Short cuts – introducing topiary to your home’s garden

Posted 11 January 2016 by Richenda Oldham

Topiary is a creative way to put your own stamp on your garden, and it's a versatile craft that can enhance any size of plot...

The art of topiary has been knocking around since early Roman times, when Pliny the Young wrote about his elaborate clipped green animal figures and obelisks, which adorned the garden of his Tuscan villa.

Since then topiary - which involves the cutting of trees and shrubs into defined shapes - has developed into an immensely popular living art form that is practised around the globe, from Italy to China and Japan.  The great thing about topiary is that it transcends class, being equally at home on the terraces of a grand European villa as it is in a middle-class English suburban garden.

It's just a question of scale. Even a railway station can aspire to topiary and Topsham railway station in Devon is well known for its topiary lettering, which have been a landmark there since 1947.

Garden topiary​Topiary encompasses not just shapes or forms, but also garden features such as parterres, involving ornate clipped box hedges in elaborate mirrored patterns or geometric designs, as well as mazes and labyrinths, and knot gardens, often featuring scented herbs, which were popular with the Tudors and Stuarts.  

Evergreen plants such as box, privet, yew and holly are typically used for topiary, as they provide all-year-round foliage display. They can be bought from any garden centre, either untrained and unclipped or as ready-trained specimens, requiring little more than seasonal pruning.

For the novice topiarist, these ready-made plants are an ideal way to get acquainted with clipping a three-dimensional shape.  On the other hand, anyone who fancies having a go will be pleased to know that specialist nurseries sell frames that can be fitted over the top of a plant, to enable you to grow/train/clip your own plant with just a little help.

However, it is possible to train a basic shape, such as a ball, by eye alone. 

Starting off

Some of the simplest shapes to start on are balls, pyramids and cubes. First decide what type of plant you want to grow and whether it is to be planted in the ground or in a container. Standard specimens, such as the classic ball on a stem, take several years to develop as you have to choose a single upright shoot to act as a main stem. 

Topiary care

Apply fertiliser or mulch in the spring to encourage strong, healthy growth and trim ready-made topiary specimens once or twice a year to maintain their shape. However, even neglected topiary can be brought back into line with vigorous pruning to help promote new growth. 

Topiary training

Make sure that you grow a topiary specimen in a large enough container (if using one) and if using a frame, place it over the plant at an early stage, so the plant has the chance to grow and fill the frame. Once the plant starts to grow through the frame, you can begin pruning it. 


1 An English parterre featuring exquisitely clipped box hedges in a geometric pattern interspersed with topiary cones  

2 This beautiful box garden design includes spring flowers planted in terracotta pots and is surrounded by different shaped topiary specimens 

3 David and Goliath - a spiral topiary specimen is dwarfed by its obelisk neighbours in this English topiary garden 

4 Box is well suited to growing in containers as it is a very adaptable plant 

5 This yew bush has been skilfully sculpted into a peacock


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