Using topiary to make your garden shine

Date posted: 25 April 2017

Newsflash – creating gorgeous shapes from your plants – balls, cubes, obelisks, cones and more – is much easier than you think!

Topiary – the ancient art form of gardening in training and growing plants into shapes and forms – can also provide elegant formal structure when it comes to garden design.

We asked the Botanic Gardens Curator of Plant Propagation – who’s presenting a Topiary Masterclass on Sunday 14 May – why it’s such a great skill for gardeners to have, and he gave us a run-down on the ancient art.

Book now to secure your spot at the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden Nursery-based Masterclass.

And now, to Matt.

Tell us a bit about topiary’s history, Matt.

Topiary is an art form that predates the Roman Empire, but it gained its biggest development during this time.

You can see this particularly in the designs of their mosaics, which often describe the form of garden design.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire this form of garden design lost its way, however it came back with huge popularity in the time of the European Renaissance, particularly in Italy first and then into France.

In the 18th Century the English naturalistic garden design movement, led by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, pushed forward with a park-like design with grass, and topiary once again fell away.

Topiary’s popularity became popular in the later 19th and early 20th Century and today it’s still a very popular form of formal garden designs.

How can learning topiary enhance your garden?

Topiary garden designs gives incredible structure to a formal design.

This can be as simple as a clipped ball in a pot, to a complex parterre design - it’s like having an art form in your garden.

There are simple forms of pruning that date back to topiary, things like a clipped hedge (which is a form of topiary) as well as growing fruit trees in an espalier framework. Many different methods will be discussed in the Masterclass.

Topiaries can be a very expensive type of plant to purchase, so learning how to train your own is a great way of saving money and they also make great presents to give to family and friends.

How difficult is it to learn? Are some plants easier to use topiary skills on than others?

It’s not difficult to learn, however you have to have a good understanding of how a plant will respond to the treatment – some plants will respond really well, while others will respond very poorly.

Discussion of species selection will be one of the major topics we’ll look into.

The smaller the leaf and the closer the internodes [a portion of a plant stem between nodes] are the plants that respond well, and we’ll discuss why this is the case.

Both native and exotic plants can be used, and some of the ones that work well are Buxus (many different cultivars and species) box leaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) and some of the newer dwarf Euonymus are proving to be very good.

Generally most conifers work very well. The most used topiary plant in Europe is the yew, Taxus baccata, and you can see topiaries with this species that are centuries in age.

Some of the native species that work well are the Westringia fruiticosa (coastal rosemary) and many forms of the Syzygiums work really well.

What are your favourite topiary plants and shapes?

The Japanese box Buxus microphylla var. japonica is an excellent species to work with, as is Lonicera nitida.

I like the simple growing methods of pruning plants into round shapes as well as growing plants as a standard, that has a straight trunk with a ball shape on top.

Both of these methods will be discussed in the class and practicals will carried out, which then can be taken home.

Where can people visit some great topiary examples in Adelaide or around the world?

In South Australia there aren’t many gardens that carry this technique out, but you can see them in many private gardens.

A good example is the Himeji Japanese garden on South Terrace, which has beautifully clipped plants in the Japanese style.

You can see some examples at Adelaide and Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens too.

The greatest places to see wonderful topiary gardens is Europe, where there are some fine Renaissance type gardens (particularly in France).

I’ve travelled extensively through Europe and I’ll be showing examples of places I’ve visited.

Two of these feature excellent examples – Chateau Versailles, just out of Paris, and Chateau Villandry in the Loire Valley, which uses to potager form of topiary utilising vegetables in a formal design.

Give us a teaser of the skills people will learn during your Masterclass.

Not all plants can be shaped or pruned into the classic forms of topiary, and getting an understanding of how plants respond to this technique is very important (which I’ll outline in the Masterclass).

One of the most important techniques is to start your topiaries right from the beginning, and I’ll show you how to go about it.

We’ll look at a certain species of plant and undertake a couple of different training methods to get the results we’re looking for.

We’ll look into the physiology of the plant and explain why it may or may not be a successful candidate in this form of training and pruning.

This is a really hands-on course with lots of training, and clipping and pruning plants will be undertaken.

All plant material and tools will be supplied and all plants that are started are can then be taken home for the students to grow on in the future.

Topiary plants are long-term plants and many of them move house when you do.

I’ll also give a tour of the Botanic Gardens of South Australia Nursery, which isn’t open to the public, and participants will be able to see some of the topiary training we have started in the nursery.