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Best Plants for Topiary: Creating Stunning Garden Sculptures

Best Plants for Topiary: Creating Stunning Garden Sculptures

One of the most notable examples of topiary can be found at Levens Hall in Cumbria, where the topiary garden, dating back to the 1690s, features an array of elaborate and historic designs. This living art form continues to be a focal point in gardens around the world, showcasing the gardener’s skill and creativity.

Topiary is the horticultural practice of training perennial plants by clipping the foliage and twigs of trees and shrubs to develop and maintain clearly defined shapes. These shapes can range from simple geometric forms to complex and artistic representations of animals, chess pieces, and even abstract designs. The significance of topiary in garden design lies in its ability to add structure, formality, and visual interest to outdoor spaces, transforming them into living sculptures that change and grow over time.

Understanding Topiary

Topiary, the art of training and trimming plants into intricate shapes, dates back to ancient Roman times. The practice is believed to have originated in the gardens of wealthy Romans who shaped their hedges and shrubs into decorative forms as a display of wealth and artistry. Pliny the Younger, a notable Roman author and administrator, described his gardens adorned with topiary figures in his letters, showcasing the popularity of this gardening technique.

During the Renaissance, topiary experienced a resurgence in Europe, particularly in Italy and France. Italian Renaissance gardens featured elaborate geometric shapes, while French formal gardens, such as those at Versailles, displayed grand, symmetrical designs. These meticulously crafted topiary gardens symbolised control over nature and were a testament to the skill and creativity of the gardeners.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, topiary spread to England, where it became a prominent feature in many stately homes and manor gardens. English topiary often took on whimsical forms, including animals, mythical creatures, and architectural structures. This period also saw the development of parterres – ornamental garden beds with intricate patterns outlined by low hedges.

Cultural significance

Topiary holds cultural significance in various regions, reflecting different aesthetic values and gardening traditions. In Europe, topiary is closely associated with formality and elegance. The grand gardens of France and Italy emphasise symmetry and precision, creating visually stunning landscapes that have influenced garden design for centuries.

In Japan, topiary is influenced by the principles of Zen Buddhism and the aesthetic concepts of wabi-sabi (the beauty of imperfection) and mono no aware (an awareness of the transient nature of things). Japanese topiary, often seen in traditional tea gardens and temple grounds, focuses on simplicity and natural forms. Plants are carefully pruned to enhance their innate beauty, creating serene and contemplative spaces.

The cultural importance of topiary extends beyond aesthetics. In many regions, it represents a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, showcasing the gardener's skill in shaping living plants into works of art. Whether in the grand avenues of European palaces or the tranquil gardens of Japan, topiary continues to captivate and inspire gardeners around the world.

Best plants for Topiary

Yew (Taxus baccata)

Yew is one of the most popular choices for topiary due to its dense, evergreen foliage and slow growth, which makes it ideal for intricate shapes and long-lasting designs. Yews are incredibly hardy and can thrive in a variety of soil types, although they prefer well-drained soil. They are also tolerant of shade, which makes them versatile for different garden settings. Regular pruning helps maintain their shape and encourages dense growth, making them perfect for traditional forms such as cones, balls, and even elaborate animal shapes.

Privet (Ligustrum)

Privet is known for its fast growth and ease of shaping, making it an excellent choice for those looking to create topiary quickly. It has small, dense leaves that respond well to pruning, allowing for precise shapes. Privet is particularly suited to creating hedges, spirals, and other geometric forms. It thrives in well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. Regular trimming is necessary to keep it in shape and to prevent it from becoming too leggy.

