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Trimming a status symbol

To Louis XIV of France in the 17th Century, the grandest way of showing off his wealth and power over his subjects was to extend this control to the gardens surrounding the Châteaux of Versailles.

It’s not just the strong geometrical lines of the layout of this landscape which impress the eye but also the sharply architectural lines of the main plants in the form of topiary.

Topiary is essentially the art of controlling a plant’s growth to produce bold shapes which are then trimmed to encourage a dense form. The most typical of topiary shapes are of course balls and cones although the more adventurous can venture to spirals and even animals. It seems the only limit to what can be represented in topiary is your imagination.

So what makes a good plant for topiary? The well-proven stars are Box and Yew which will happily tolerate hard pruning. Holly is a tolerant performer, followed by the shrubby Honeysuckles (don’t get confused with the climbing species), which can all be trimmed once a year in late summer. Being evergreen, these candidates for cutting will form wonderful shapes during the winter at the time of year when the garden is most in need of bold lines.

The key thing to remember about topiary is that the shape needs space to be appreciated. It’s no good hiding topiary in a mass of other planting. The topiary forms a shape but the space around it is just as important.

You can use sharp shears to trim topiary or a hedge trimmer if you prefer. Just be careful of the lead if its electric as concentrating on the shape can sometimes take the eye off the cable!

Trimming a piece of topiary is not only therapeutic but can be an entirely personal thing as you create a piece of living sculpture. With a little patience and a sprinkle of imagination, you too can show off your green status symbol, a sign of your careful control over nature like Kings and Queens before you.