Man­i­cured gar­dens


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You ei­ther love it or hate it, but for cen­turies plants have been trained to cre­ate a va­ri­ety of shapes, a prac­tice called topiary. It was first recorded in Ro­man times and since then it has of­ten been a sym­bol of wealth and tra­di­tion. Many peo­ple love the look of topiary plants and, while you can buy them al­ready shaped they are rather ex­pen­sive, whereas with a bit of time and pa­tience, you can ac­tu­ally make your own.

A topiary can be some­thing sim­ple and clas­sic like a stan­dard (lol­lipop shape), a ball, a cone or a pyra­mid shape, or some­thing slightly more com­pli­cated such as a spi­ral.

Re­cently cloud top­i­aries have been very pop­u­lar, with their asym­met­ric mul­ti­ple trunks topped with balls of dif­fer­ent sizes and heights, which ap­pear as float­ing clouds. You can also cre­ate topiary in any shape you choose, from an­i­mals to ab­stract forms.

Topiary plants cre­ate year round in­ter­est in a gar­den, add struc­ture and for­mal­ity, and can also add a sense of fun if de­sired. If you like the look of plants trained to var­i­ous shapes, there are a num­ber of things to con­sider.


The plant you choose will ob­vi­ously make a big dif­fer­ence and af­fect the look and work in­volved in mak­ing and main­tain­ing your topiary. A plant with big leaves like a bay tree (Lau­ris no­bilis) or lau­rusti­nus (Vibur­num ti­nus) will cre­ate a chunky ef­fect while a plant with small leaves like box (Buxus species) will give you a finer look.

It is also worth­while con­sid­er­ing the plant’s leaf den­sity when choos­ing a plant to topiary as denser fo­liage will make it eas­ier to shape.

An­other thing to con­sider when choos­ing the plant you want to train into a topiary is the in­tern­ode length. This is the dis­tance along the stem be­tween where the leaves arise. A shorter in­tern­ode dis­tance gives you more buds and a more dense fi­nal ef­fect, whereas a longer in­tern­ode length causes the plant to be less dense and more sparse.

Long lived va­ri­eties which are pop­u­lar around the world for topiary are box or Buxus species and in South Aus­tralia, the Ja­panese Box is a re­li­able choice.

For taller topiary many peo­ple choose conifers or lilly pil­lies how­ever you can also use or­ange jes­samine (Mur­raya) as long as you un­der­stand that reg­u­lar prun­ing to main­tain your shape will mean that you lose its scented flow­ers.

For cloud topiary many peo­ple use olives as they are quick grow­ing, re­spond well to prun­ing and have small­ish fo­liage when reg­u­larly pruned. You can also use plants such as laven­der and rose­mary for topiary how­ever, they are not as likely to be long lived and do not re­spond as well to con­tin­ual prun­ing. Topiary shapes can be made from na­tive plants like na­tive rose­mary (Westringia species) and na­tive fuchsia (Cor­rea species) how­ever, they will not be as long lived as na­tives like lilly pilly.


If you are start­ing a topiary shape from scratch you need to be pa­tient as it can take sev­eral years to be­come the shape you want. Many peo­ple start by cut­ting into a plant free hand un­til they get the shape they are happy with. Once it is in the right shape, you then main­tain it by hand or with a guid­ing frame which sits over your plant for prun­ing only, act­ing as a guide for where you prune up to. Other top­i­aries are cre­ated by grow­ing a plant through a frame and guides you as to where to prune. You can then use a shrub or even a small-leaved climber like a small-leaved ivy, star jas­mine or wire net­ting plant (Muehlen­beckia) to cre­ate your shape.


Faster grow­ing plant va­ri­eties will need to be pruned more of­ten than slower grow­ing va­ri­eties how­ever, and they will also get up to the de­sired size quicker. If you have let a hedge or topiary get out of hand it may re­quire you to cut it back hard and then take some time to get it back into shape.


Plants which are be­ing pruned fre­quently have higher needs for nutri­tion and wa­ter as they are con­stantly be­ing stim­u­lated to put on new growth. If grown in a pot they def­i­nitely need to be nur­tured as they tend to dry out more rapidly. The ex­tra de­mand that the topiary train­ing puts on the plant can also mean that pest and disease prob­lems are in­creased due to the stress, so keep your eye out for prob­lems such as scale and mealy bug.

To find out where I am giv­ing gar­den talks, visit so­phies­ or fol­low me on In­sta­gram @so­phies­patch or Face­book So­phie Thom­son (public fig­ure)

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