Holly (Ilex)

Holly, with its glossy, dense foliage, is another superb plant for topiary. Its evergreen nature ensures year-round interest, and it is especially valued for its ability to hold intricate shapes. Holly is suitable for a variety of topiary forms, from simple spheres to more complex designs. It prefers well-drained soil and can tolerate both full sun and partial shade. Regular pruning helps to maintain its shape and promote dense growth.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Hornbeam is valued for its hardiness and adaptability. It has a naturally dense habit and responds well to pruning, making it suitable for topiary. Hornbeam can be used for various forms, including hedges, arches, and more elaborate shapes. It thrives in well-drained soil and can tolerate a range of light conditions from full sun to partial shade. Its resilience to different environmental conditions makes it a reliable choice for topiary.

Avoiding Boxwood (Buxus)

While boxwood has traditionally been a favourite for topiary, recent issues with box moth caterpillar and box blight have made it a less desirable choice. The box moth caterpillar can devastate box plants, stripping them of their leaves and weakening their overall health. Box blight, a fungal disease, causes severe dieback and discolouration, further compromising the plant’s appearance and vigour. Due to these issues, many gardeners are seeking alternatives such as Japanese holly (Ilex crenata), yew (Taxus baccata), and privet (Ligustrum), which offer similar aesthetic qualities without the associated problems.

By choosing the right plants and understanding their specific needs, gardeners can create stunning topiary that will enhance their gardens for years to come.

How to prune cloud topiary

Introduction to Cloud Pruning

Cloud pruning, also known as 'Niwaki' in Japanese gardening, is a technique that shapes shrubs and trees into soft, rounded forms resembling clouds. This style of pruning creates a harmonious, natural appearance that contrasts with the more rigid, geometric shapes of traditional topiary. The aesthetic appeal of cloud pruning lies in its ability to blend seamlessly with natural landscapes, adding an element of tranquillity and organic beauty to gardens. Inspired by the Japanese art of bonsai, cloud topiary focuses on enhancing the natural form and structure of the plant, creating a serene and contemplative space.

Step-by-Step guide

Tools needed

  • Pruning shears: For precise cuts on smaller branches.
  • Loppers: For cutting thicker branches.
  • Pruning saw: For very thick branches.
  • Sharpener: To keep tools in optimal condition.
  • Gloves: For protection while pruning.


  • Best Season: Late spring to early summer, when plants are actively growing.
  • Avoid Pruning: During extremely hot or cold weather, as it can stress the plants.


  1. Assess the Plant: Before starting, examine the natural shape and structure of the plant. Identify the main branches that will form the 'clouds'.
  2. Remove Deadwood: Start by removing any dead, damaged, or diseased branches.
  3. Thin Out Inner Growth: This allows light and air to penetrate, promoting healthy growth.
  4. Shape the Clouds: Trim the outer edges of the branches into rounded shapes. Work gradually, stepping back frequently to assess your progress.
  5. Refine the Form: Use smaller shears for detailed work, ensuring smooth and even contours.

Maintenance Tips

  • Regular Pruning: Maintain the shape by pruning at least once a year. Regular light pruning is better than infrequent heavy pruning.
  • Fertilisation: Feed the plants with a balanced fertiliser in early spring to promote healthy growth.
  • Pest Control: Monitor for pests and diseases, treating promptly to prevent damage.
  • Watering: Ensure consistent watering, particularly during dry periods, to keep the plants healthy and vigorous.

By following these steps and maintenance tips, you can successfully create and maintain beautiful cloud topiary, adding a unique and calming element to your garden.

Japanese influences on Topiary

Overview of Japanese Topiary

Japanese topiary, also known as Niwaki, represents a refined and artistic approach to pruning and shaping trees and shrubs. This ancient art form is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, where it is used to create landscapes that evoke natural beauty and tranquillity. The primary principles of Japanese topiary focus on simplicity, asymmetry, and the natural form of the plant. Unlike the more geometric and formal styles often seen in European topiary, Japanese topiary aims to enhance the natural shape and flow of the plant, creating a harmonious and serene landscape.

