A topiary is a living, decorative sculpture created by training and shaping a plant. It may be a shrub that’s outgrown its space in the garden or a plant bought specifically to be clipped and trained as a topiary specimen.
When you clip a plant into a topiary shape, you are following a very old gardening practice. Gardeners have been clipping and shaping plants since cutting tools were invented and calling it topiary since Roman times.
The word topiary is derived from the Latin ‘topiarius’, which describes an ornamental landscape gardener. The skill of the topiarist (or topiarius) has been kept alive through the centuries in formal gardens in the northern hemisphere, many of which today sport a legacy of clipped specimens of great age.
In today’s gardens, topiaries are likely to be clipped into geometrically-shaped shrubs. Popular and easy to achieve are spheres, spires, cones, pyramids and cubes. Gardeners can also shape plants into flights of fancy in the form of birds, animals, mythical creatures or the name of their property.
Topiary plant choices
Yew, privet and box are traditional topiary plants as they are dense, evergreen and long lived. Of these, Japanese box is the firm favourite for temperate climates. Privet is not widely grown in Australia as it is a weed in many areas and yew is best suited to topiary in cool climate gardens.
The plant choice doesn’t stop with these three traditional plants. Any plant that is evergreen, has small foliage and regrows after pruning can be used for topiary.
Popular choices for Australian gardens are citrus, myrtle, camellia (particularly Camellia sasanqua) and evergreen azalea (rhododendron azalea hybrids).
Conifers such as juniper (especially the columnar variety ‘Spartan’), thuja and cypress are suited to clipped hedges and topiaries.
For an Australian native option select coastal rosemary (Westringia fruticosa), correa (Correa alba) or lilly pilly (Acmena spp. and Syzygium spp.).
For fast results, clip wire vine (Muehlenbeckia complexa). This twining climber has tough stems and tiny round leaves that make it well suited to clipping. Its rapid growth means it does need regular shaping.
There are many ways to introduce topiary to a garden, from clipping an existing leafy evergreen shrub into a shape such as a ball or a cube to growing a plant specifically to form a topiary shape.
When it comes to topiary, don’t only think of geometric shapes. You can also create a cloud-pruned topiary by clipping a shrub to reveal the trunks then shaping their tops in a staggered arrangement of free-form ‘clouds’.
If there’s no mature specimen available for an instant effect, grow your own (choose a plant mentioned above), selecting it with an eye to forming it into a shape with regular clipping. Grow it in a pot or in the garden, planting it so that you can easily access all sides to keep it clipped.
Topiary specimens can be used as garden features, as an accent at the end of a path or as a focal point. Hedges may also include topiary elements to add interest or introduce humour to a garden.
Shaping and tools
Topiary can be shaped by eye or by following a shaped guide made from rigid cardboard or thin timber sheeting. Use a hula hoop as a circular guide to check a clipped ball for roundness and symmetry.
An easy way to get started is using a topiary form made from wire. Grow a plant over it or through it, clipping it as it grows. They can be large to create a garden topiary or smaller for those who want to grow a topiary plant in a pot.
While any secateurs can be used to clip and shape topiary, it may also be necessary to use shears or even a hedge trimmer on large topiaries. It is important to use tools with clean, sharp blades.
To avoid a difficult clean up job after clipping, start by laying down a drop sheet to capture the trimmings.