Do Christmas trees qualify as topiary?
We never think of them as such but they fit the definition — the Oxford dictionary calls topiary the “art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes.” And surely Christmas trees don’t grow naturally into the perfect cones commonly seen but have been pruned and clipped to shape them.
As a young gardener, I disliked topiary, thinking that it was a distortion of nature and consequently something that should be looked down upon, if not outlawed completely. But with time I’ve come to realize that all gardening distorts nature in one way or another, confining plants to borders and beds and combining them in ways never found in the wild.
I’ve also come to realize that topiary can be fun. Reviewing photos from my most recent trip to England, I offer these examples. At Rockcliffe, Emmas and Simon Keswick’s garden in the Cotswolds, the path up to a dovecote is lined with over-sized doves.
At Haseley Court, a garden originally designed by Nancy Lancaster and now the home of Fiona and Desmond Heyward, a topiary chess board covers a flat piece of lawn.
At The Old Rectory at Castle Rising, a topiary couch offers a place to sit and watch a tennis game.
England isn’t the only place where topiary can be found. In Railton, a small town in Tasmania, topiary features in many gardens.
Not surprisingly, a train is featured along Railton’s main street.
And since this is Australia, there is a kangaroo.
Animals often feature in topiary. The American garden which is tops for topiary is the Ladew Topiary Garden in Monkton, Maryland, where 100 topiary creations decorate the garden’s 22 acres.
Also at Ladew is an enormous swan, swimming happily along the top of a wavy hedge.
And at Iford Manor, near Bath, hens and chicks parade across a lawn along with squirrels and other animals I don’t remember.
Topiary dates back to the first century or even earlier and became very fashionable in England in the late 17th century. Sir Francis Bacon, one of the influential writers and critics of the period, didn’t like it much.
“As for the making of knots or figures with divers coloured earths, they be but toys; you may see as good sights many times in tarts…I for my part do not like images cut in juniper or other garden stuff; they be for children.”
A few year later, Alexander Pope went further, ridiculing the figures that might be available at the local garden centres of the day:
“Adam and Eve in yew, Adam a little shattered by the fall of the tree of knowledge in the great storm; Eve and the serpent very flourishing.”
As gardens became more ‘natural’ and less formal, topiary went out of fashion. But the Arts and Crafts gardens of the early 20th century brought it back into style.
Contemporary topiary takes many forms. It is used extensively in American and European gardens to provide structure and a sense of formality.
But it is used more imaginatively as well. The American gardener Pearl Fryer has created elaborate shapes in his South Carolina garden.
Fryer’s creations have inspired his neighbours to try their hands, and many have succeeded wonderfully.
The plants used in topiary are evergreens, mostly woody ones with small leaves or needles. They have compact or columnar growth habits and dense foliage that allows them to be shaped into a variety of forms. Commonly used are boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja species), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex species), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species).
I could grow many of these in my cold, Quebec garden and have often thought about where and how I might use topiary. But without taking advantage of the wire cages that are now available (which seem to me somehow like cheating), I doubt I have the patience or the steady hand to create a successful form.
So for now, I’m content with the Christmas tree that hangs by the front door and another that stands outside on the deck, decorated with lights.
What about you? Do you like topiary? Does it feature in your garden or have you ever tried to create a geometric or representational form? Or like me in former days, do you think it is an abomination?