What is topiary?

Topiary is the art of creating sculptures in the medium of clipped trees, and shrubs.

The shrubs and sub-shrubs used in topiary are evergreen, have small leaves or needles, produce dense foliage, and have compact and/or columnar (e.g. fastigiate) growth habits.  

Common plants used in topiary include cultivars of box (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja spp.), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex spp.), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species.). 

In modern topiary metal frames are employed to guide untutored shears, as traditional topiary depends on patience and a steady hand; small-leaved ivy can be used to cover the frame and give the look of topiary in a few months


Buxus semipervirens (box)    
English box is a classic for topiary - but you'll need plenty of patience!  Incredibly slow growing, but with tight, compact foliage, it's an ideal specimen for shaping.   It's also extremely hardy - withstanding temperatures as low as minus 24 degrees Celsius.  It makes an excellent heirloom plant too - as chances are it will easily outlive you, with some plants lasting hundreds of years.  As it grows, pinch out growing tips to encourage the plant to develop a bushy habit.  Wonderful

Hedera helix (plain old ivy!)   

Ivy is truly brilliant for instant topiary - and with the right growing conditions, a single plant can easily cover a large topiary frame in just one or two seasons.  There's a huge variety of different ivies available, with differing growth habits.  But you can't go wrong with the common Hedera helix - it's reliable, easy to grow, and easy to train.  Regular pruning keeps ivy topiary looking its best year-round

Ilex aquifolium (holly)

Deck the halls with boughs of holly! And deck the house with topiary holly standards while you're at it!  With its shiny clear foliage, and the bonus of bountiful berries, Ilex aquifolium is a perfect topiary plant.   It pays to wear gloves when pruning, to prevent the spiny leaves from exacting a nasty revenge on your fingers!  Most hollies also require a male and a female plant in close proximity for pollination.  

Ficus pumila (creeping fig) 

Ficus pumila is a fast growing self-clinging climber which puts down roots where it touches soil.  This habit makes it ideal for instant topiary effects using moss filled frames.  The new soft green foliage is very tender, but develops a tough dark green texture.  Creeping fig also comes in variegated forms.  It hates frost, likes to be kept moist,  and needs to be wintered indoors in colder climates

Laurus nobilis (bay tree)

The thick, leathery dark green leaves of Laurus nobilis make it a favourite for topiary - especially in potagers and herb gardens. As a culinary herb, it has the added advantage of being edible as well as eye-pleasing! Bay trees make gorgeous standards, and they're reasonably quick growing (by topiary standards).  Young plants can be trained around a stake to create wonderful spiral stems.  Bay trees also make great pyramids

Taxus baccata (English yew)

English yew is an extremely long-living evergreen conifer, with slender pine-like needles.  Yew topiary can last for centuries, and as it tolerates pruning, it makes great hedges as well as shapes.  Frost-hardy.

Solerolia soleirolii 

This delightful creeping perennial goes by such equally delightful common names as Baby's tears, "mind your own business" and "peace in the home".  I think it's an ideal plant for apartment dwellers and others who love the look of topiary, but have little outdoor space, as it tolerates low light.  Its tiny, deep green leaves make it great for topiary baskets, and moss filled frames

Rosmarinus officinalis

The aromatic herb Rosemary responds well to clipping, either as a standard, or within a pyramid or globe frame.  With its delicious fragrance, and delicate blue flowers, it's pretty and practical.  It does have a tendency to become woody with age, so when this happens cut it back hard, and re-train the re-growth

Myrtus communis (myrtle)

Myrtle was sacred to Aphrodite in ancient Greece, and was seen as a symbol of love, peace and a happy married life!  It also makes lovely topiary, but I guess Aphrodite was too busy with other things to get out the secateurs!  Dense deep green foliage makes for beautiful topiary effects.

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