Transforming hardy hedges into recognizable shapes is both a feat of artistry and skill—and, although it’s been practiced throughout history, it’s a versatile addition to any modern garden design. Read on for how you can apply it to your own green space.
Topiary Through Time
The architectural and engineering genius associated with ancient Greece and Rome was mirrored in the landscape, and later inspired the clipped hedging and complex parterres of the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance gardens of Europe, epitomized by Villa Lante and Villa Gamberaia in Italy, and Villandry and Versailles in France.
For centuries, the craft of bonsai and, on a larger scale, cloud-pruning (or niwaki) has also resulted in Japanese gardeners meticulously pruning trees and shrubs into idealized forms.
Topiary was embraced with fervor once again in the Arts and Crafts period, resulting in several notable examples across the United States. Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland, Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, and Green Animals Topiary Garden in Rhode Island were all created in the early 20th century, and the artistry of their green-fingered creators lives on.
Today, the art of training, trimming, and clipping plants with quiet precision gives a topiary garden timeless appeal, and establishes a sense of place and permanence that can be hard to achieve with flowering plants alone.
Better Your Hedges
Structure, scale, drama, and dynamism are just some of the elements that topiary brings to an estate, and the effect can be instantaneous thanks to the availability of magnificent mature topiary specimens from leading plant nurseries across the United States and Europe.
Deborah Needleman, former editor-in-chief of T, The New York Times style magazine, is a passionate horticulturist and her country house garden in Garrison, New York, was inspired by the strict geometry of European Renaissance gardens. She believes that boxwood is a great garden-fixer: “If your garden is messy, or has holes, or the flowers look all jumbled and confused, throw some boxwood balls in, and it will look great and purposeful.”
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“We always try to give our gardens a strong framework and topiary works very well in that sense,” says del Buono. “Whether it’s a simple clipped shape, or something more amorphous and ambitious, topiary gives a new garden authenticity and gravitas.
Large topiary mounds and abstract ‘pebble’ shapes have an organic feel. If you have the space, be bold and generous—Tommaso del Buono
“Topiary is timeless but it would be wrong to only associate it with formal spaces like Versailles,” he continues. “It’s so much more versatile than that—especially when you play with scale and proportion. One of the reasons why the garden we created in Holland Park in London was so successful is because we were inventive with scale. Large topiary mounds and abstract ‘pebble’ shapes have an organic feel, and they give a garden so much movement. If you have the space, be bold and generous.”
Contemporary interpretations include low cubed “collars” around the flanks of ornamental trees; wave-crested hedging; oversized cubes and cuboid columns; and abstract collections of boxwood balls in varying sizes—a joyful alternative to static rows.
A harmonious marriage of topiary with flowering plants and modern grasses is also welcome. In New England, landscape architect Kathryn Herman created a polished avenue of boxwood balls partnered with Japanese grasses, and she often uses low-clipped hedging and bold buttresses to stylish effect. In Europe, Belgian designer Chris Ghyselen anchors blocks of curved hedging among beds of shimmering prairie-style planting, and has added definition to a lawned “staircase” with mighty topiary cubes.
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At Manor Farm, an English garden she created for Lady Victoria Getty, wife of late philanthropist Sir John Paul Getty Jr., landscape architect Jinny Blom brought a playful element to an elegant new country estate, using topiary as “punctuation” within her signature tumultuous planting. A traditional rose border was given character with parallel rows of rounded yew spires, and a topiary lawn was a charming addition.
“My top tip when using topiary is to have fun,” says Blom with a smile. “Years ago, a client asked me to clip her unclipped yews into chess pieces—I was so nervous, it took me ages to start and then I just couldn’t stop. At Manor Farm, I wanted to create a theater of topiary on the lawn, so it looked like a party was happening in the garden.”
Both del Buono and Blom advocate careful consideration to balance a property’s existing architecture with the forms proposed, but with appropriate shapes and suitable plants, topiary becomes a practical solution for virtually any location. In a temperate climate, yew, boxwood, privet, hornbeam, and beech all thrive with precision clipping.
On the West Coast of the United States and in southern Europe, plants from the Mediterranean or the southern hemisphere make drought-tolerant alternatives, from rosemary, santolina, and Italian cypress to myrtle.
In California, garden designer Molly Wood brings a fresh, innovative approach to contemporary landscaping in a dry climate with tightly clipped topiary balls, “lollipop” trees in chic containers and low mounds growing at ground level. The effect is bold and memorable. Pliny the Younger would have approved.
On the Market
This grand 9.4-acre (3.8 ha) estate combines old-world elegance with the amenities of a luxury spa. The nine-bedroom château-style residence spans 21,000 sq ft (1,950 sq m) with striking gardens featuring topiary, symmetrical patterns, multiple tiers, stairways, fountains, and water cascades. There is also a stunning 1,000 sq ft (93 sq m) atrium with indoor pool. On the market with Luxe Christie’s International Real Estate.
Designed by noted architect Robert Adler, Villa Paradiso is inspired by the Tuscan villas of Italy, set over 2.9 acres (1.17 ha). On the market with BHHS Fox and Roach, Realtors, highlights of the property include formal gardens, as well as an entertaining wing with dance floor, a wine room and 1,500-bottle cellar, a movie theater, and a 20,000-gallon (90,922 l) aquarium.
Banner image: Boxwoods at the Marqueyssac gardens in the Dordogne Valley, France. Getty Images