Key plants

Several plants are traditionally used in Japanese topiary due to their growth habits and aesthetic qualities. Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) is a popular choice, prized for its small, glossy leaves and dense growth, making it ideal for intricate shapes. Pines (Pinus), especially the Japanese black pine, are also frequently used. These trees are valued for their rugged bark, needle-like foliage, and the graceful, windswept forms that can be achieved through careful pruning. Other plants such as Satsuki azaleas and Camellias are also commonly incorporated into Japanese topiary for their vibrant flowers and evergreen foliage.

Design elements

Japanese garden design has a profound influence on the shapes and styles of topiary within this tradition. Key elements include the use of asymmetry, which creates a sense of natural balance and avoids the rigid symmetry often seen in Western gardens. The concept of ma, or space, is crucial, as it emphasises the importance of empty space and the relationship between different elements in the garden. This creates a feeling of openness and tranquillity. Additionally, Japanese topiary often incorporates naturalistic forms, mimicking the shapes of trees and plants as they appear in the wild. This approach seeks to evoke the beauty of nature, creating a serene and contemplative environment.

In summary, Japanese topiary is a delicate art that emphasises natural beauty and balance. By understanding the principles, key plants, and design elements of this tradition, gardeners can create stunning and tranquil topiary displays that reflect the timeless elegance of Japanese gardens.

Traditional forms of Topiary

Classic shapes

Topiary is a centuries-old art form that involves shaping and trimming plants into defined shapes and structures. The most traditional and widely recognised forms include spirals, balls, cones, and animals.

  • Spirals: Spirals are a popular choice for adding a dynamic, elegant touch to gardens. They require precise trimming and regular maintenance to maintain their distinct, twisting shape.
  • Balls: Perfectly rounded balls are a classic topiary shape that can be used as standalone features or in rows to line paths and borders. Achieving a symmetrical ball requires patience and a good eye for detail.
  • Cones: Cones provide a striking vertical element to garden design. They are relatively easy to maintain and can be used to create focal points or as part of a larger topiary arrangement.
  • Animals: Shaping topiary into animal forms is a more advanced technique that showcases the gardener's skill and creativity. Common animal shapes include peacocks, squirrels, and even more complex designs like elephants and giraffes.

European traditions

Topiary has a rich history in European garden design, particularly during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The art of topiary was popularised in Italy, France, and England, where it became a symbol of wealth and sophistication.

  • Italian Influence: Italian gardens, known for their symmetry and order, often featured intricate topiary designs. The use of geometric shapes such as cones, cylinders, and spirals was prevalent in Italian Renaissance gardens.
  • French Influence: French formal gardens, like those at the Palace of Versailles, took topiary to grand scales. Parterres de broderie, elaborate garden beds filled with low, clipped topiary, created intricate patterns and designs.
  • English Influence: In England, topiary became a hallmark of country estates. Traditional English topiary gardens, such as those at Levens Hall, feature a mix of classic shapes and whimsical animal forms, reflecting both formality and playfulness.

The influence of European garden design has shaped the traditional forms of topiary we see today, combining artistry and horticultural skill to create living sculptures that enhance the beauty of gardens.

Famous Gardens with Topiary

Hall Place, Bexley

Hall Place in Bexley is renowned for its remarkable topiary, especially the unique chess piece designs. These striking topiaries have become a significant historical feature of the garden, drawing visitors from around the world. The intricate shapes of knights, queens, and pawns create a whimsical and enchanting atmosphere, showcasing the artistry and skill involved in topiary creation. The chess piece topiary not only serves as a visual delight but also reflects the rich heritage of Hall Place, a Tudor house with centuries of history.

Levens Hall, Cumbria

Levens Hall in Cumbria boasts one of the oldest and most extensive topiary gardens in the UK. Dating back to the late 17th century, the topiary garden at Levens Hall features an impressive array of shapes, including geometric forms, animals, and abstract designs. The garden is a testament to the enduring appeal of topiary, with its meticulously maintained hedges and shrubs providing a living link to the past. Visitors can wander through the garden, marvelling at the precision and creativity that have kept these topiaries in pristine condition for over three centuries.

