Anyone who visited this year’s Chelsea Flower Show couldn’t have failed to notice the proliferation of topiary. Most notable was Cleve West’s winning garden, featuring six large clipped yew forms nicknamed “the Daleks”, but several other designers – including the 2010 winner Andy Sturgeon – also used evergreens for structure within flower borders.
These sculptural forms were just one indication that topiary is nudging its way back into fashion, but for many gardeners it has never really gone away. It was popular in medieval and Renaissance gardens before falling from favour during the naturalistic landscape-garden phase of the 18th century. The Victorians loved topiary for its architectural qualities, while the Edwardian arts and crafts movement valued the extraordinary atmosphere it can create, as well as its role in the creation of “garden rooms” at estates such as Hidcote and Sissinghurst. Clipped topiary gained a reputation for being a little twee in the mid- and late‑20th century, though I suspect that even the sternest modernist would be as delighted as anyone to come across a well-clipped peacock in a Cotswold front garden.
Now leading designers are also turning to the dynamic structural forms provided by hedging and topiary as a way of offsetting the naturalistic planting that is in vogue – the most dramatic recent example being the Olympic Park. The soft, diaphanous planting looks even more effective against the dark, evenly textured background that hedging provides. And geometric hedge forms can make for a chic backdrop in a contemporary town garden. West says he has been using topiary a lot more in recent years. “If you want to make a bold statement with lots of repetition, it’s great,” he explains. “Most people are too timid – but you can get away with quite large hedge forms even in a small garden. And I actually enjoy doing the clipping myself in the gardens I design; it’s all part of the fun of it. Box and yew are best for sharper shapes, but I also love using beech hedging for the autumn change in colour.”
Of course, evergreens are invaluable assets in gardens of all sizes, in both town and country. Plants such as yew and box do not lose their leaves, making them useful for the poised look of the garden in winter. And fully grown topiary forms, bought straight from the nursery, are one of the best ways of updating the look of a space at a stroke. There are, of course, myriad shapes to choose from: pyramids, cubes, balls, domes, straight hedges, arches, spirals, pepperpots, Japanese-style clouds, architectural buttresses, mushrooms, swirling or geometric “knots”, “chess pieces” or other semi-abstract designs, as well as figurative shapes such as peacocks.
So where to start? No one wants to condone “instant gardening” nowadays, given the embarrassments of the 1990s TV makeover scene, and it can be fun to grow your own topiary, but in some cases the importation of fully grown clipped shrubs makes perfect sense, given the effect these plants can have. This is certainly the view of Sir Roy Strong, the doyen of topiary who created the renowned gardens at The Laskett. “The purchase of one 6ft-high ready-clipped yew [costing around £750 to £1,500], or perhaps four small ones, is much cheaper than statuary, which gets into four figures extremely quickly,” he says. “Topiary forms give incredible structure and personality – you can base a whole garden around a single clipped yew.”
Topiary is not a specialist area for garden designers – they should all be experts when it comes to snipping shrubs – and contrary to popular opinion it is not one of the most technically demanding aspects of garden-making. As long as the soil is not too wet, and the ground properly prepared, then transplanted yew, box, hornbeam or beech plants ought to do well. If the ground is soggy, then land drains are an inexpensive investment. Even the annual artistic clipping in August or September is not something that needs to be left to the professionals – a good eye, a bit of confidence and a willingness to learn by trial and error are all that’s needed. As Strong says, “If you happen to snip off a leader, don’t worry – a new one will grow. Start with something simple like a dome or a cube and work up from there.”
Strong recalls the first time he went to clip the topiary at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’s garden. “I went there with my gardener and he went off with the Highgrove head gardener. I hopped up a ladder and clipped a hedge into a pyramid with a ball on top. When they came back they were amazed. They are trained to plan it all out and measure it up, but I just did it on the spot.”
