Topiary is back in fashion – for a while with all the talk of rewilding and permaculture there was a worry that manicured gardens would be pushed into oblivion. But you can’t hold a good art form down, and as far as gardens go this is one of the best. The shaping of plants into aesthetically pleasing landscape features is a specialised profession that when done well is both shocking and zen in equal measure. To understand the creative process of a topiarist Plant Curator approached Tom Halliburton (a.k.a Topiary Tom) who recently carried out work on Marylyn Abbott and Alyson Hamilton’s Silver-Gilt Flora award winning Topiarist’s Garden at Chelsea. We asked him a few questions about his work and he answered them. Thanks Tom.
How did you get involved with The Topiarist’s Garden at Chelsea?
The nursery I work for – Architectural Plants – sourced some of the Buxus. The garden designer Alyson gave me a brief about how she wanted the topiary clipped on delivery. This included creating some more human-looking shapes that would personify famous garden designers Gertrude Jekyll and Christopher Lloyd. She was keen for me to use my own experience to create the topiary but most of all told me to just have fun shaping them. I later got asked to help on the garden itself in the run up to Chelsea.
© Alyson Hamilton – The Topiarist’s Garden, Chelsea 2014
Do you think topiary is trending right now?
It would seem so. Just look at some of the gardens at Chelsea this year. Not just the standard topiary shapes but clipped blobs, pleached trees and an amazing Pinus sylvestris ‘Wintereri’ in the Extending Space garden that had been beautifully shaped and raised. This is creative pruning at its best. Saying this, shapes will come and go and the plants that are used will change, but there will always be gardens using organic waves of Buxus or elegant topiary cones and pyramids and who knows, maybe we’ll see an influx of topiary animals. Who doesn’t love a topiary Elephant.
What is the role of a topiarist?
Most shrubs and trees have a natural shape to them, the topiarist’s role generally is to not only emphasise that shape, but also to try and improve it through clipping, shaping or even the training of branches. Although this process sounds simple, it’s very easily overlooked within gardens when a lot of the emphasis within garden design tends to lean towards the hard landscaping side of things. Not all topiary is organic and while I definitely see my main role as a topiarist as one who improves the natural shape of plants, there is definitely something exciting about creating more geometrically modern shapes and incorporating them with the organic. It’s a very fine line though but when done well it could look great but it could also look completely wrong. Who knows, maybe there’s a Chelsea show garden in that idea.
© Alyson Hamilton – The Topiarist’s Garden, Chelsea 2014
Do you think you were destined for topiary?
When I was young I cut the grass at home and I would get creative by drawing circles and shapes with the Flymo without anyone knowing. I think it was a sign.
What training did you do?
After leaving school I worked for a few years as a gardener in private gardens and through the occasional Box ball and Box hedge clipping I learnt the art of topiary. Not that I really knew it at the time. I then went to Art College studying photography, 3D design and ceramics all of which helped me realise my creativity. I then spent five years working for a landscaping company which taught me in detail how to build gardens. But it was only when I studied Garden design and with the RHS that I started realising how I could channel all my creativity into horticulture. In terms of advancing as a topiarist, I’ve always just learnt by doing really and reading books. You will make mistakes (hopefully not to many) but you learn from them and never really stop learning.
When did you decide to focus on topiary?
After college I started work as a freelance garden designer and it was then that I really started to understand the form and structure of plants and how they grow and can be shaped. I realised that this aspect of gardening, for me, was vital to creating a great garden that stands the test of time, and I really enjoyed doing it. So when I came across the nursery called Architectural Plants that focused in this area, it felt like a good fit. I have been working there for the last few years shaping, pruning and clipping plants and trees both in the nursery and for customers in their private gardens.
Can you tell us about the different shapes?
I suppose the most common shapes I see around are topiary balls, cones and pyramids. These shapes are a great place to start if you’re thinking of trying your hand at some topiary as they can be trained from small plants with fairly instant results. When I start working on more complex shapes, like spirals or stacked boxes, I will always sketch out the design first to try and get a clearer image in my head of the finished piece. This will also help with getting the scale and proportions correct before I start shaping. With something like a topiary animal, the plants can be trained over frames and then clipped to create the shape or if you’re feeling confident you could start free hand on a larger plant. I’ve seen garden hedges that over time have grown into a line of elephants. However you want to start, it’s all about having fun and being creative and remember it will always grow back…. Hopefully!
What about the plants?
The most common plants used for topiary are Buxus (Box), Taxus (Yew) and Laurus (Bay). They are perfect for clipping and shaping and are most commonly used in topiary. But there are plenty of other plants that are just as interesting and versatile, for example Prunus lusitanica, Lonicera nitada, Phillyrea latifolia, and Ilex crenata. Personally I can never seem to resist the shape and texture of clipped Quercus ilex or the soft fluffiness of Hebe rakiensis. All the plants have their own unique characteristics and textures.
Where do you get inspiration for your topiary?
When I was growing up, I spent many weekends at Wakehurst Place and Nymans garden. These gardens definitely informed my approach to plants, gardening and topiary. For me, inspiration for topiary comes in many forms, from reading magazines to walking on the beach. But I drive over the South Downs most days and seeing those rolling hills, blobby bushes and wind swept trees doesn’t get much more inspirational than that. Then there’s always the internet, where I can gaze at images of the gardens at Marqueyssac in France.
What do you find most satisfying about the work?
I love that moment just before I’m about to start clipping or shaping something when you take a deep breath and make that first cut. Although most of the time at this point I have a strong idea of the end result, many times I’ve started and its evolved into something quite different. This process of entering into the unknown is what makes my job so exciting.
Do you ever go wrong?
There’s always those times when I stand back and think, I wish I hadn’t cut that branch or maybe I’ve cut that back too hard, but plants grow, shapes change and gardens evolve and I feel the idea that nothing stays the same for long should be encouraged within topiary and gardening in general.
What does the future hold for you?
There’s going to be a lot more topiary and shaping in my life and hopefully garden design projects too. For me, topiary is a never-ending design process without any boundaries. All you really need is an imagination, plenty of patience and a very sharp pair of shears.