How to buy sensational topiary on a middle-sized budget

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: September 27th, 2015 In: Garden style & living

Topiary is a big-ticket item. You can buy small cones and balls cheaply in almost any market, but if you want unusual shapes, then it’s expensive. But topiary adds magic to gardens – it creates structure in the summer and interest in the winter.  Here’s how I’ve made the most of my budget.

1) Spend your money on one big-budget plant

I’ve got cheap box cones and balls from the market dotted around the garden. ‘Crowding them up’ is an old antique-dealer’s trick to make ordinary things look special because there are lots of them. But crowding them up works best with at least one knock-your-socks off plant to create that ‘topiary garden’ effect. They’re not easy to find, and they’re expensive when you do find them – unsurprisingly, as many will be more than five to ten years old.

Topiary garden in Kent

This topiary in Charlotte Molesworth’s garden has been lovingly created over many years. I’d like a similar effect but don’t have 30 years or thousands of pounds to spare…

Then my friend Miranda suggested we visit Bellamont Topiary in Dorset. It has the largest field of home-grown topiary in the UK.  Home-grown is best, say Bellamont, because the soil a plant is grown in, how it’s dug up, transported, and how long it’s been travelling will all affect how well it grows in your garden and pot. If you’re spending several hundred pounds on a plant, you want it to grow well.

I’m delighted with the result – it’s improved the proportions in the parterre by its sheer size. Everything I had in the centre before was a bit too small to look absolutely right. Spirals at Bellamont range from £54 to £400 – but delivery could add alot to that, depending on the size of your plant and where you live. My spiral cost £130 and it was too heavy for me or Miranda to bring back in a car.

2) Buy young trees and topiarise them yourself

When we re-designed our garden five years ago, I wanted two smartly sculpted holm oaks on either side of the bench. I had the choice of beautifully-shaped specimens at around £500 each from Architectural Plants. Or I could buy two young holm oaks for £50 and wait, cutting and shaping them every year. We chose the cheaper version.

Holm oak tree

This gives you an idea of what the holm oaks looked like at £50. It had just been blown over in a storm – we have righted it since.

Holm oak topiary trees

After five years, we have them trimmed into neat shapes, although when you look at them from the sides, they are still a little ragged.

It takes a long time before you have anything like the effect you want. You also have to find someone to prune them into an attractive shape. It’s much more difficult than it looks – Mr Middle-Size and I have done the wobbling on ladders/shouting at each other bit, and it’s only been partially successful. Luckily we have met Salvatore, an Italian gardener who knows alot about topiary, and he has trimmed them into poodle-tail shapes. But that’s another cost to factor in.

Grow topiary in the garden or in pots

Topiary adds structure and proportion to middle-sized gardens as well as to grand ones…if you grow it in pots you can take it with you when you move.

3) Buy faster-growing topiary plants

Box and yew are not the only choices. At Architectural Plants you can find faster-growing (and therefore slightly cheaper) plants in dramatic shapes. With a birthday gift voucher I bought two standard ligustrum delavayi ‘giant lollipops’ for just over £100 each. (I’ve just researched similar sized lollipops in bay and box on the web, and they’re mostly nearer £200).

Buy cheaper plants topiarised, such as these privet lollipops

My ligustrum lollipops on either side of the bench.

However – Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious coming up – fast-growing plants grow fast. While box looks smart and tailored on two trims a year, my ligustrum lollipops sometimes have a bad hair day just 3 weeks after pruning and shaping. Other alternatives to box include phillyrea, ilex crenata and even pittosporum (but choose the smaller leafed one, especially for middle-sized gardens).

Topiary in pots creates a parterre effect.

Not quite Hampton Court, but getting there. Most of my topiary is in pots, which gives me flexibility to move it round the garden. Topiary takes time but it’s quite portable – the left hand box pyramid in the pot was dug up from a friend’s garden.

If you’re keeping your box topiary in pots, Harriet Sykes recommends that you take it out of the pot every few years and give it a root trim. Then replace with entirely new soil. And, of course, keep feeding and adding a top dressing of new compost in between times.

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