Gardening: Shear perfection

ORANGE BLOSSOM: Montbretia brings a dash of colour to the autumn garden.
ORANGE BLOSSOM: Montbretia brings a dash of colour to the autumn garden.
  • As one of the finest examples of topiary closes for winter David Overend takes a look at the art.
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Topiary, as shaped trees and hedging plants are generally known, is definitely the height of style, but if you want to see the oldest and one of the finest examples of a topiary garden in the world, you’ve missed your chance – at least for this year.

The open season at Levens Hall, near Kendal, finished earlier this week, so you’ll have to wait patiently until next spring before heading north(ish) to marvel at what man and shears can create out of humble foliage.

Back in Roman times, owners of large houses included a topiarius on their staff whose function was the maintenance of ornamentally clipped bushes and trees, known as topia.

Renaissance Italy saw a massive upsurge of interest in the form which has waxed and waned up to the present day.

Now, topiary is viewed as an imaginative and creative way to bring evergreen structure, as well as wit and fun, to the garden. Box (Buxus), yew (Taxus) and laurel (Laurus) are the main species used in this country for ornamental clipping, but others can respond well too.

But these three have the advantage of being evergreen, which gives the effect year-round, as well as being readily – and expensively – available in shaped forms from garden centres and nurseries.

Of the three, yew is the toughest, tolerating acid or alkaline soil conditions, sun or shade, dry conditions and urban pollution. However, all parts of the plant are toxic if eaten.

Box is happy as long as it doesn’t have to cope with full sun and dry soil, in which case leaves become dull or scorched.

Laurel is only happy down to –5C and is best kept out of cold winds

One of the best things about topiary in the garden is that it allows you scope for self-expression – it’s up to you and your imagination what you do with it.

The main options for bringing topiary to your garden include formal hedging (try cutting battlements along the top for a castle theme), geometric shapes or lifelike impressions crafted from the living plants.

Container growing adds to the flexibility and makes it possible to adorn steps, patios or drives. You can choose between ready-grown specimens, or take the DIY route.

Either way, to maintain a topiary shape you’ll need to have patience beyond belief.