This book is a celebration of the delights of topiary, which – according to the Oxford Companion to Gardens – is quite simply the ‘art of shaping and training trees and shrubs’. My aim is to knock it off its perch as the grandee of garden techniques and to explode any false mystique surrounding it as an exclusive type of gardening. Topiary is a medium that deserves to be in every gardener’s box of tricks, and the techniques should be at the disposal of every horticultural student. It can make a splendid alternative to expensive architecture and sculpture. It lends itself to folksy humour as much as to clipped perfection – covering the full gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime.
At the sublime end is the green architecture which the seventeenth-century English diarist John Evelyn described as hortulan, where gardens became part of the grand scheme along with the building, with a key palette of stone, water and evergreens. The clipped evergreens contrast and soften stone and marble. As a dark living backdrop they set off and enhance them.
Topiary makes plain or fancy hedges, which can be decorated by clipping topiary extravaganzas – balls, vases, birds or myriad other characters – along the top or on the piers or finials.
It can be carved into sheer walls (palissades) of great height or make an entire garden room (cabinet de verdure) with elegant windows or arches (berceaux).
Other techniques include pleaching to make aerial hedges; grafting and training as espaliers, cordons, Belgian fences, drapeaux marchands, palmettes obliques, heart shapes and other fancies, for improved fruiting.
below Sublime Versailles: a detail from L’Orangerie et la Pièce d’Eau des Suisses, by Jean Cotelle, 1693. opposite, clockwise from top left The faintly ridiculous: Sir John Saxy upon his Yew-Tree, by James Wigley, 1729; figurative hedge topiary in Kent; palissades from La Théorie et la practique du jardinage, by Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, 1709; a Victorian illustration demonstrating ways of training fruit trees; an Italianate palette of clipped evergreens, water and stone at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire.
topiary, knots and parterres