Topiary is the name given to the very ancient art of clipping shrubs into ornamental shapes so that they can be used in gardens as focal points or eye-catchers.
Topiary can vary from simple cones, pyramids or balls to fantastic figures of birds, animals or whatever takes the gardener’s fancy. You can build it on the tops of hedges to give them a more interesting appearance or make freestanding specimens, used either singly or in rows or patterns.
Small-leaved, freely branched evergreen shrubs are the best for topiary work: yew and box in green-leaved and golden forms are the favourites, but many others can be used and for really large specimens Portugal laurel was at one time much in demand.
Simple shapes — cones, pyramids, columns, drums, globes, or even spirals — can be formed by the simple process of clipping the shrubs to the desired shapes. They may be small and a bit rudimentary at first but gradually each plant will gain in size and shapeliness and it should not take more than three or four years to produce an admirable topiary specimen.
More elaborate forms, such as peacocks with widespread or flowing tails, doves, rabbits, running dogs, bears, or even chessmen, require more skill and time. Stems will need to be trained as well as clipped and for this you will need to tie them to some kind of framework. Lash canes together or fold wire netting to give you the basic skeleton. Fix this framework firmly to stakes driven well into the with the shrub at the centre. It will look fairly unsightly at first but, given good care in watering and feeding, the shrubs will soon make sufficient growth to screen the framework.
Clipping and training go hand in hand, and within three or four years even the most elaborate fantasies should be recognizable. From then on it is simply a matter of improving the details, allowing specimens to increase in size until they reach the maximum desired, after which you simply clip and prune them to maintain them exactly as they are.
All you need for clipping topiary specimens are ordinary shears or hedge trimmers. The topiary ‘season’ runs from May to August.