Cynthia is an administrator, has a degree in Business, Economics, & History, and is a qualified Hypnotherapist. She loves to write & travel.
What is Topiary?
Topiary is the art of creating shapes and sculptures with trees, hedges and shrubs. The shapes can be simple ones, like spirals or globes, or very elaborately clipped figures of animals or people. Who has ever read ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King and not been terrified by the moving hedge animals that terrorised young Danny Torrance in the hotel grounds?
It is created with evergreen trees or hedges, and specifically with those species that produce dense foliage of needles or small leaves that grow in a compact, columnar way. Some of the more commonly used shrubs and hedges that are used are privet, buxus, myrtle, holly, yew, bay laurel and arborvitae.
A clipped hedge is probably the simplest form that you can create, and hedges can also be used to make boundaries and patterns. Traditional topiary is created by clipping the shrub, hedge or tree into the desired shape, and it takes a lot of skill and patience to get it right. Modern topiary can also be created with wire cages formed into your chosen shape, and in a short space of time by using small-leaf ivy or other vines trained over the wire topiary form you can have your very own leafy peacock, corkscrew spiral, cones or even a dinosaur!
The name derives from the Latin word ‘topiarius’ or ornamental gardener, and its history goes back to Roman times. A friend of Julius Caesar’s, one Cneius Matius Calvena, is credited with bringing the first topiary into the gardens of Roman palaces and villas and in one of Pliny the Younger’s letters he talks about the elaborate cut hedges at his Tuscan villa in the shapes of animals, obelisks, and inscriptions. It also moved into the atriums of Roman villas, where the topiarius would create a miniature scene, possibly using artificially stunted shrubs and trees.
The art also developed in Ancient China and Japan, where they tried to recreate the shapes of the old pine trees that had been weathered over many years by the wind and rain. The Japanese also practice cloud-pruning where they prune shrubs and hedges into rounded shapes, that when they are covered by snow look just like clouds. Japanese Zen gardens use a technique known as Karikomi, where trees and shrubs are clipped into large curved sculptures and another called Hako-zukuri which forms hedges into boxes and straight lines.
In Europe, it became popular again during the Renaissance. In the formal gardens of many great houses, parterres and terraces were created that used clipped low hedges and shrubs to create elaborate patterns, interspersed with trees pruned into the shape of balls, cones or tapering spirals. It also became popular in smaller cottage gardens, but fell out of fashion after Alexander Pope mocked it in an essay on ‘Verdant Sculpture’ written in 1713.
There was another revival in the nineteenth century, which carried on into the twentieth century when the British Arts and Crafts Movement championed the placing of shaped hedges in among the rose bushes and herbaceous borders. Topiary was even introduced into Disneyland in 1962, where wire frames of the popular Disney figures were created and plants were encouraged to grow up and around the wire and fill in the frames.
Famous Examples Around the World
There are many excellent examples to be seen in the United Kingdom. At Levens Hall in Cumbria, the topiary in the formal gardens was started in the late seventeenth century by the same French gardener, Guillaume Beaumont, who had worked on the gardens of Hampton Court. The sculptured hedges at Levens Hall are some of the oldest in the world and has survived in their original designs.
Cliveden in Buckinghamshire is another of the great British houses that has a famous parterre and topiary. The formal parterre is one of the largest in Europe at around four acres, and the Long Garden contains hedges cut in the shape of peacocks and corkscrew spirals.
In Belgium the Parc des Topiares in Durbuy has 250 hedge figures, some of which are over 120 years old. In the United States the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland was established in the late 1930s by the celebrated topiary artist Harvey Ladew. One of the most famous scenes created by Ladew is the hunt with the horses, riders, hounds and fox captured clearing a hedge.
Create Your Own
Everything that you need to create your own can be bought in stores and online and Amazon has a great range of frames, topiary in lots of different shapes and sizes, and books on how to create it. If you decide to use a wire topiary frame and vines, you will need to choose what size and shape of form that you want, which will be determined to a certain extent by whether it will be indoors or outdoors, and the size of your garden or outside space.
Then you need to choose which vine you are going to use and fill the centre of your form with sphagnum moss, as this will give it a fuller look a lot faster. Plant your vine around the wire form in a way that it will be able to grow up and around the frame, and if you are creating a large shape you may even want to plant several vines.
As your vines start to grow, make sure that you train the shoots around the wire and prune any errant shoots that will be difficult to train around the frame. How long it takes for the form to be completely covered and filled in will depend on how big it is and how many vines or ivy plants that you have used.
If you want to create a traditional topiary with a shrub or hedge, it will be a bit more difficult, but still very achievable. If you have never attempted it before, it may be wise to choose a frame to help you create your sculpture. Put the frame over your chosen hedge or shrub and use it to show you where to prune in order to create the shape that you want.
You need to start the pruning slowly, as this will encourage vigorous, bushy growth in the shrub or hedge you are sculpting. You will probably need to prune your topiary every three months or so, only clipping off no more than a few inches every time as you don’t want to kill off parts of your hedge or shrub and damage the sculptured shape that you are trying to create. You can also create topiary trees, by sculpting the tree into the shape that you want if to be.
Of course, if you want to enjoy the beauty of topiary, but are not inclined to take the time or make the effort to create your own, you can now choose some gorgeous hedges and shrubs that have already been sculpted into lots of different interesting shapes and sizes. You can even buy artificial topiary, for celebrations such as Christmas or to create charming decorations for your home all year long. So enjoy your topiary, as it can add interest and fun to your garden or inject some elegance and style into your interior decor.
© 2010 CMHypno
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 01, 2014:
Glad you enjoyed reading about topiary Rebecca. It does have a fascinating history and there are some beautiful historic gardens with topiary
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on May 01, 2014:
I didn't realize topiaries had such an extensive history. I have always loved them. Great Hub!
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on July 06, 2013:
Hi Para, thanks for reading about topiary and I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Are you going to start trimming your hedges into interesting shapes now? Post the pictures if you give it a try
x on July 06, 2013:
I have always been interested in topiary, but knew nothing about it. This article very definitely solved that problem. Not only does this page give all the background information, it clearly explains all the basics needed for one to start doing their own topiary. I think a lot of folks are like me in this regard, so I'm sharing this page here, there, and everywhere. A very well written hub!
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 10, 2010:
Hi Betty, thanks for reading about topiary and leaving a comment. Have you looked throught the whole range of topiary forms that Amazon has online? Or do you have a local nursery or hardware that stocks topiary frames?
Betty Bondio on May 10, 2010:
I would like to know where I can get the small wire topiary form for pots- Betty Bondio- 1303 Montagur St.- Rockford, Ill. 61102
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 05, 2010:
Hi Hello,hello glad you enjoyed the topiary. It would be great to have a big enough garden to give it a go
Hello, hello, from London, UK on May 05, 2010:
They are wonderful and I admire people who can do this, plus have the time, but I don't it is for me. Thank you for showing.
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 05, 2010:
Grills Guy - thanks for reading and thinking that the topiary is cool!
Sandyspider - glad you enjoyed the topiary
Kay Creates - give topiary a try! Thanks for the read and the great comment
Kay Creates from Ohio on May 04, 2010:
I really enjoy seeing seeing creative and unusual topiary. Perhaps I will try it myself someday. Thank you for the information.
Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on May 04, 2010:
Wonderful hub on topiary.
Grills Guy from Santa Cruz on May 04, 2010: