10 Topiary & Hedging Ideas with Pictures
Topiary is pruning elevated to an art form.
It has a place in many gardens, not only the grand, formal settings with which it is usually associated.
Plants have been trained and cut into artificial shapes for decorative effect since Roman times.
It can visually anchor a more informal setting and provide valuable, year-long structure and color in a garden.
Why Topiary is Great for Any Size of Garden
Even the smallest garden, perhaps little more than a flight of steps leading to a doorway, can look more imposing when embellished with a neat pair of clipped, container-grown topiary plants.
Low box hedging has long been used to contain herb gardens, which can be quite unruly by the plants’ very nature.
Not only does the clipped hedging define and neaten the overall appearance of the area, but it also helps to protect the plants within its borders from the elements and contains and intensifies the fragrance of the herbs in the local environment.
Topiary can consist of elementary geometric shapes, such as spheres and cubes, or overly fanciful, such as chess pieces or a whole menagerie of animals.
It can be used to add interest to a long run of hedging or as stand-alone pieces of living sculpture.
Experts usually prefer slow-growing topiary plants – species that can withstand regular clipping but do not grow so rapidly that they lose their outline overnight.
The Best Technique for Topiary
Topiary is not a low-maintenance form of pruning, although you can take many topiary plants for their resilience and dense growth patterns.
With just a little attention to some basic guidelines, successful topiary is not difficult to achieve. The results are impressive and extremely satisfying to produce.
Always use very sharp, clean tools for topiary, as the soft shoots you are cutting are sappy and will be vulnerable to disease if torn. It is also challenging to make decisive, accurate cuts on this flexible growth with blunt tools.
Sheep-trimming shears are excellent for producing a light, accurate cut but are not suitable for heavy work.
Cutting little and often is the key to successful topiary.
Dramatic, inexpert cutting can create an unbalanced topiary shape, which will take at least a season to settle, and it is all too easy to cut inadequate when making severe cuts.
Cut large-leaved evergreens, such as laurel, with secateurs to prevent the unsightly halving of leaves, which can occur if clipping with shears.
Novice topiarists are advised to start with simple, geometric topiary shapes. Rigidly geometric shapes, such as cubes, are less forgiving of inaccurate cutting than slightly softer forms, like pyramids and spheres.
More figurative topiary shapes, such as teddy bears and elephants, are not necessarily challenging to produce, mainly if you form them using a ready-made rigid frame as a guide.
However, they can take many years to reach a size at which they can attain a recognizable shape.
The topiary plants are generally slow-growing and are therefore not for the impatient topiarist.
Initially, young plants are snipped to shape by eye to form a loosely geometric topiary shape.
As the plant grows in subsequent years to a sufficient size, place a cutting guide over the plant and trim the topiary plant to shape.
When the plant has reached the desired shape and size, lightly clip it at intervals appropriate to the topiary shape and type of plant used to maintain a crisp, contour, and dense growth pattern.
How Frequently to clip Topiary Plants
How frequently to clip topiary plants depends on the speed at which the plant grows, the intricacy of the topiary shape, and the degree of finish required.
Simple shapes in slow-growing plants will need relatively little clipping.
For example, a yew pyramid will need only an annual trim.
In contrast, a complex abstract geometric shape in a box may need cutting at four- to six-weekly intervals during the growing season to maintain its definition.
As always, when pruning, check the individual needs of a particular plant before planning to clip.
Clipping times will also depend on your local climate. In cooler climates, do not prune after early autumn as the young shoots produced will not be tolerant of low winter temperatures. Milder environments, in which plants grow almost continuously, may necessitate regular clipping throughout the year.
Most topiary plants should be pruned as their summer growth begins; however, the exceptions to this are hornbeam and beech, which should not be pruned until the late summer.
Hedging in History
Man’s use of woody plants for hedging is a practice that is possibly as old as civilization. There are biblical references to hedges in cultivated land, and hedges also figure in early Egyptian illustrations. Roman literature abounds with details of hedging and, to this day, they remain an integral part of the north Italian landscape.
Being long-lived features, they’ve become very much part of garden design and continue to evolve in their style and composition according to the times’ needs.
More hedge planting was carried out than during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or before. It is a mistake to believe that hedges are generally little more than 200 years old; evidence of long-established hedging can be found worldwide.
Hedges are most commonly used in the hilly region adjacent to woodland, whereas the open plains – the land of prairie farming – are generally hedgeless. This applies to North America as well as parts of the Andes and the Himalayas. Hedges and screens indicate boundary demarcation, give protection from winds, noise, trespass, afford privacy, and attract wildlife, but they also possess more subtle values.
As they bend and shift in the wind, movement and sound are created, adding to our enjoyment of their other attributes. The amber-colored glow and fluttering sight and sound of a beech or hornbeam hedge on a breezy winter’s day are indeed the finest examples of hedges that serve all practical and aesthetic purposes.
In the northwest of Scotland, it is common to see mutilated (the uninitiated may call them clipped!) lines of semi-mature Scots pine, lodgepole pine, Sitka spruce, and even larch used as shelterbelts and hedges to fend off the fury of the westerly maritime gales.
How to Shape a Hedge
Effective topiary needs even leaf coverage, which is hard to achieve on shapes with a lot of leaf shade shielding the plant’s lower parts. Do not allow hedges to become top-heavy, flat-topped, or taping towards the bottom, with a twiggy base. Slope the hedge from a narrow top to a broad floor for the most remarkable ease of pruning, healthy growth, and an attractive appearance.
Almost any woody subject, be it deciduous or evergreen, will make a good hedge, but some cannot be recommended.
While they all do moderate the wind, their natural habit maybe not ideal for clipping.
When considering hedging material that tolerates cutting, the sky is virtually the limit.
If you are bored by privet, hawthorn, beech, and yew, others choose from them for texture and good color effects.
Leyland Cypress – Popular Hedging Plant
Without a doubt, the most popular hedging plant is Leylandii cupressocyparis. Like it or not, it is the fastest-growing conifer we have and, if well maintained, does make an excellent hedge. But, if neglected, it immediately heads for the sky at the rate of one meter or more a year and loses its reason for existence. By its over-production, fast rate of growth, and inclination to misbehave, this tree has been the cause of many heated arguments between neighbors and keeps solicitors well above the bread line.
This contemporary mania for a quick result is not necessarily the best reason for choosing a hedging shrub. It is advisable to settle for an alternative and more interesting subject that gives longer-term pleasure, albeit slower.
Thuja Plicata – Easy to Hedge
An excellent choice of conifer is Thuja plicata. It lends itself to clipping exceptionally well, and the pineapple-like perfume of its cut branchlets delights the senses and takes the tedium out of the trimming task. It does not require cutting more than once a year, whereas Leylandii cupressocyparis demands at least three attacks with the shears.
Tsuga Heterophylla – Unusual for Hedging
A less obvious choice is Tsuga heterophylla, common in forestry plantations but, strangely, is seldom seen as a hedge. Its elegant foliage trims readily, as do others of the same genus—Podocarpus andinus syn. Prumnopitys andinus, a South American conifer, makes an attractive medium-sized hedge but is in short supply and expensive, so it’s best to raise stock from seed or cuttings.
Lavender Plants – Hedging with Color
The numerous lavender forms make excellent hedges, given good drainage, but Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ is the best for the color and durability of small topiary plants. If you look for a pleasing aroma, you might want to use some lavender cultivars as topiary plants.
At Crathes Castle in Grampian, there is an extraordinary example of Hedera helix ‘Arborescens,’ dramatically backed by the castellated shapes of yew topiary and the grandeur of the castle itself. However, these candidates are fast-growing evergreen plants – which will limit the usage to figurative topiary shapes in a frame.
Yew Hedge – Bizarre Hedge used in Dorset
Perhaps the most bizarre hedge is the monster yew hedge at Montacute House in Dorset. It sags, billows and rolls away from the perpendicular in crazy fashion and bears a resemblance to what is best described as a partly inflated and a distorted bouncy castle! How it came about beggars belief and how its maintenance is achieved stretches the mind still further.
A yew hedge is one of the best topiary plants. These hedges are growing very slow – you don’t need to cut them too often.
Yew Hedge in the Maze at Glendurgan
In Cornwall, the fine maze of Portuguese laurel at Glendurgan House bewitches the senses, as does the calm simplicity of the circular yew hedged rondel at Hidcote in Gloucestershire; there is another at Sissinghurst in Kent.
Duranta Erecta – Flowering Hedge
The various color forms of Lantana Camara are always a joy, as is Duranta erecta (the ‘pigeon berry’), creating a good effect with its verbena-like flowers contrasting with the globose yellow fruits.
A more muted tenor is brought about using Ligustrum lucidum ‘Excelsum Superbum’ or the New Zealand Myoporum laetum ‘Ngaio.’
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis – Beautiful Hedging Plant
In the near subtropical temperatures of Kathmandu, there are clipped hedges of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, Camellia japonica, and Jasminum humile.
The world is full of exciting hedges, but it is in temperate climates, such as our own, that the hedge excels.
We succeed with deciduous and evergreen topiary plants.
The former gives us exciting seasonal change, and the latter delivers year-round architectural structure and impact.
But as mentioned earlier: Almost any woody plant, evergreen or deciduous, capable of producing vigorous secondary growth from its cut stems, is considered a candidate.
If you own a high-performance hedge that will do a better and quicker job than any other tree, consider what the effects on your neighbor’s garden are going to be.
Your neighbor will see the other side of your new hedge and quite reasonably may have views about it.
Why not consult with him and agree on what you intend to plant before you plant it?
After all, if he is involved in the decision and you remain the best of friends, he may chip in on the cost as well! Now there’s a real benefit!