Today this form of garden art is enjoying a renaissance – not least because it looks fantastic no matter what the British weather throws at it. While it is usually featured in more formal, symmetrical gardens, you can find quirky, fascinating subjects in all kinds of unexpected places.
When it comes to choosing evergreen shrubs to train into different shapes, it’s wise to stick with plants that have dense foliage made up of tiny leaves or needles. A compact or columnar growth habit is also helpful so box, yew, privet and myrtle are all ideal. In larger gardens, some types of holly are also suitable, as are the Thuja family of cypresses. Larger-leaves species such as bay can be used, but you need to prune very carefully with secateurs rather than topiary shears to avoid cutting any leaves in half. For smaller spaces, lavender, rosemary, santolina and hebes can make great subjects.
It can take many years to create a large specimen, so one option for people who like the look of topiary but want fast results is to buy a wire cage and train ivy or other small-leaved evergreen climbers up over the wire to create a living shape. You can also buy ready-trained topiary trees and shrubs – a simple standard lollipop shaped laurel or holly can be found from around £60, while taller trees in more complex shapes will cost hundreds.
If you want to go and see topiary, then the Alice in Wonderland Garden at West Green House in Hampshire is a fun place to start. At Highgrove Gardens in Gloucestershire you can see some truly spectacular topiary along its Thyme Walk. Woodpeckers, in Warwickshire, is a 2.5 acre country plot that, while largely informal, demonstrates how a knot garden and topiary can be used to great effect in a more modern setting that works in sympathy with the surrounding countryside.