Feature Mondays – The Art of Topiary

Wednesday 11 July 2018

When we think of precision-clipped and shaped trees, plants and shrubs, our thoughts would probably go straight to the popular Japanese art form of bonsai, shaping miniature trees grown in containers. When, in fact, the term 'topiary' covers the craft to a much larger scale. Deriving from the Latin word used for 'ornamental landscape gardener', being topiarius, topiary is a horticultural practice to train live perennial plants into clearly defined shapes. Topiary is often described as 'living sculpture'.

The 'hedge' – the most basic form of topiary – is used to create boundaries, walls or screens but since the recording of topiary's European origins – in Ancient Roman times -topiary has always been pushed and has proved itself to be an art form. Not only did the ancient Romans practise topiary, but so did the ancient Egyptians and the Persians.

It was Cnaeus Matius Calvinus who was credited by Pliny's Natural History and the epigram writer Martial, with first introducing topiary to Roman gardens. The nephew of Pliny the Elder – author of Pliny's Natural History – Pliny the Younger (62-100AD) wrote letters describing the 'elaborate figures' of animals, inscriptions, cyphers and obelisks in clipped greens, in Cnaeus Matius Calvinus' Tuscan villa. However, many writers think that Egyptian, Syrian, Greek or Jewish slaves were the first people to introduce the art to the Romans.

The fall of the Roman Empire in Italy left topiary to be hidden away, but still very much alive with the medieval monks in the cloisters of their monasteries. During the Renaissance, wealthy families would pay to have their villa garden as elaborately set out as those monks, who took their inspiration from the writing of the Ancients. These Renaissance ideas spread to France by 1520. The French were particularly taken with the use of hedges to give formal structure, which were then used at King Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. This formal hedging soon became popular across Europe, to Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden.

In fashion

The 17th century was seen as the golden age of topiary. The word 'topiary' also came to describe a wider variety of green sculpture, soon used more loosely to describe a number of garden features that also rely on the close clipping and shaping of plants. These included: parterres, beautifully ornate clipped box hedges swirling around in mirrored patterns or geometric designs, typically used in lavish Italian gardens; mazes and labyrinths, particularly popular in Britain and introduced after the Norman Conquest, but still found in a great number of private and public gardens; and knot gardens, popular in the Tudor and Stuart time, which were formed from different coloured box planted in crisscrossing patterns, so it appeared that the ribbons of hedges had been tied up in knots.

The fashion of topiary, however, was to be short-lived as the mania for the Landscape style meant that many formal topiary gardens were ripped up for use as open parkland. Luckily, topiary didn't entirely fade way, as small cottage gardens still continued to use the art.

It was down to the revival of the 'Jacobethan' taste in architecture in England that brought topiary back into the public eye. Soon, mature examples of topiary in such gardens as 'Mon Plaisir' at Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire opened to the public in the 1850s, creating a sensation.

This brought back architectural topiary to England and then a further 25 years later, sculptural topiary. Topiary then came to mix with roses and mixed herbaceous borders -classic statements of the British Arts & Crafts revival – creating an 'old-fashioned garden' or a 'Dutch garden'.

Popular to work

The plants used to create 'living sculptures' are evergreens, with a dense foliage. They would be predominately 'woody', with small leaves or needles and have fast compact and/or columnar growth habits. Common species to work on in topiary include: cultivars of European boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja spp.), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex spp.), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus spp.), yew (Taxus baccata), and privet (Ligustrum spp.).

Traditionally, topiary depends on patience and a steady hand, but a popular helping hand in modern topiary comes in the form of shaped wire cages. These cages guide shears, perhaps used by those less practised, to create and hold their desired shape. Small-leaved ivy can be used to cover a cage and give the look of topiary in a few months.


With its precision trimmed hedges, clean lines and perfect cuts, one might think topiary is set in its ways when it comes to design – a huge subject in the craft. However, design in topiary is ever evolving to more intricate shapes, words and colourful designs.

With the average garden, topiary can be used to enhance and emphasise elements, such as lawns, pools, paths, path junctions, entranceways, vistas and garden 'rooms', using techniques such as clipped hedging, formal or freeform topiary, or a change of level in topiary. These features are often paired up or lined up to create symmetry and visual rhythm. Formal hedging may be clipped with buttresses, niches and alcoves, or even formed into a colonnade to make more intricate designs.

A brilliant, natural element that can be used to enhance the effect of topiary is sunshine. In bright sunlight, shadows are brought out, highlighting the clean shapes and surface textures. Through thoughtful positions of geometric pieces among simple, clean line topiary – domes, spheres, cones and obelisks – a very interesting landscape can be created and only built upon when shadows hit the shapes.

