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Discover the Art of Topiary

Topiary is the art of creating ornamental shapes by trimming and training shrubs and trees. A skilled person can reproduce almost any design that you can imagine by careful pruning and training the plant or shrub. Common designs range from globes and pyramids to animals and birds.

The art or craft of topiary has been practised for nearly 2000 years. The first recorded examples come from Ancient Rome as described by Pliny in one of his letters. He tells of clipped box obelisks and animals at his villa in Tuscany. After a long period of neglect the craft was revived at the time of the renaissance when formal shapes were used to complement the clipped hedges of the parterres and knot gardens.

In the intervening years topiary has come and gone in and out of fashion at regular intervals. In the eighteenth century the natural style was all the rage and formal gardens with clipped bushes gave way to informal plantings of groves and shrubberies joined by meandering paths. The nineteenth century saw a revival and Horatio Hollis Hunnewell was one of the first in America to create a garden at Wellesley, Massachusetts with trees trained into cones, globes, pyramids and layered tiers.

Enthusiasm for garden restoration and period gardens has encouraged the taste for topiary which is now as popular as ever. From large plantings in stately homes to small groups in the average sized garden, examples of topiary can be found all over the world.

Many different plants and trees can be used for topiary. Those with small leaves and a compact growth habit will be the easiest with which to work. Buxus, as used for box hedges, is probably one of the best, certainly for small scale designs.

The methods employed to create a topiary design depend both on the complexity of the subject and the skill of the gardener. Geometric shapes such as globes and pyramids can be guaged by eye but it is best to mark out the outlines first.

More complicated designs usually require a wire frame which will remain in place. For instance a spiral design needs a frame so that the shrub can be trained to the correct shape. Wire frames are produced in a large variety of shapes and sizes both for geometric and animal designs. Many are constructed in two halves joined with a hinge so that they can easily be fitted over the shrub which can then be trimmed to shape.

As I have tried to show the art and craft of topiary is thriving today and can be a distinctive feature of any garden or yard. Even if you do not feel confident enough to try and grow your own, there are plenty of established specimens that you can buy from garden centers and nurseries. However the use of a wire frame makes the task so simple that I would encourage everyone to give it a try.

Hugh Harris-Evans is the owner of The Garden Supplies Advisor where you will find further articles, gardening tips and product reviews.

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