Changing shape of topiary
LAST week we talked about mazes, parterres and knot gardens, something for those of us who love to prune. Others also enamoured with clipping, however, and in a salute to beauty as well as utility, may prefer the art of topiary. It is not as difficult as it might look, requiring only a modicum of skill with shears and secateurs.
For those who garden in regions of severe weather and difficult soil, who are time poor, or who don’t fancy the flamboyance of floral borders, topiary provides a smart and restful alternative. Green is, after all, the most soothing in the colour palette.
Among many great examples of the art of topiary — to be found in gardens the world over, from Levens Hall in England’s Lake District to domestic dwellings on Naoshima Island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, Adelaide’s Carrick Hill and Old Wesleydale in the north of Tasmania — Chateau de Gourdon, in the Alpes Maritimes in the south of France, must be among the most arresting.
Perched about 800m above sea level and overlooking the Loup (wolf) Valley, Gourdon is one of several fortified castles that cling to cliff sides in the hills and mountains behind the French Riviera, a region occupied almost continuously since Roman times.
Construction of the castle, perched on a bare, rocky peak and dubbedthe Eagle’s Nest, began in the 12th century. A natural stronghold, through the centuries it protected villagers from a range of invading tribes, and the castle and its owners somehow survived the French Revolution. The building you see today, if you manage to navigate your way up winding, narrow mountain passes, was rebuilt in the 17th century after a fire. It was only after it was occupied during World War II that the castle turned from protection of its villagers to tourism.
Even for students of history, art and architecture, it is the garden at Chateau de Gourdon — laid out on several buttressed terraces that hover, shrouded in mist, above the valley — that will elicit, surely, the greatest admiration. The western terrace, seen here, was designed by the landscape architect to Louis XIV, Andre Le Notre (1613-1700). A flat grassed expanse houses countless trees and shrubs, many of them box or citrus, clipped into orbs. All around, wild flowers cling to tiny soil pockets in the hazardous cliffs.
You don’t need a castle in the clouds, of course, to create your own topiary garden, and you can use the skill in gardens that include other styles. You only need a little patience, and perhaps some imagination, to put your choice of shapes to good use. Some gardeners love to clip ducks, hens, kangaroos and elephants, but for those not so flamboyant, topiary cones, obelisks and globes are both useful and beautiful. They can mark out different sections of a garden, divide a long perennial border into manageable maintenance sizes, or can direct a visitor from one section of a garden to the next.
Among many plant choices for creating topiary features, slow-growing evergreen plants are best, as they allow for the most detailed, fine finish. As mentioned last week, gardeners in the northern hemisphere love the sombre yew ( Taxus baccata), while members of the Cupressus genus are more suited to our climate. More slow growing than many conifers, Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ is an excellent choice in cool temperate parts of this country: it has luscious emerald-green foliage in midsummer, taking on bronze hues for winter.
Our native lilly pillies, particularly Syzygium paniculatum and S. luehmannii, cope well with being topiarised, but, being faster growing, will require more clipping. Make sure you buy psyllid-resistant varieties. S. australe ‘Tiny Trev’, with its bronze tones, is one of the best lowgrowing lilly pillies: it requires pruning only twice each year to maintain a dense, neat form. (I’ve seen it used as a low hedge, looking stunning encasing a swath of blush-pink flowering Viburnum burkwoodii, which is planted behind a further ribbon of daphne.)
The hardy, fast growing spindlebush ( Euonymus japonicus) is evergreen, with elliptical, glossy leaves. Try the variegated forms, which are splashed cream or limeyellow, to illuminate dark corners. And the fast growing native creeping wire vine ( Muehlenbeckia axillaris) can be used to create a variety of topiary effects, although a wire frame is usually needed for support.
While you might consider that the best garden is that perfectly at home in its environment, perhaps with little change from the landscape in which it rests, garden making is, after all, an art: surely one in which topiary has a place. If you visit Chateau de Gourdon, don’t miss the charming perched village of Tourrettes sur Loup, famous for its violets. Follow daily garden tips and tricks on twitter.com/hollykerforsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Seasons in My House and Garden, is out now.
The western terrace of the Chateau de Gourdon in the south of France