Views and ideas on topiary design can not only vary from designer to designer, but will also certainly depend on the garden type it is to be used in. To create bold lines with topiary, a large area is needed and to create soft lines, a small one. A simple bit of topiary in front of what might be a hectic and chaotic planting background will be extremely effective and emphasise contrast even further.

Topiary can even be used to add a little humour to the garden. By creating a mirror copy of an existing sculpture within the garden, humorous comparisons can be drawn and created, especially when the green version is within view of the original.

Another element that must be thought of when designing and creating topiary is height. To create a pattern that is attractive when looked down upon from a height, such as

a balcony, window, raised decks and terraces, is key to great topiary skill. These types of patterns – ground patterns – can be made with low hedging, e.g. knots and parterres, in geometric shapes or swirling curves. On a much larger scale of some topiary, avant garde topiarists are even using landforms under turf to make large-scale works.

Far Eastern topiary

Bonsai is the most concentrated expression of topiary in Japan and penjing for China, where the clipping and shaping of shrubs and trees are practised with equal rigour. The Japanese form of cloud pruning is the closest to the European practice, to make cloud-like formations of clipped growth. The goal in a Japanese garden is to achieve an artistic representation of the 'natural' form.

The Japanese Zen gardens – karesansui, dry rock gardens – are a prominent form of garden in Japan, often incorporating works of topiary to create a full picture of 'Zen'. These Zen garden trees and shrubs make use of Karikomi – a topiary technique – creating and clipping them into large curved shapes and Hako-zukuri – clipping shrubs into box shapes and straight lines.

There are certain key elements that are popular to the Japanese garden, alongside and enhanced with the use of topiary. Concealment: the 'promenade' garden is to be 'discovered' along the way, often following a path or trail. The viewer will see one landscape at a time, with features hidden behind hills, trees groves or bamboo, walls, or structures. Miniaturisation: miniaturism in Japanese gardens is to show an idealised view of nature. Using rocks to represent mountains, ponds to represent seas and to give the illusion of larger gardens, large features will be placed in the foreground and small ones in the background.

With trees as only one feature in a Japanese garden, they are trimmed to provide attractive scenes and placed carefully so as not to block other views of the garden. These trees are sometimes tied to bend, to form shadows or better reflections in the water. To do this, their growth will be controlled to give them picturesque shapes – technique called niwaki.

Jake Hobson

The owner of www.niwaki.com, Jake Hobson is one of the country's leading topiary and pruning specialists. Jake specialises in the grey area of what he calls 'organic topiary', which is a fusion of cloud pruning and more deliberate Japanese niwaki-style pruning, inspired as much by local landscapes and organic forms as by Japan.

Jake studied sculpture at the Slade in London and from there he won the chance to travel to Japan. He went as a hopeful sculptor, to study and investigate the cultural phenomenon of the cherry blossom season, hanami, for a month. While in Japan, Jake drove roads lined with mini gardens – barely 15sq.m – packed with immaculately shaped, cloud-pruned pines and yews. The more sophisticated Japanese regard them as commonplace, where the aim is to manipulate and enhance their natural state and reflect the landscape – mountains, forests, waterfalls and rocky coastlines. This gives the impression that Japanese traditions aim to work with nature, whereas Westerners appear to aim to take control over nature, pruning and tending to remove plants from their natural state.

Jake's one month trip turned into two years, spending one year in Japan teaching English in Saitama and his second year working at a traditional plant nursery in a rural part of Osaka. Once back home and while working at Architectural Plants in Sussex, Jake's creative enthusiasm was harnessed by Angus White, introducing Japanese attitudes to pruning and maintenance. During this time, Jake realised how much better the tools he had used in Japan were compared to those on offer in England, so with the help of brother-in-law Haruyasu – a gardener in Osaka – the very first Japanese tripod ladders and secateurs were shipped over. People began to notice and soon a business grew: Niwaki.

Jake's business has been growing ever since, with his clients including Rosemary Alexander, Carol Klein, Amazing Retreats, The Lost Gardens of Heligan and Knepp Castle, as well as lecturing and demonstrating to groups.

Dedicated tools

There are so many dedicated topiary tools to choose from and Jake sells a great variety from his Niwaki business. Built around the tools used for Japanese niwaki-style pruning, Jake explains the most important ones to use for basic pruning. He explains: “The very basics are a pair of secateurs, for rough shaping and formative work as well as a pair of shears for clipping and shaping” These tools must be kept sharp, so a decent sharpener is also a must! Adding to the list, Jake mentions the smaller shear-type tool, topiary clippers – one handed clippers – which are ideal for detail and smaller works.

Other useful tools to use in topiary include knives, rakes, ladders and frames – some can even become collector's items for the real enthusiasts.