Zen and the Art of Topiary - Pruning Shrubs Into Shape Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Zen and the Art of Topiary - Pruning Shrubs Into Shape

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An elephant-shaped topiary found in the grounds of the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India.

The modern era calls for a diary with flexible time slots. Bustle and deadlines fill our lives. No longer can tending one's garden be a pursuit where time has little or no relevance. Everything must be labour saving and time efficient. The phrase 'low-maintenance garden' has crept into the lexicon.

So why should topiary have once again become fashionable? Topiary takes years to grow to maturity and needs a lot of care throughout all those years. However, clipping a shrub into shape requires very little week by week attention while providing year round visual appeal and so fits very well into the modern garden.

History and Derivation of Topiary

The art of pruning living bushes and trees into fantastic shapes has been around for as long as formal gardening itself. Pliny the Elder described it in the 1st Century AD. The history of topiary provides a fascinating read and covers a period of time right up to the present day, with cycles of revival and periods when it became unfashionable once more.

Some historical gardens of note, where examples of topiary can be seen, include Cliveden in Buckinghamshire and Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire.

The word 'topiary' is derived from the Latin 'topiarius', which was used to describe the gardener, one who was charged with the creation and upkeep of 'topia' (places). This position of topiarius was held in high regard, and the clipping and pruning of bushes would have been a natural part of this job.

Modern Topiary

The modern use of topiary has risen in popularity with the increased awareness of garden design. A garden designer often uses bold or dramatic focal points within a simple garden framework. Box shapes, such as spheres, cones and pyramids, are frequently seen. Often a single simple shape is repeated in a symmetrical way against a backdrop of stark paving or understated gravel borders.

This is the ultimate in instant gardening. With sufficient disposable income, one can transform one's garden by these simple, ready-grown plant structures. As long as they receive the correct care and regular ongoing pruning in situ, they will survive quite happily with a minimum of attention.

Japanese Topiary

Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco showing cloud-pruned topiary.

Cloud-formed, or cloud-pruned, topiary is an abstract way of shaping a bush, so that the results are harmonious, pleasing to the eye and yet reminiscent of the shape of clouds. This form of pruning may sound childishly simple, but it is really quite tricky, as the finished bush must have balance and grace. While it should look as if artifice has played the dominant role in deciding which shapes are revealed, the origins of the underlying subject must be highlighted, working with the natural form of the plant.

Although the most common use of cloud pruning is with free standing bushes or small trees, it is possible to use cloud pruning to create an undulating hedge, with curves and swathes along the whole length.

Cloud pruning is supposed to look at its very best when covered with a light fall of snow - accentuating the different levels.

Suitable Plants to Use for Topiary

Many types of shrub can be used - but the best choices lie in small-leaved evergreens, the classic choice being Common box Buxus sempervirens. When the tip of a shooting stem is pruned back, the buds lower down the stem are stimulated into growth, and more than one side branch begins to grow, so instead of being a tall specimen with few branches, the plant eventually becomes dense, with close grown side shoots. The more often the tips of the shoots are removed, the thicker the plant becomes.

Choosing a plant with naturally small leaves ensures that the overall effect is smooth. Clipping a large-leaved bush, such as the common laurel, can result in some of the leaves being cut in half, so has to be done with care to avoid this unpleasant look.

Other suggestions are:

  • Yew Taxus baccata
  • Sweet Bay Laurus nobilis
  • Holly Ilex aquifolium
  • Euonymus fortunei 'Silver Queen'
  • Lonicera 'Baggenses Gold'
  • Cotoneaster species

What to Look for in a Young Plant

Evenly-Spaced Branches - Healthy growing plants will have an even pattern of branching with many 'breaks' - that is, shoots from low down near the roots. Choose a plant with an even shape when viewed from all sides.

A Good Root System - The plant should neither be potbound nor so recently repotted that growth has not started for the current season. Potbound plants will have overgrown roots, many of which will be seen pushing through the base. The best plants will have a few small roots just beginning to work their way towards the drainage holes at the container's bottom.

Healthy Leaves - Look for any sign of damage to the plant, brown leaves or parts that have died back or any pest damage for instance. Any such signs will all indicate stress that the plant has suffered - and these stress factors will slow the plant's growth in future.

Clean Compost - The compost should also look clean, without weeds or too much moss.

Ready Grown Topiary

You can buy ready grown topiary in many shapes and sizes and of various plant specimens. Newer properties often have smaller gardens than their counterparts from decades ago, with small patios needing interest in the form of planters and containers. If you are looking for a quick pick-me-up for a garden, then a topiary pot is a good solution. Such small spaces will benefit from things like a bay tree, either in a ball or cone shape. The bay tree is fairly hardy, and will withstand a fair amount of neglect and even cope with irregular watering. It will grow even better if fed and watered frequently throughout the growing season, with occasional trimming and pinching out1.

Topiary in Containers

When space is limited, a topiary pot is often a good solution. Ready grown topiary such as this will often come in suitable containers, but there is an abundance of various types of pots for sale. The pot should be of a proportionate size. You should look for a container that will have room for slightly more compost than exists in the original flower pot. The pot should be fairly heavy, so as not to be prone to being blown over by gusts of wind.

As topiary can be quite expensive to purchase, it pays to protect your property from theft. Garden thefts are now becoming more prevalent and you should consider taking measures to prevent them happening.

