Gardening | Plant sculpting: discovering an artistic flair in the garden

The world's oldest topiary garden, Levens Hall in England. Picture: Shutterstock.
The world's oldest topiary garden, Levens Hall in England. Picture: Shutterstock.

Topiary is defined as the art of shaping and clipping plants into ornamental shapes and can be applied to create distinct geometric shapes or more abstract, whimsy forms.

Topiary certainly provides gardeners with an opportunity to exercise their artistic flair in sculpting plants in the same fashion as some of the most famous topiary gardens in the world such as the Marqueyssac in France or Levens Hall in England, the oldest topiary garden in the world.

Creating a topiary can be simple or complex depending on what you want to achieve. There are two types of topiary: training vines over wire frames of a multitude of different shapes and forms; and shrub topiary, where the shrub is trimmed into the desired form.

To create a vine topiary, first select the topiary frame and a climbing plant to cover it. Vigorous climbers such as English ivy, star jasmine and muehlenbeckia are excellent choices.

Muehlenbeckia, commonly called maidenhair or necklace vine, is an exceptional choice as its fast growth and fine foliage make a dense finish. It can also be grown as a shrub topiary and makes a fine hedge if trained from a young age.

Whether the topiary is in the ground or a container, plant the vine around the form for it to grow up. For large forms or to cover a form faster, plant multiple climbers.

Train vines to the form by wrapping stems around the frame and pinch prune regularly. Train or pinch out any wayward shoots. It may take some time to completely cover the frame, but the result will certainly be worth it.

Creating a shrub topiary is a little trickier, but just as much fun. Start off with a small juvenile shrub that can be trained as it grows, or for some plants shaping can occur at a more mature age. Camellia sasanqua, conifers, lilly pilly and westringia are ideal.

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Shrub topiary can be created with or without a frame but for the novice topiary artist, a frame is great in guiding your pruning decisions. Have a vision of what shape you want to achieve and take things slowly; you are creating a living piece of art and nature cannot be rushed.

When trimming topiary do not remove any more than 25mm to 50mm of growth - any more and you may kill off parts of the plant.

Train and prune at least every three months and before long you will have created a fabulous topiary.