Simon Rose talks about his work as a topiarist
From the suburban privet hedge to the elaborate knot gardens, stilt hedges and massive butressed yews of some of the grander houses, it is rare to see a garden that does not use topiary. There is an inevitability in its development, given a plant's habit of outgrowing available space. I suspect that since we first built cities and gardens, we have been snipping, clipping and persuading plants into special shapes. Second only to the very paths and walls of house and garden, well placed hedges and topiary form the major structural element.
The hedges job is legion. It provides windbreak and weather protection, a backdrop for the summer's flowers. It encloses and defines space, and guides both eye and body around the garden. More subtly, it provides a transition between the rigid architecture of house and paths. and the softness and flexibility of more naturalistic planting. Look at the efficiency of the box edging - retaining the soil and mulch in the beds (even when years of cultivation have raised them high above the paths); they look beautiful throughout the year, and when clothed in their new spring leaf, exquisite. Yet they will tolerate most soils, sun, shade, tree drip, frost and drought allowing us to use them almost anywhere.
Gardening is a four dimensional art where we work with space and time, and the well clipped evergreen is an embodiment of this. Its subliminal message is order, duration, stability. Our task is to define and control its development, using imagination tempered by experience.
My own experience started in 1971 at Queen Mary's Garden, Regent's Park, London,where the highest standards were demanded by the redoubtable Jim Smith. Time and cost were immaterial - perfection was required. Whilst cutting the yew hedges by hand, I discovered the satisfaction of pride in a job well done. For several years I looked after a few large gardens in north London, one of which was Arabella Lennox-Boyd's wonderful garden in St Johns Wood. As my business expanded in the early Eighties, we realised the bulk of her London designs. A favourite was the restoration of a sadly neglected Lutyens garden at Lindsey House. The ancient mulberry and cleverly designed tapering Portland stone paths were preserved, and the formality enhanced by the planting of lots of yew and box. The calm tranquillity of this garden belies its proximity to the thunderous traffic of Cheyne Walk.
Other satisfying jobs in this period include the rescue of a line of grown out lime pollards in a garden we were replanting. Nearly a third of the garden was unusable under lime drip and drought, but with the trees cut back and trained into a pleached screen, we were able to retain the privacy they afforded, and plant right up to them. They also look very attractive in winter when all is revealed. We continue to look after this garden and many others, including a front garden with a 15 metre bay tree in Kensington which I have shaped every other year since 198O, using a lorry mounted hydraulic platform. Smaller versions of this access tool are available for hire, and they are a great boon for cutting larger specimens up to 9m.
Having gathered several well motivated and able gardeners over the years and with the increasing interest in topiary, I started to advertise a service which offers our skills to those who have or desire hedges and topiary, but lack the time, experience or physical attributes to do it themselves.
I can offer anything from a short advisory visit to regular cutting of large hedges, and reshaping of old specimens. We will prepare the ground for and plant new hedges, parterres, knot gardens or specimens.
Projects in hand include converting an overgrown and somewhat collapsed 2 metre Buxus sempervirens spiral into a squatting monkey, and shaping other old specimens into a pair of 'stone banquettes. Presently undergoing one of its perennial revivals, topiary continues to provide central or subtle structure in space, and can no more go out of fashion than clothing of a classic cut.
Published in 'The Garden Design Journal'