Topiary, from the Latin topiarius meaning a landscape gardener of topia or “places”, is the practice of training shrubbery and trees into shapes and forms. These forms can range from the classic ball or cone to animals of all shapes and sizes. Topiaries are seen in miniature as well as towering hedges and shrubs. Topiaries have long been considered stately fixtures of a classical garden, yet can also provide a touch of whimsy.

It is unknown when topiaries first came into fashion in landscape design, but it is fairly certain that the practice evolved in Europe and Asia and spread to other parts of the world. Pliny the Elder, a noted Roman philosopher and naturalist who lived from 23-79 AD, was one of the first to describe the practice of clipping and cutting of shrubbery to shape them.  During the Renaissance, topiaries became grander and took on more elaborate shapes such as mushrooms, donkeys and carts, and peacocks, but like all things, topiary moved in and out of fashion.

The oldest known topiary garden exists at Levens Hall in England and still survives in its original form. Dating from 1694, topiary in this elegant garden consists of yew and beech hedges in large geometric and abstract shapes.  In contrast, the gardens at Chateau de Marqueyssac in the Perigord region of France are filled with organic shaped topiary meant to resemble the local rolling hills, and, if viewed from above, the backs of hundreds of grazing sheep. While the chateau dates from the 1600’s, the gardens were refashioned in the 1860’s when the new owner planted over 150,000 boxwood shrubs for topiary.

Here in the United States, there are several fantastic examples of topiary gardens as well. Ladew Gardens, one of the top 5 gardens in North America, boasts over 100 topiary including an elaborate fox hunting scene. On a more whimsical note, the Green Animals Topiary Garden, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, consists of over 75 topiary crafted in the shape of all sorts of creatures.

While crafting topiary takes patience and time, with the right plants and tools even an amateur gardener can create a masterpiece.  Whether a classicist at heart or one who appreciates a sense of humor in the garden, topiary can anchor your space and provide living sculpture for your garden.

Are you interested in added topiaries to your landscape? Check out our selection of topiary frames.