There is something deeply satisfying about a creatively shaped hedge, but topiary can seem like a daunting task. Having spent some time training my borders, I thought I’d de-mystify the main principles for you.
By starting small with plants, simple forms and careful trimming with secateurs, you can get the feel for how the plant responds to being shaped. From there you can develop more complex designs with bigger bushes and learn how you can coerce the plants nature to keep in shape with your plans.
It almost goes without saying, but it’s a good idea to start by taking on a small project. As with all plant trimming, there are two beings involved in the process – you and the plant – so diving in at the deep end can have disastrous consequences and may just put you off this plant-based pursuit for life.
There are some plants which are more suitable for topiary than others. As you gain experience, you can step things up a notch. Box or Boxwood (of the genus Buxus) is an inexpensive evergreen hedging plant that you can buy in most garden centres. Slow to grow, box rarely grows over 10m in height, and because it’s at home in a pot, it’s your go-to plant for your first project. No matter what you do to this plant, it will quickly grow back. But try not to test it’s limits, hey.
You can buy a couple of Box plants to learn how easy it is to trim a plant into shape. Easy projects include shaping your Box plant into simple shapes like cubes and triangles. Above all, it will give you a feel for working with living natural material which may not always behave the way you want.
Best Tools for The Job
The best tools for topiary for beginners include small handheld two-bladed secateurs and a pruning knife. As you learn more about the subject, you may want to add other tools to your collection.
Garden shears will let you take on most projects, and you may choose to use electric or petrol hedge trimmers for larger jobs.
Feel free to peruse the Tools section on TrimHedge if you want to get our kit recommendations.
Cleaning Your Tools
Most hedging plants give off a lot of sap. When you have finished using your tools, you should always give them a good clean. Soapy water will do. But, if you find your tools get sticky when you are in the middle of the creative process, you can always clean them off with baby wipes. Small cleaning jobs like this done frequently will keep things running smoothly so you can get the job done efficiently.
Never put your topiary tools away wet. They are likely to go rusty and if that happens, you may need to invest in new tools which is an unnecessary expense. You would probably much rather invest in new plants instead, so make cleaning your tools the final task before admiring your handy work and you won’t regret it.
What Type of Hedging Makes the Best Topiary for Beginners Projects?
While there are many types of plant that can be used for topiary hedging, from low level shrubs to tall trees, here are four main genres that you might consider.
Traditional green hedges normally consist of plants such as Privet, Laurel and Yew. All are simple to trim and shape into topiary art but you need to be careful and suit up before you start.
Leaves and branches can be sharp and you can easily cut yourself so, as a minimum, wear protective eyewear, gloves and consider wearing an item of clothing with long sleeves.
There is another reason to protect yourself. Lots of critters love hedges and insects often make them their home. You don’t want to finish the project and found you have been bitten or stung.
You can make topiary projects out of flowering hedges and a rose topiary can look beautiful. If you are fortunate enough to have climbing roses and honeysuckle as part of your hedge, you can create the most amazing scented displays that will be the envy of the local gardening community.
However, if you’re starting out with flowering hedges, it might be a good idea to make your own topiary frame or if you’re wanting something complex, you can buy frames fairly easily. Making your own shape is not that difficult; find a flexible but strong piece of metal and shape it into your creation. Simply lay it down on the grass and bend it until you are happy. Don’t forget that your frame will need to go into the ground to support the plants.
You can take a greener approach by using supple twigs or withies to create the basic frame, but a fully grown hedge can be surprisingly heavy, so your structure will need to be strong to last long.
If you are training an existing plant to fit a frame, use your secateurs to create the basic shape, and then bend and fold the branches into the shape. A flowering topiary display can look second to none and although it might take time to get it looking impressive, it’s a long term investment that will bring a lot of pleasure.
Flowering hedges aren’t the only way to have sensual topiary, you can use herbs to create smaller shaped shrubs without too much difficulty. Lavender, rosemary and thyme all have dense foliage and can retain a formed shape without being too large. They will flower, and as well as smelling wonderful, you can use them in your cooking – it’s a triple win!
The Low-Growing Hedge
Low-growing hedges are neat and compact but that doesn’t mean you can’t create the most amazing topiary sculptures. As we’ve seen, low growing Box is one of the best topiary plants for a low hedge, however there are many other options, some of which can inject a bit of color into your greenery.
Photinia is a species of hedging plant which comes in many exciting varieties. One of the variations is called Red Robin. With its blood-red foliage in the spring and white flowers followed by red berries, it can really brighten up your low hedge.
There is a huge variety of Prunus, and many of them come with dramatic foliage and flowers that will spice up your shrubbery surroundings.
When you start thinking about topiary in combination with colourful hedge planting, you unlock a world of possibility in terms of creative borders that will set your home apart from the neighbours!
Topiary in Pots
If you are limited for space in your garden or would like to have some statement plants indoors or by your front door, invest in some good quality pots. Money spent on nicely designed pots might seem like a luxury, but if you’re taking the time to shape a creative potted display, you don’t want to diminish the effect with any old pottery. Consider investing in something stylish that will raise the overall effect of your efforts!
Oh, and don’t forget to water those potted topiaries to keep them in great shape!
ToPiary And Beyond!
A well-structured topiary display will allow you to add other things as well. When a topiary display is made from stronger materials, you can use it for hanging baskets and climbing plants.
There is a tendency for topiary to be thought of as formal but this needn’t be the case. Topiary for beginners should be fun and creative; think about your garden as a blank canvas and start creating!
Thanks to the advances in solar lighting, you can add lights without having to run electrical cables from your home, which can add another layer of interest to your efforts. Imagine the night-time effect of your landscaping, complete with naturally powered illumination!
From humble beginnings come great things and before you know, your neighbours will be admiring your garden and passers-by will find inspiration. Hopefully, your topiary will put a smile on someone’s face – at the very least it will bring you a lot of satisfaction and a deep sense of pride. For more inspiration, check out our brief history of topiary – it might give you ideas!
Once you get the feel for topiary, you will want to take on all sorts of projects. Any hedge can be shaped into topiary art; it’s a matter of being carefully creative and at times, daring to be different. However the same key principles can be applied to any project, and long term planning will give you the perspective to create tip-top topiary:
- In preparation for the project, it might be a good idea to let the hedge grow a little taller than normal. This will give extra height which you can shape to create your first topiary, as well as a helpful margin for error.
- Decide on a design before you start and work carefully towards it. It does not have to be perfect; you can always trim it later.
- Don’t make it complicated; remember that less is often more. Simple creations can look stunning and form a centrepiece in your garden.
- Know that a good topiary will benefit from continued pruning over a long period of time; your first attempt will hopefully resemble your design, but know that it’ll improve year on year if you are conscientious with your care.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to Topiary for beginners; for more inspiration be sure to visit our Pinterest boards!