The art of clipping evergreen shrubs into geometric shapes dates hack to the Romans, whose desire for order in all things extended to their plants. The popularity 0f topiary has waxed and waned, although it has never gone out of fashion in France, where the famous designer Andre le Notre made it a feature in many celebrated gardens.
Topiary sometimes involves training plants into low hedges to make elaborate patterns, known as parterres. On a smaller scale, intricately woven shapes in the form of knots create the framework for groups ol flowers or herbs.
The art of topiary also includes making fantastic shapes from clipped evergreens, ranging from an entire chess set to a scene from a fox hunt. Splendid examples of creative topiary, not always on a grand scale, can be seen in many famous gardens.
Although the more complex topiary shapes may demand a considerable degree of artistry, the simpler shapes are well within the capability of any gardener. Patience is essential, however, as it will take several years for any slow-growing evergreen to reach the final desired shape and size.
Plants for topiary
The best plants for topiary are those with small evergreen leaves and a fairly slow habit of growth, so that only infrequent clipping is required. In colder climates the plants must be hardy. Some plants will be suitable for very basic shapes—simple spheres, cones, or balls—but more complex shapes require the smallest leaves and fairly pliable young shoots.
Garden sculptures: A more unusual approach to topiary in a large garden demonstrates its sculptural qualities. Definitely not a project for the beginner!
The plant most commonly used for topiary is boxwood, of which there arc several suitable species and cultivars. It does, however, take about 10 years to reach 4 ft. so this is not a choice for large topiary shapes if you want fast results! Yew ( Taxus baccata) is also slow-growing, but a little speedier than box, making 6 ft. in 10 years. Its dark foliage bakes a good foil for brilliantly colored I lowers. For the less fastidious topiarist. California privet (Ligustrumovalifoliuw) is a good substitute, because it grows much taster; as a consequence, it will require more frequent clipping to keep its shape.
Cheating at topiary
If you do not wish to wait for slow-growing plants like boxwood to fill out, you can create topiary look-alikes using last-growing ivies [Hedera). These are trained over wire Irarnes in the same as other topiary (using several plants to a 10-in. diameter pot). Station each plant at the base of the wire uprights and then feed and water regularly. Tuck in wayward shoots, and then clip the ivy once it has reached the required height. It will rapidly fill out to cover the frame and make an attractive dense shape. A secondary bonus of using ivy is that it will do well in quite
deep shade, in which traditional topiary plants such as boxwood will fail to flourish (although it will do well in partial shade).
If you grow your topiary plants in containers you will be able to turn them around periodically, which will help them to grow-straight. Be aware that topiary is sought after and not cheap, so chain any containers in the front yard to the wall for security.
Formal topiary Parterres, in which neatly cut low hedges create a pattern filled in with either gravel or plants, have been a major design feature in grand gardens for centuries. Miniature versions can be reproduced in tiny gardens.
MAKING A TOPIARY PYRAMID
The real secret to training topiary is pruning little and often, constantly checking the plants and trimming as necessary to form a dense, compact growth habit. Trim the shoots while they are short in order to keep them branching — pinching out the growing point between finger and thumb will help to keep young shoots in check and force them to branch from lower down.
1 Shake out the branches. Make a template from bamboo canes and position ii around the plant
2 Clip over the plant, removing any excess growth; clip back to the level of the canes.
3 Make a ring that will fit around the widest part oj the plant (old garden hose is ideal)
4 Start from the bottom and draw the hose into a lighter ring as you move up the plant. Clip as you go.