Equally clever, difficult, and historic is the ancient craft of topiary pruning (Figure 12-7). Topiary is a technique of shearing plants into nontypical shapes, usually sculptural in form. Begun centuries ago, when nature had been tamed far less than today, topiary was an attempt to illustrate human dominance over nature. Once, entire gardens were created where no plants were permitted to develop natural shapes. The English yew was the plant most often selected for topiary shaping, and there are historic gardens throughout Britain and Europe whose topiary yews date back hundreds of years. Other species of plants have been tried with varying degrees of satisfaction. Whatever the species used, it must be one that accepts repeated pruning with little or no growth per­mitted after the desired shape is attained. Species that do not produce new growth on old wood are unsuitable as topiaries.

Topiaries are garden novelties as are espaliers. They have been shaped into forms as fantastic as the imaginations of the horticultur­ists. Corkscrews, chess pieces, chairs, peacocks, tables, and countless animals are but a few of the subjects chosen (Figure 12-8). One famous amusement park has created dozens of modern topiaries in the shapes of characters from animated films.

Historic techniques of topiary pruning required time, patience, and complicated training techniques. If the winter season was harsh, a sec­tion of plant could be killed, leaving a peacock without a tail or some similar tragedy. In such cases then as now, there was no alternative to rebuilding the plant from new shoots or by grafting.

figure 12-8. Yews sculpted into corkscrews create living objet d’art for the landscape. (Courtesy Monrovia Nursery, Azusa, CA)

figure 12-7. An ancient topiary from the Garden of Levens Hall in England (Delmar/Cengage Learning)

With predictable impatience, modem gardeners sometimes wish to create the effects of topiary without the lengthy wait. They use more rapidly growing species such as the privets, which accept severe prun­ing and recover quickly. They plant the rapidly growing species inside wired forms that are commercially available. As the plant fills the form, the gardener shears the plant back to the wire form, creating a fuller plant and a satisfactory topiary in a relatively short period of time with relatively little skill.

Another modern variation on the topiary of old uses a vine such as English ivy and a mold of sphagnum moss. The ivy is encouraged to grow over the form, which rapidly disappears from sight, leaving some curios­ity such as an ivy-covered French poodle in its place (Figure 12-9).

Topiary pruning has existed for a long time. It comes in and out of fashion depending on current attitudes toward formal garden design. It has ties to our modern clipped hedges and to the Japanese craft of cloud pruning (suggesting tufts of clouds in a garden by the manner of pruning certain shrubs), yet it remains a unique and distinctive use of plants.

Updated: October 3, 2015 — 4:22 pm