Topiary the art of fashioning living plants into ornamental shapes is often a feature of the grand country houses and great estates, with their spectacular gardens containing magnificent sculptured hedges and geometric shaped trees and shrubs. Many of the old cottage gardens too have their living works of art. Peacocks and all manner of animal creations rise above the packed, colourful borders to create a masterful picture. Topiary has been practised for more than 2000 years and can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans. It became fashionable in Europe in the late 16th Century when many of the grand palatial residences were built. Topiary is an art form that anyone with a pair of shears can create. The effect can be stunning; topiary can add character and individuality to any garden. Today’s topiaries have become popular garden features once again and take on a variety of shapes from formal to playful. Teddy bears, cats and many other forms now join the more traditional shapes.
The art of Topiary seeks to control the growth, to form from it the shapes we desire. Also to control the extent of growth annually in order to maintain those shapes once they have been achieved. The practise is to increase the surface density of the pieces – to promote a very even and close finish on the exterior and hopefully a strong and relatively rigid structure beneath.
With most species used for topiary and in most climatic zones, there are definite seasons of growth (spring and summer) and a dormant period (autumn/fall and winter). Aesthetically, the topiary pieces look best when trimmed to the tight lines of their allotted forms. This means that they look at their best just after they are clipped and before fresh new growth blurs the outlines of the shapes once more.
To maintain the creations at optimum sharpness of outline for the longest period is achieved by cutting the growth off at the end of the growing season. This is a popular technique used most often in large collections where maintenance must be kept to a minimum because of the shear number of pieces and the amount of work involved. In UK conditions most clipping work is tackled in late summer. Therefore this then gives the longest period of time – right round until the following May/June in which to view and enjoy the tightly clipped shapes.
When topiary is still in its formative stages, clipping is generally undertaken more than once each year to provide the best results. This may be particularly necessary where the species used is very vigorous in growth and continually blurs the outline, or when very finely detailed features need to be maintained. In these cases, trimming may be required every four to six weeks.
Beware of trimming in adverse weather conditions. Severely cold, frosty conditions would not be the appropriate time to trim. Some varieties such as Box (Buxus sepervirens) can be severely damaged if cut during icy periods. With this species it is traditional to trim after the last possibility of night radiation frost has passed – normally at the end of May/beginning of June. Any new growth made thereafter has time to harden sufficiently before cold conditions return in the winter.
Many gardeners are temped by good spring weather to trim in April. Unfortunately the plants are immediately prompted to produce fresh growth, which is often killed or severely damaged by hard late spring frosts during May. Clipping too late in the growing season also prompts the dangerous production of tender new shoots. Old box growth however, is of course relatively hardy.
Yew is generally clipped more than once a year for a tighter, more controlled effect. A trim of the first big flush of new growth can take place in July.
A second tidying cut to any new shoots produced is undertaken in September. With this species, if a single trim a year is made, then any time after the end of August will do, but preferably before the worst winter conditions begin. Early, rather than later clipping, should always be the aim.
Shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) and Privet (Lgustrum aquifolium) species are such vigorous growers as to need repeated trimming during the growing season. While Beech (Fagus silvatica) and Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) require only a single trim from late August to stay neat. Their golden Autumn/Fall foliage should be retained through much of the winter to enhance their decorative effect.
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and some other large leaved evergreens are often trimmed in late spring and perhaps again in late summer. These species often have very large leaves, which may look unsightly if trimmed using hedge clippers. They are often tackled more slowly, removing individual shoots with secateaurs.
Never be too ambitious when embarking on topiary; an identifiable sphere, cone or small bird shape is better than an unidentifiable mass! Although topiary experts are often able to create simple forms without the aid of a frame, for novices a wire frame will give guidance for successful clippings. Today we are able to purchase frames of all manner of shapes and sizes. After choosing the desired shape, place the wire frame into the ground or container, over and around an existing shrub and clip around the frame using topiary shears. It is then a matter of clipping the new shoots that grow beyond the framework.
Creating topiary is not something that can be executed in neither a weekend nor a season; it may take up to 10 or 15 years to achieve its true potential. Moderately young evergreen shrubs that are naturally full, fairly fast growing and shear well produce the best topiaries. Other suitable trees and shrubs are: Bay (Laurus nobilis), Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), Juniper (Juniperus), Thuja (Cupressus plicata) and Yew (Taxus baccata). One solution for those who loose patience with anything that takes time to fruition, is to purchase a container-grown specimen, grown and shaped to maturity by the nursery, though naturally they come at a price!
About the Author
By: Juliet S Sadler
(ArticlesBase SC #784044)