Château de Villandry, France

The Château de Villandry in France is celebrated for its intricate and elegant topiary designs. The formal gardens at Villandry are a masterpiece of Renaissance landscaping, featuring beautifully sculpted hedges that create stunning patterns and shapes. The topiary at Villandry plays a crucial role in the garden's visual impact, guiding visitors through a series of outdoor rooms that each offer a unique experience. The artistry of the topiary designs at Villandry enhances the overall beauty of the château, making it a must-visit destination for garden enthusiasts.

Hidcote Manor Garden, Gloucestershire

Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire is famous for its Arts and Crafts style, and its topiary is an integral part of its design. The garden features a variety of topiary forms, from classic shapes to more informal and imaginative designs. The topiary at Hidcote complements the garden's structured yet naturalistic layout, creating focal points that draw the eye and add a sense of order to the diverse plantings. Hidcote's topiary, set against the backdrop of lush borders and charming garden rooms, exemplifies the harmonious blend of form and foliage that characterises the Arts and Crafts movement.

Reasons to avoid using Native Box Plants

Box Moth Caterpillar

The box moth caterpillar (Cydalima perspectalis) is a significant threat to box plants in the UK. Originally from East Asia, this invasive species has become prevalent in many parts of Europe, including the UK. The caterpillars cause severe damage by feeding voraciously on the leaves of box plants, leading to defoliation and weakening the plant. Infestations can be identified by the presence of webbing and greenish-yellow caterpillars with black heads. As they strip the leaves, the once lush foliage of the box plants turns brown and skeletal, severely affecting their aesthetic value and health. The rapid spread and destructive nature of the box moth caterpillar make it a formidable pest for gardeners to manage.

Box Blight

Box blight is another critical issue affecting box plants, caused by the fungi Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi. This disease is characterised by black or brown spots on the leaves, followed by the leaves turning brown and falling off. Additionally, dark streaks appear on the stems, and the plant’s overall vigour declines. Box blight spreads quickly in humid conditions, making it particularly troublesome in the UK's variable climate. The disease is difficult to control and can devastate entire box hedges or topiary forms, leading to significant losses for gardeners who rely on boxwood for its traditional and formal appearance.

Alternative Plants

Given the challenges posed by box moth caterpillar and box blight, it is wise to consider alternative plants for topiary. Yew (Taxus baccata) is an excellent choice due to its dense foliage and ability to be shaped into various forms. Privet (Ligustrum) is another robust option, known for its fast growth and ease of pruning. Holly (Ilex) offers glossy leaves and can be used for intricate designs. Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) is particularly suitable for smaller topiary shapes and cloud pruning, thanks to its small leaves and compact growth. These alternatives not only avoid the pitfalls associated with boxwood but also provide diverse textures and colours to enhance garden aesthetics.

By opting for these resilient and versatile plants, gardeners can achieve stunning topiary designs without the constant battle against pests and diseases that plague native box plants.

A recap of best Plants for Topiary

In this article, we have delved into the fascinating world of topiary, exploring its historical context, cultural significance, and practical applications. We identified the best plants for topiary, such as yew, privet, holly, and hornbeam, while also highlighting the reasons to avoid using boxwood due to the threats posed by box moth caterpillar and box blight. Detailed guidance was provided on how to prune cloud topiary, embracing both traditional and Japanese influences. We also examined the various traditional forms of topiary, including classic shapes like spirals and cones, as well as more elaborate designs found in famous gardens like Hall Place in Bexley and Levens Hall in Cumbria.

Embarking on a topiary project can be a highly rewarding endeavour, allowing you to express creativity and enhance your garden's aesthetic appeal. Don't be afraid to experiment with different plants and styles, whether you're attempting a simple ball or an intricate cloud design. Remember, topiary is an art form that thrives on patience and practice. The process of shaping and maintaining topiary can be therapeutic and deeply satisfying, providing a unique way to connect with nature.

If you would like to follow up on this or any other gardening or landscaping topic then please do get in touch

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