The pruning and shaping of shrubs and trees is an art that stretches back to ancient times. There are Roman texts which mention the use of precision clipped box hedges as well as amazing sculptures, described by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, showing such wonders as ships in sail or entire hunting scenes as well as animals, inscriptions and obelisks.
Pliny the Younger’s garden at Tusculum had ‘figures of animals cut in box’ and a path is hedged with bushes trained into different shapes with an oval drive containing various box figures and clipped dwarf shrubs’.
Buxus sempervirens was the most popular plant used by the Roman topiarists. Usually from Greece, these trained gardener-slaves used sharp knives as well as single-handed shears similar to the ones we use today.
During the Renaissance when garden designers were recreating the classical landscapes of old, enormous topiary schemes were put to use and this architectural use reached its peak in the very grand and formal gardens of 17th and 18th century France. Louise XIV hosted a Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees for his son’s wedding and came dressed as a topiarised yew. Such was the fashion for topiary in those days.
This grand French style inevitably penetrated into some of the great gardens of Europe although the Landscape Movement wiped many of these out with the clean sweep towards open vistas and natural planting. However, it remained in many cottage gardens and endures to this day with revived interest over the past years.
Topiary nowadays takes many forms and can be used in many different ways both formal and informal. I particularly love using it my garden designs in a more informal way, letting it grow in amongst more natural planting and providing an anchor in the border as well as all year round interest. Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens have inspired me as they created a very stylised combination of mixed perennials and topiary in a cottage style. This can be seen at Great Dixter as well as Hanham Court, Iford Manor and many other gardens.
There are plenty of shrubs and trees to choose from which are suitable for topiary. The most obvious one being Buxus sempervirens or Box. Now widely available, Box makes a very good hedge as well as being suitable for topiarising into balls, cones and all manner of other shapes. Having compact and dense growth it is shade tolerant, preferring shade, but it also grows perfectly well in full sun. Grow either in containers or in the ground. They work beautifully in a gravel garden, such as at Hanham Court where they can be found nestling up to Iris as well as fennel and sea holly. I have grown them in groups into hoggin (a type of compacted gravel), which work really well and give a defined architectural shape.
Box can also be found used in ornamental vegetable gardens or Potagers and is a useful hedge giving structure to the garden.
Traditionally Box hedging was clipped on Derby Day in large country estates, I’m still not sure why this was but probably a good time for clipping would be sometime from the middle of May to the middle of June. I use either a pair of sharp shears upside down to trim box balls or cones as well as the single-handed sheep shearing types. The trick is to go slowly and to keep stepping back to check on your work from all angles.
I particularly love Yew, although it is relatively slow-growing in comparison to Box, the dark leaves really make for dramatic impact in a garden where it can be grown in many shapes.
Privet (Ligustrum) is another successful topiary plant and comes in different forms including L. Jonandrum and L. Delavayanum. I have been planting using Ligustrum texanum, which is not easy to get hold of but clips into lovely loose shapes and is hardy and evergreen, tolerating most conditions, which makes it ideal! Ilex crenata is another favourite for close dense leaf.
There is a huge range of topiarised plants available now and many unlikely shrubs have been clipped into lollipop and ball shapes. I think that restraint is the order of the day and mixing them in with softer planting so that the topiary remains as a structural feature rather than the main event.