Coming to a hedge near you: the shear pleasure of topiary

IT IS a horticultural art form that has graced the gardens of stately homes for centuries.

Now topiary – the art of clipping trees and shrubs into ornamental sculptures – is spreading from the great houses of the nation into the urban streets of Scotland.

Caterpillars, bears, dogs, handbags and trains have all been spotted taking shape outside the nation's homes as gardeners take up the challenge.

Sales of traditional topiary shrubs are also soaring, according to garden centres, as are purchases of special topiary shears used to fashion the eye-catching shrubbery.

Gardening experts said the rise in popularity was due to more people spending longer periods at home because of the credit crunch and a change in garden fashion.

Jim McColl, star of the BBC's Beechgrove Garden, said: "Topiary is certainly becoming more fashionable and popular. The beauty is you don't need a private gardener or a huge landscape to enjoy topiary and it's a lot easier than people would think."

Wire frames are now available to allow first-time topiarists to follow simple designs, McColl said. "The wire nets are available from garden centres for people to give it a try – whether it be a rabbit or a swan. It's all rather amusing and a lot of it is tongue-in-cheek."

Neil Fishlock, head of horticulture at Dobbies Garden Centres, said ornamental topiary shrubs were now a big seller. "We have had a sales increase of 129 per cent on topiary balls and pyramids this year. Sales of topiary shears have also risen by 14 per cent, compared with a year ago.

"The appeal of the clipped box is that it is formal and looks impressive at a front door, while being easy to keep and maintain. All you need to do is buy a pair of shears to keep the topiary bush neatly trimmed all year round, and you have a perfect doorstep plant."

One gardener at the forefront of the topiary craze is Leonora Williamson, who has a bear, dog, pig and a small car decorating her front garden in Inveresk, East Lothian. She saw a picture of a topiary horse and jockey in a magazine and decided to experiment herself. "I was cutting the hedge and just left some lumps which eventually started to take shape," she said. "The bear was intended to be a Buddha but I found it impossible to get the shape right. So I turned him into a bear instead."

In Edinburgh's Morningside, Liz Casciani has also become hooked. "I've just started doing a couple of very basic topiary pieces in the form of spheres," said Liz, who opens her garden to visitors to raise funds for charity.

"I've never actually done it before, but I can understand the appeal. They are indeed very elegant and statesmanlike. The sharp edges and surface catch your eye and show the care and attention that are put into running a garden."

Peter Wright, who lives in the city's Grange district, is a keen topiarist who has carved a caterpillar in his front garden.

"Boring hedges are for boring people," he said. "My caterpillar really brings a smile to people's faces and the kids, especially, love it."

Most clipped structures are made from common box (Buxus sempervirens), although other suitable species include holly, bay laurel, myrtle, privet and yew. Major garden shows, such as Chelsea Flower Show, have highlighted the growth of topiary over the last two years as gardeners reject the "wild" look in favour of more formal arrangements. Last year, leading garden designer Diarmuid Gavin's garden at Chelsea was dominated by vast balls of box hedge.

McColl's fellow Beechgrove presenter Lesley Watson, who works at Dougal Philip's New Hopetoun Gardens in West Lothian, believes topiary appeals to those who want to create a shape out of a living structure.

She said: "I'm not surprised it's on the increase. I think it's a really easy thing to do. People are worried about pruning something, but you're only keeping it to a ball or pyramid."

Hens and rabbit shapes are proving very popular, Watson added. "It's great fun and the more experienced gardener can handle a bicycle or a peacock.

"I was at Tatton Park in Cheshire where they had a footballer kicking his ball in topiary, so the humour and the fun side of it are definitely there for all to see. It gives admirers something to look at all year round."

Not just a pretty space

The ancient art of topiary, which means "ornamental gardening" in Latin, is recognised as first becoming popular in Roman gardens.

But it may date back to the time of the ancient Egyptians and the Persians. In both cultures an appreciation of form and function gave rise to a desire to see that widely represented within architecture. From this developed the formalised garden.

Further east from the valleys of the Nile, the creation of formal gardens reached magnificent proportions, and no greater than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire the art did not die out completely, but for almost a thousand years the art of topiary remained hidden behind the monastery wall. It wasn't until the coming of the Renaissance and the flowering of all forms of art that it spread again to the gardens of the wealthy.

The fashion revived again in the 19th century and the Victorian's ingenuity for gadgets and tools made it widely accessible.