Once it was the preserve of emperors and princes, but today there'a a topiary style for everyone.

Gardening is a very wide field and whether your taste runs to meadows or giant marrows there's something in it for everyone. Hand-in-hand with the recent fashion for wild planting and relaxed borders has come a revival of that most formal of garden ornamentation - topiary.

There's nothing new about clipping hedges into quaint or geometrical shapes, it has been with us since the arrival of the Romans and Pliny the Younger writes at great length about the elaborate statues shaped from hedges that adorned his villa in Tuscany.

The golden age for topiary in Britain came in the 17th century, which is when the astonishing gardens at Levens Hall in Cumbria were created. We must be grateful for the impecunious state of the owners' finances in subsequent years that prevented them from following the later fashion for landscape design and sweeping away their yew trees to replace them with some idealised pastoral scene. Today the ancient trees give the gardens at Levens Hall an aura of fantasy, resembling something from the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

In Scotland you can find magnificent examples of topiary in the great parterres of Drummond Castle in Perthshire and at Pitmedden in Aberdeenshire, where the gardeners have three miles of box hedging to clip.

In recent years Rora Paglieri created a witty parterre in the courtyard of her converted farmhouse at Carestown Steading near Cullen - complete with box sheep - and at Parkhead on the Roseneath peninsula, Ian McKellar's formal garden, clipped by hand from box, yew beech, hornbeam, holly and laurel, could quite easily have been transported fully-formed from one of the great villas of the Italian Renaissance.

Alongside such classical creations there is increasing interest in Niwaki, or 'cloud pruning' from Japan. This is the form of topiary that begets hedges shaped like billowing waves or trees with candy floss crowns and although its aim is to create natural forms, the philosophy that underpins it is surprisingly rigorous. It takes seven years' apprenticeship before a gardener in Japan can create his own Niwaki forms.

But everyone has got to make their first cut, so if you fancy embarking on a full chess set in golden yew or fashioning guardsmen standing to attention either side of the garden shed, here's some advice to get you started.


Best Plants To Use

Yew, box, holly and Lonicera nitida are amongst the favourite plants for topiary, however most shrubs with small leaves and a dense habit are suitable. In some places topiary that has existed for years has been wiped out by fungal diseases such as Box Blight and Phytophthora root rot, which attacks yew hedges, although at Drummond Castle they have had some success in combating Box Blight by feeding hedges generously and leaving diseased sections unclipped until they show signs of recovery.

It is good garden practice to treat shears with an anti-bacterial spray to prevent spreading infection between plants.

Summer is the best time to prune topiary, although fast-growing specimens may need a second trim later in the year. Once the work has been completed, clear away all the trimmings, feed with a balanced fertiliser and mulch the plants to encourage healthy new growth.


Topiary Step-by-Step

There's nothing to stop you clipping a mature hedge into peacocks or even characters from Star Wars, so long as you have a sculptor's eye and a steady hand. For beginners however the best results can be achieved by starting with small plants. There are even handy frames to help you achieve tricky curves and symmetrical lines.


  1. Start by placing a tarpaulin around the plant. This helps to make a speedy job of clearing up the clippings.
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  2. Place a frame in your chosen shape over the plant. Let the plant guide you as to what shape it should be - a tall, narrow plant will be easier to transform into a cone than a short, bushy specimen like that lends itself more readily to a ball.

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  3. Make small, neat cuts in line with the frame.
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  4. Stand back frequently to survey your handiwork. It's better to cut too little than too much, but don't worry too much about holes and gaps. These will soon be filled in by new growth.
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  5. Invest in special topiary shears like these from Burgon & Ball. They have been designed to use with one hand and they are ideal for creating flat surfaces and curves as well as more intricate designs.
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