Topiary is the art of training plants (typically evergreen shrubs and trees) into intricate or stylized shapes and forms.
The term may also be used more loosely to describe a number of garden features that rely on the close clipping and shaping of plants. These include:
Parterres: Typically lavish Italian renaissance gardens would have simple, large, clipped specimens in and among statues. These would then have beautifully ornate, clipped box hedges swirling around them in mirrored patterns or geometric designs. This style of hedging is known as a parterre garden. In earlier parterre gardens the gaps in the patterns would be left open and the ground would be covered with ornamental gravel to produce a crisp clean effect. As time went on, the styles became more and more elaborate, and other plants were added to give extra colour and interest.
Mazes and labyrinths: The Normans introduced pleasure gardens with mazes and labyrinths formed from clipped plants. A number of private and public gardens still have such features today.
Knot gardens: Topiary gardens became very popular in Great Britain during the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts. During this period knot gardens and clipped ornate shapes were introduced to gardens up and down the country. The knot garden was formed from different coloured box, planted in crisscrossing patterns so that it appeared that the ribbons of hedges had been tied up in knots. Highly-scented herbs were also used as hedging plants, planted in and among the gaps to give a tapestry of colour.
Topiary is still used today in many modern styles, as there is always room for a clipped masterpiece.
Plants suitable for topiary
Traditional subjects for topiary have usually been evergreens to retain a permanent feature throughout the seasons.
Typically box (Buxus sempervirens) and yew (Taxus baccata) are used, however other evergreens such as privet (Ligustrum japonicum), holly (Ilex) and Lonicera nitida can be used.
Trees and shrubs can be bought ready-trained from specialist nurseries; these save time and effort, but can be expensive. Also available are plants with topiary frames over the top of them, which allow you to grow your own topiary with a little helping hand.
Choose a young, well-proportioned specimen with dense, healthy looking growth, especially near the base.
Topiary: the art of clipping trees and ornamental hedges by A.M Clevely (Collins 1988, 0004104226)
Topiary design and technique by Christopher Crowder & Michaeljon Ashworth (The Crowood Press 2006, ISBN 1861268165)
Topiary basics: the art of shaping plants in gardens & containers by Margherita Lombardi and Cristiana Serra Zanetti (Sterling Publishing 1999, ISBN 0806938994) – has great descriptions and information on the different plants that are suitable for topiary
These books are also made available through the RHS Lindley Library.