The Sunday Post (Dundee)

Getting into shape in the garden . . .

- WITH Agnes Stevenson

DOTTED around my garden are several dozen small box plants.

They went in as rooted cuttings several years ago and have made decent growth.

I haven’t clipped them yet, but next summer they will get their first trim and eventually I hope they will grow into large balls and cones.

I love topiary but I don’t have the talent for artistic flourishes. If I manage to shape a sphere that’s not too wonky or a cone that doesn’t lean to one side, like the tower at Pisa, then I’m content with my efforts.

Other gardeners are more ambitious. At Carestown Steading near Cullen, former owner Rora Paglieri enlivened her parterre, created in the gap between restored farm buildings, with a flock of evergreen sheep and at Parkhead on the Rosneath Peninsula, Ian McKellar’s formal garden, clipped by hand from box, yew and beech is a triumph of passion and precision.

In Scotland you can find magnificen­t examples of topiary in the great parterres of Drummond Castle in Perthshire and at Pitmedden in Aberdeensh­ire, where the gardeners have three miles of box hedging to clip.

But to see the UK’s finest topiary garden you should head for Cumbria.

Levens Hall is one of the few remaining gardens from the golden age of the 17th Century.

Once all the UK’s aristocrac­y gazed from their castle windows on gardens such as this, where the trees had been clipped into elaborate shapes resembling chess pieces or figures from classical history.

Most were swept away by the landscape movement ushered in by the great reformer, Capability Brown, and it was only by chance that Levens Hall escaped that fate.

Today its topiary has grown to immense proportion­s and it has taken on a surreal appearance, like something out of Alice In Wonderland.

More recently there has been interest in Niwaki or ‘cloud pruning’, a form of topiary that has its roots in Japan.

Put simply, the idea is to remove all lower branches from trees and shrubs and turn those remaining into shapes that resemble fluffy clouds.

Underpinni­ng the art of Niwaki is a deep philosophy of landscape and nature and a seven-year apprentice­ship must be served before a gardener can become a Niwaki master.

I’d have no chance of making the grade, but before I start shaping my box plants I’m going to invest in a pair of proper topiary shears.

I have my eye on a very smart pair from Burgon & Ball that have been designed to create smooth, flat surfaces while also providing enough control to make precision cuts and form rounded shapes.

I’m also going to cheat by using one of the clever templates that work as a guide for cutting geometrica­l shapes because otherwise I’m very uncertain about the results.

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