Topiary forms tend to be thought of as static, rather monolithic features, but in fact they are eminently adaptable and can impart a variety of different moods. Tom Stuart-Smith is a designer who deploys topiary in a wide variety of ways. He uses it to lend texture and rhythm to intensely planted areas – for example in the large terraced garden he designed at Mount St John in Yorkshire, where evergreen shapes create cross-axes to break up the overall downward orientation of the terraces. This kind of feature is popular among designers as it lends stability to the structure provided by the large ornamental grasses and masses of flowering perennial plants that are currently de rigueur.
But Stuart-Smith says that the obvious way to use topiary is as a “metamorphic piece of architecture. It animates the space, and a lot of it has semi-human proportions. You see these little blobs on the ground that look like baroque baubles, but a lot of the topiary I use has its proportions sized up. It has this quality of presence, so that when you arrive at the garden you have this feeling that something is going on – I’m interested in the psychological possibilities.
“Topiary can also act as a transitional object between the individual and the landscape,” he says. “I thought of this particularly at Broughton Grange [in Oxfordshire], where the design is intimately connected with the pattern of the landscape.” Stuart-Smith also uses topiary as a feature in its own right, either through the power of striking silhouettes, or by playing with a sense of space. “I have these columns at home [in Serge Hill in Hertfordshire],” he continues, “and the verticals have this extraordinary effect. I made it as a hornbeam enclosure, as an intensification of the surrounding landscape. I always thought I would plant it up – but I have left it blank. The children used the space to play football in, and gradually it became apparent that it was providing an antidote to everything else in the garden. Now I wouldn’t dream of putting anything else in there. The whole point is that it is empty.”
The husband-and-wife design team of Julian and Isabel Bannerman have built up a stellar list of clients over the years, including numerous members of the aristocracy (witness their recent work at Arundel and at Highgrove), as well as musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers. Topiary plays an important role in many of their designs. “We love it because if you buy big pieces of yew it gives a place instant grounding, height, colour and presence,” Isabel says. “We avoid box a little now because of box blight, so we use smaller yew balls a lot. They aren’t that hard to keep, and once they’re going they can grow 8in to 12in per year. We put them in gravel and use them interplanted with things like irises.” This technique was especially effective at their own former home, Hanham Court, near Bath.
Isabel says that topiary is particularly valuable when used as punctuation points in a garden, or when you “need a bit of architecture but you don’t want a building”. As a rule, she prefers pyramids to cones as a clipped shape, because the shadows are that much sharper; topiary at dusk or dawn is indeed one of the great pleasures of the genre. Julian also points out that topiary is wonderful for nesting birds; in that ecological vein, holly should not be discounted for topiarising treatment, as a native shrub loved by all sorts of wildlife.
Northamptonshire-based designer James Alexander-Sinclair also agrees that topiary is far more malleable than most people believe. “It’s seen as a kind of a rock against which perennial planting washes,” he says, “but in fact it changes. You can chop 2ft off the top of a hedge and it will have grown back in a few years. It’s not like planting a tree – with topiary you can change everything.” At Alexander-Sinclair’s own home, Blackpitts House, he has placed large clipped beech sentinels in the middle of the lawn, partly to interrupt the space, but also because all the views are internal. “There must be at least 30 different vistas into the beeches,” he says. He also emphasises the fun value of topiary. “Just this weekend, we had children playing hide and seek around them, and they make perfect goalposts,” he says.
Alexander-Sinclair is also a great fan of pleaching, a sort of cousin of topiarising in the armoury of garden techniques, which involves weaving the branches of trees, usually at about head height, to form a decorative feature that also works as a barrier; pleaches are often formed from two lines of trees to create an allée. A line of pleached trees such as hornbeams can create a green wall, entailing none of the planning-permission worries generated by a bricks-and-mortar version.
Not everyone would go as far as Strong, who maintains: “Flowers in a garden are a sign of failure. Gardening is all about space and scale. I would happily sacrifice all the flowers in the garden in order to leave the hedges and topiary.” But there is no doubt that topiary plays a marvellous and multifarious role in many a statement garden.