remove the lower branches, trim and grow the crown into a sphere. Otherwise young plants can be trained over a number of years by supporting the stem with a cane, stopping the main shoot when it reaches the height you want and shaping the top into a sphere. Utilising the potential of the vertical element is important in garden design and often overlooked. Don’t be afraid to be bold in your topiary, use symmetry and repeated strong lines with hard-edged shapes. In contrast to the formality and strength of the sheer scale of the topiary, the drama can be softened by exuberant herbaceous planting through the season, before the structure stands proudly on its own through winter, the crisp outline coated in frost.

Great British Life: Use the right tools for the best results (c) Leigh ClappUse the right tools for the best results (c) Leigh Clapp

Top tips

• Evergreens make the best topiaries for interest all year in the garden. The winter frosts or a dusting of snow only enhance them and their 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.

• For complicated shapes or if you need guidance creating a particular animal for example you can buy a wire template that remains hidden inside the topiary.

• You can also create ‘false topiary’ by purchasing wire frames of circles and other shapes from garden centres and using climbing plants such as ivy or trachelospermum to twine their way over the frames with a bit of encouragement. Attach the vine to the frame and let it grow and fill in the shape, removing any stray growth.

• The trimming really depends on the plant, generally clip when the new growth gets over 10-15cm.

Great British Life: Ready made topiary at Agrumi in the New Forest (c) Leigh ClappReady made topiary at Agrumi in the New Forest (c) Leigh Clapp

Be inspired

Agrumi Limited, Top Topiary, Lymington, SO41 6FR
A leading topiary specialist, bespoke and ready made designs

West Green House Garden, West Green, RG27 8JB
Whimsical garden with topiary, topiary in borders and along paths

Hinton Ampner, Alresford, SO24 0LA
Sculpted topiary in borders and lining paths

Great British Life: Topiary features at Hinton Ampner (c) Leigh ClappTopiary features at Hinton Ampner (c) Leigh Clapp