  1. Attach an anchor point to the ground, for instance embed a small metal ring into the ground in concrete, where it will be hidden from view by the container.
  2. Place some heavy duty chain through an enlarged hole at the bottom of a container and attach it firmly to the metal ring, for instance with a padlock.
  3. Start potting up the plant specimen as normal, but carefully loop the chain around the root ball, and fix together with wire so that the chain cannot be pulled through the base of the pot, nor the plant from the container. Fill the container with compost, so the chain is covered.

Topiary in the Open Ground

Pre-grown topiary specimens may also be planted directly into the ground, and should be treated exactly like a small tree. The ground should be prepared, a good size hole should be dug, and the new topiary placed into the allotted space, with the addition of some soil conditioner (garden compost is ideal) and a handful of slow release fertiliser. If you plant a fairly tall specimen in an area prone to wind, you may find it helpful to stake the new plant while it grows a more substantial root system.

How to Grow and Train a Topiary Specimen

So, you may feel that you would like to save your money, and grow your own shaped bushes from scratch? Is it easy or too much of a headache to consider?

It has to be said that this little article can only whet your appetite. To find out more, there is nothing to beat reading a library book devoted to the subject. However, the basic pointers to topiary are:

  • The tree or shrub has to have a good amount of growth each year, as it will be cut back.
  • The plant should be allowed to grow taller than the finished size and then trimmed back.

An Example Using Common Holly

By way of example, suppose you intend to train a Common holly Ilex aquifolium into a conical tree shape on an exposed trunk. This is rather like a cartoon tree shape in appearance, but is a simple enough shape to start with.

Firstly, the holly tree must have one 'leader' which has been allowed to grow to roughly the finished height. Any low growing side branches should be cleanly pruned close to the main trunk. The side branches that will be forming the completed shape should be allowed to grow naturally for a season or two, and then be pruned once they have reached the width required. The lowest branches will be the widest, with the ones higher up all being slightly narrower until the top is reached. Work around the tree, making cuts slightly further out than your estimate, always standing back and looking at your work from all angles. If a mistake has been made, then the tree will grow again, but time will be lost waiting for another season's growth, so it is always best to be cautious rather than too hasty. Make a second tour of the tree, this time cutting more exactly into shape.

At the end of this first pruning the holly tree will look sparse, but will show the framework of the intended shape. Feed the holly with a slow release fertiliser and mulch the ground to retain moisture and repress any weeds.

The holly will grow quite quickly and you will be able to see where the cuts were made from this first pruning. Subsequent pruning will take the new side shoots back to the original framework. You should be pruning just slightly further out than the first cuts.

Another recommended way is to buy a ready formed wire shape, and placing your young shrub inside it, allow it to grow through the wire sides. Clip any growth once it goes through the edges of the wire. This method works very well with small animal shapes, for instance.

Handy Tip - If a branch is pruned, then four new shoots might start to grow. If all these four shoots are pruned, then 16 new shoots will start, then 64 and so on - and this is how a dense hedge is formed, rather than a loose tree.

Trimming and Pruning

You will need the best pruning tools you can afford. Shop around and read reviews. Try the tool in your hand before you buy it, unless it is a replacement for something you have already used. Some secateurs are designed to prevent blisters, with a shaped rotating handle which is comfortable to hold. There are special topiary shears that work by a light spring action. You will need long handled shears to reach high branches, or very stable stepladders.

The two things to avoid are injuries by cutting yourself, rather than the bush, and falling off the stepladder. You should position your stepladder carefully and never stand directly on the very top of it! While using the cutting tool, you should keep your other hand well away from the blades. You can easily mistake a finger for a branch if you are cutting in the midst of a thicket.

The times when you should trim or prune your topiary vary according to the type of plant. Generally you should aim to do this twice a year, for instance in late spring and late summer. Box should be pruned two or three times in the growing season - the warmer months of the year - but should only be pruned when it is dry, to avoid the plant becoming infected with Box Blight.

Keep Your Blades Sharp

Your equipment must have the sharpest edges possible, and you will find that most good tools are able to be resharpened. Buy a whet-stone and follow the makers' instructions. Alternatively, take your shears and secateurs into an ironmonger's or similar place and ask if they will resharpen them for you. Your work will be so much easier if you are using a very sharp blade.

If Things Go Wrong

Your poor shrubs may have a very bad season. They may suffer from drought in the summer, or be blasted by a Siberian wind in the winter. If part of them dies back, you may lose the symmetrical shape you were seeking. In cases like this it is possible that after a few years the shrub will regain its former glory, but you will have to give it some TLC in the meantime, and cut back the dead branches, hoping that new ones will take their place.

Sometimes it is just not possible to restore a bush to a good enough shape, particularly in a small garden where the topiary has been the main focal point. You may have to dig it out and replace it with a less thirsty specimen, or a hardier one, if it had died of cold.

Be Kind to Your Children for They Will Prune Your Topiary

...or choose your retirement home.

Needless to say, if you are housebound, with a favourite view out onto that lovingly trained topiary animal, then remember that you will no longer be allowed to clamber up the stepladder to titivate the topmost sections of your pride and joy. You may be lucky enough to have the finances to pay a professional gardener, but more often than not you will be relying on the goodwill of your descendants.

So be kind to your children now and let them understand your passion for pruning your shrubs into living artworks. Show them how much your garden means to you and teach them all you know.

Thanks to Tavaron's father for allowing us to use the photo of the Japanese Tea Garden.

1You can stop a particular branch growing by removing individual tips of soft shoots, often just by using one's thumbnail against the forefinger of wayward shoots.

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