YOU don’t need a grand estate to make topiary work – it can be adapted for even the humblest garden, and it’s much simpler than it looks
Twenty years ago, when Gordon and Grace Grant moved to Coupar Angus, the tall privet hedge that surrounded their single-storey house blocked both the light and the view. “It was out of control, much too full and included bits of holly,” Grace explains. “We needed to tidy it up.”
She explored several options before one day coming up with “a mad idea”, – the creation of a hedge decorated with a line of topiary. Work began immediately and the hedge was lowered, with tiny sprigs of privet allowed to remain at regular intervals. As time passed and the privet grew, it was painstakingly clipped and trained into different shapes: birds, cockerels, pheasants and a bear now strut in a row, and the hedge is further embellished with the geometrical outlines of raised balls on small pyramids and triangles.
Topiary, once considered the preserve of large spaces or dedicated gardeners, is now fashionable in small gardens, where different shapes, green in summer and transformed by frost and snow in winter, present year-round interest. In some instances, well-placed topiary can also reduce the need for hard landscaping.
Leonora and Alan Williamson started work on the golden privet hedge in front of their Inveresk house by accident. Now, on either side of the garden gate, a bear, a pig, a dog and an elephant are on display. Leonora says, “I was cutting the hedge and just left some lumps, which eventually began to take shape.”
Initially she used wire to support a shape but now works using branches alone. Shaping is often done using large electric clippers.
Grace, too, makes the process sound easy: privet, she says, is ideal as it grows faster than box. “You just let a small bump grow until you can carve a shape out of it,” she says. So how do you start the basic shape? Grace explains, “If you took a piece of paper and let a child scribble on it, and turned it around and around, you soon see a shape. With a hedge, it is the same.”
Sometimes she imposes her ideas on to the hedge, at other times she allows the emerging tufts to dictate a shape. “Give yourself the patience to let it grow a little bit and then carve what you like.”
Training a tuft into a recognisable shape takes three or four years, a process she likens to the work of a stonemason, chipping away slowly to get the right shape. “You can bend twigs back into the main body if they are coming out of shape. If they get too long, cut them off.”
Privet grows faster than box or yew, which are the other traditional hedging used for topiary hedging, but tends to shed some of its foliage early in the new year. Simple shapes such as cones and balls work well in deciduous beech and, for those prepared to experiment with shrubs, cotoneaster with its orange berries, forms charming shapes.
Slow-growing box is easy to produce from cuttings and holds its shape well, but clippings must be meticulously cleared up to prevent the spread of disease. Yew, also slow-growing, is reliable for holding large shapes such as buttresses, pyramids or spirals but, being toxic, should be avoided when grown in close proximity to paddocks with livestock.
Leonora, whose first project was a heart shape, says, “Take cuttings, stick a few in the ground together and start with something simple. If you start with a full hedge, then allow a bit to grow and watch to see how it might shape.”
In addition to privet, shrubs such as viburnum, elaeagnus and even red-leaf berberis can be clipped into different shapes, bringing various textures and colours into play. At Vistana, a raised garden on an Angus hill outside Forfar, landscape gardener Sandy McLeod was given a fairly free rein to do something with the steep space. A design of different topiary shrubs did the trick, creating both an original garden and a striking foreground to the views. Plumes of pampas grass lighten the scheme and add contrast, while surprises were incorporated by the addition of hidden, clipped birds.
In one L-shaped space surrounding a new-build Edinburgh house, all it took was a simple row of three box balls in black metal planters to add a note of sophistication. The container-grown box also added another dimension to large, leafy plants, including maroon-leaved cotinus, red-leaved photina, spiky cordyline, phormium and bamboo.
The designer, Carolyn Grohmann of Secret Gardens, who often mixes topiary in with more voluptuous planting schemes, explains you don’t always need much to make an impact. “It is grown-up gardening, very neat and formal with minimum expertise and time-input. Neatly clipped box hides a multitude of sins.”
Box and yew, resistant to cold and some shade, thrive as far north as Carestown Steading, near Buckie, in Morayshire. For Rora Paglieri, who originally hails from Italy, topiary is key to adding structure, height and formality to any garden. Like most gardeners working with topiary, she is passionate about it. She creates shapes such as sheep, trees and birds that reflect the Scottish landscape, while spirals, cones or simple pyramids form the perfect foil for spring bulbs, pools of pink dianthus or glorious roses.
No longer the preserve of large, formal spaces, topiary, even on a small scale, adds a fascinating extra dimension to many gardens.
• Carolyn Grohmann, Secret Gardens Designs (0131-443 5818, secretgardens firstname.lastname@example.org). Carestown Steading is open under Scotland’s Gardens by appointment (www.carestownstreading.com, www.gardensofscotland.org)
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