Naturally architectural shrub forms and those that are clipped to form a particular shape (“Topiary”) are an excellent addition to any garden design. In general we do not mean clipped peacocks (although these can be amazing!) but a range of formal and less formal shapes to complement your garden. These statement pieces offer year-round interest, structure, and provide a backdrop for other plants to shine. Our choices for these are usually slow-growing and retain their shape and form for years, making them low-maintenance and long-lasting. We love to use them to give long term form to a planting scheme, and they can be a very simple addition that has a big impact!
Choose the right shrub form
When choosing a shrub form for your garden, it’s essential to consider the plant’s ultimate size and shape. You want to select specimens that fit the space and won’t outgrow its location, or that can take regular clipping to control their size. Some excellent architectural shrub forms for gardens include columnar, pyramidal, weeping, and globe-shaped varieties. Columnar shrubs, such as Italian cypress and yew, are perfect for adding height and structure to a garden. Pyramidal shrubs, such as ilex crenata, hornbeam and beech, are ideal for creating focal points or framing garden views. Weeping shrubs, like cherry trees and willows, add a softness and gracefulness to a garden, while globe-shaped shrubs, such as yew, holly, hebes, and pittosporum tend to add a more formal and structured look.
Consider the style of your garden
Topiary and clipped shapes are often associated with formal gardens, but they can also work in a more relaxed, naturalistic setting if used judiciously, particularly if paired with more relaxed planting such as grasses. Think about the overall style of your garden and how you can incorporate topiary and clipped shapes to enhance it.
Choose the right plants
Look for plants that have a naturally dense and bushy growth habit, we no longer use box given the problems with blight and box caterpillar, but there are good alternatives such as euonymus, ilex crenata (Japanese Holly), and yew. These plants can be trained into a variety of shapes, including spheres, cones, pyramids, and spirals. You can also obtain wonderful open mushroom or umbrella shapes from larger shrubs (or create from ones already in place and well established in some cases) such as rhododendron and Osmanthus. A large stand of rhododendrons can frequently be lifted as in the example below to create open ground beneath (for more planting!) and to break up a thuggish outline in a garden.
To create a sense of rhythm and unity in your garden, consider repeating the same topiary shape or clipped form in different areas. For example, you might create a row of clipped yew or pittosporum balls along a pathway or intersperse cone-shaped topiaries throughout a border, or for a larger statement, consider some really large specimens to frame a lawn or add a stunning focal point.
Play with scale
Topiary can be used to create visual interest and contrast in your garden. Experiment with different sizes and shapes to create a dynamic composition. For example, you might place a taller, clipped shape within a number of lower ones for a pleasing contrast.
Experiment with hedges
We can be a bit staid in our choices for hedging- we see a great deal of laurel, yew and beech, (and these are great choices for the more formal shapes) but there are many other shrubs that are excellent choices for creating hedges in the garden. Barberry, Rosa rugosa and spirea are ideal for informal hedges, and this lilac hedge is stunning if you have the space.
Hedging is not just for boundaries
Hedging within a garden can give texture, focus and interest, or a sense of enclosure- for example behind a bench
Layered hedging, in formal or less formal shapes is also an absolutely wonderful way to create interest in a garden throughout the year and is so simple to do. Using the slow growing species and those that grow very evenly (such as yew) means the maintenance need not be a horror either!
Even trees can be topiary!
There are some commonly grown trees that either naturally form neat shapes (such as the Fastigiate oak, Quercus fastigiata) , or are trained over the years into architectural forms.
The most common form we use is called Espaliered (which loosely translates as “hedge on a stick” ) such as these wonderful Liquidambars we planted in Henley, paired here with clipped yew hedging for complete privacy and ball shaped Rhododendrons in a regular spacing to create drama (and prevent people driving on the verge!). Espaliers are a wonderful way to provide immediate screening up to 4m tall but that will be kept to that height and no more over the years, avoiding the problem of huge stands of trees on boundaries that block sun and cause all sorts of problems!
Combine with other plants
Clipped forms work well when combined with other plants in the garden. They provide a backdrop for more showy plants, such as flowering perennials and annuals. This creates depth and interest in the garden and allows for a more dynamic plant composition that changes with the seasons as the more relaxed plants come and go.
Using clipped shapes is a staple of garden design, but doesn’t just mean formal topiary- the options can be formal or informal and the effects can be traditional or very contemporary- your imagination can run riot by experimenting with shrubs you already have, or they can be brought in ready trained from specialist nurseries. If you fancy a chat about how we can use these ideas in your garden for screening, impact, drama or just fun, do give our team a call!
CGLA are an award winning team of Garden Designers, Landscape Architects, Landscapers and Garden Maintenance Operatives working in Buckinghamshire, London and the South East, as well as on prestigious design projects across the UK and abroad. We are currently working in Oman, Jersey and France, and welcome enquires for design, landscaping or garden maintenance. Contact us here