How to buy sensational topiary on a middle-sized budget

September 27th, 2015
Posted In: Garden style & living

Topiary gives your garden year-round structure and style.

But you either need to spend money on it or take the time to grow your own. There is no such thing as cheap, instant topiary.

However, there are ways of getting stunning, stately-home topiary without having to pay thousands of pounds.

You can plant small plants and shape them as they grow. Growing up in your garden will usually mean they adapt well and stay healthy.

For example, I have two topiary trees which could have cost several thousand pounds each if I’d bought them ready topiarised.

Instead I bought them as ‘young whips’ for £50 each in 2011. It took us about five years to get them into shape. Now, they are a majestic feature in the garden.

Once established, topiary plants need an annual clip but very little other care. If they’re in pots, they’ll need feeding and watering. But in the ground they will usually look after themselves for decades!

You can buy small cones and balls cheaply in almost any garden centre, but if you want unusual shapes or bigger sizes, then it’s expensive. But topiary adds magic to gardens – it creates structure in the summer and interest in the winter.

These are the tips from my garden. I’ve tried them all myself so I know they work! Here’s how to make the most of your budget.

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. Big, impressive topiary spirals or cloud-pruned plants are not easy to find. And when you find them, they are expensive. That’s because they take five to ten years to make. Try Architectural Plants, Provender Nurseries or Hopes Groves Nurseries in the UK.

Topiary garden in Kent

This topiary in Charlotte Molesworth’s garden has been lovingly created over many years, all from very small plants. I’d like a similar effect but don’t have 30 years to spare, and Charlotte’s topiary would cost thousands of pounds if you could buy it at a nursery.

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.

The topiary has lasted well in the pot. It is now eight years since we bought it and it still looks good.

Buy young trees and topiarise them yourself

When we re-designed our garden in 2011, I wanted two smartly sculpted holm oaks on either side of the bench. But when I looked at the prices of ready-shaped specimens, they ranged from £500-£2,000 each.

So we bought the two young holm oaks for £50. They were straight up-and-down trees, rather in the shape of a bottle-brush. We let them get established, then started cutting them into shape two years later. Five years later they were in reasonable shape.

Now, in 2024, they are smart topiary trees which look especially beautiful in frost.

Holm oak tree

This gives you an idea of what the holm oaks looked like at £50 in 2011. 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 the sides, they are still a little ragged.

Depending on how big your tree is and how fast it grows, I’d estimate that it takes three to five years before you get the effect you want.

Topiary trees grown at my home

Here are the holm oaks, twelve years on. They’ve looked good for at least the last six years. Beside them are the privet lollipops, plus one box ball. The other succumbed to box blight.

Trimming large topiary, such as trees, can be difficult for anyone who doesn’t like working on ladders.

However, if you can work on a ladder and use an electric hedge-trimmer, you should be able to manage it. If not, many professional gardeners can cut into simple shapes. But that’s another cost to factor in.

Most people can manage the smaller topiary shapes themselves, especially if you stick to simple shapes, such as balls and cones. Robbie and Diane Perry are amateur gardeners and have created an amazing display of topiary just by getting out their shears and practising. See their beautiful topiary garden here. 

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.

Buy small balls and cones – they’ll grow!

I bought some 20cm diameter box balls from the Market in 2011. They cost a few pounds each and grew into decent size balls within three years.

Smaller plants are proportionately much cheaper than larger ones. I found a 30cm yew ball for sale at £60, while the 60cm ball (twice the size) was £240 from the same supplier. That’s four times the cost for twice the size of plant. It’s perfectly reasonable because the plants take several years to grow and clip.

But it does make growing your own topiary a very good option.

The easiest plants to grow your own topiary are box and yew.

You can clip simple balls and cones yourself relatively easily.

However, box in the UK has been hit by box blight and box tree moth caterpillar. It is most unwise to buy box, even if your country or area hasn’t yet been affected.

If you have box already, read this to find out if you have box moth caterpillar. 

Sellers of artificial topiary like to imply that all topiary is affected by box blight or box tree moth and that you can only avoid pests and diseases by buying artificial. However, the other common topiary plants, such as yew, holm oak, photinia and holly are quite trouble-free.

So what trees and shrubs are best for topiary?

The best trees are yew, holm oaks, holly, beech and hornbeam.

Good evergreen shrubs include photinia, euonymus, privet and pittosporum. Yew, holly, beech and hornbeam also make good smaller topiary.

Many people thought that Ilex crenata (Japanese holly) would be a good alternative to box, but it has proved disappointing. Find out why in the three best alternatives to box.

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 one or two trims a year, my ligustrum lollipops sometimes have a bad hair day just 3 weeks after pruning and shaping.

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.

Cut an established shrub into topiary

If you already have a big shrub, could you cut it into a topiary shape?

Yes, you can. I had a large, mature ‘Holly Golden King’. It was just a mound of shrub, around 12ft tall but without any discernible shape.

When renowned topiarist Charlotte Molesworth visited my garden, she told me that I could have it cut into topiary. ‘Look at what shape is there naturally,’ she advised.

I didn’t cut it myself – I hired someone who had experience in cutting topiary shrubs.

You can’t cut an established tree or shrub into a sharp, elegant shape in the first year. In year one, we could just see the new ‘wedding cake’ shape, but it was barely there.

The next cut, which was the following summer, was smarter.

And within three years it was a majestic element in the garden. It looks brilliant in frost or snow.

However, not all shrubs will cut into shape easily. This will work best with shrubs and trees that are good for topiary. And, although our Holly ‘Golden King’ was around 20 years old when we started cutting it into shape, you’ll have a higher chance of success if you start earlier!

Holly shrub turned into topiary over 4 years

This is my Holly ‘Golden King’ and you can see that the first year of trimming it looked quite rough. But by year 3, it’s beautifully sharp and we’ve kept it like this since by trimming it just once a year. It has no other care. Also spot the holm oak beside it and the privet lollipop next to that.

Are artificial topiary trees worth it?

Just consider this. If you buy a small topiary tree or shrub and plant it in the ground, it will ultimately grow into a large and impressive piece of topiary.

It may have started as ‘cheap topiary’ but it will end up quite special. It will get better every year, provided you trim it once or twice a year.

Even if you keep it in a pot, it will grow larger and you can transfer it into a larger pot.

However, an artificial topiary tree will never look any better than it did the day you bought it.

And one day it may look really quite shabby. Artificial materials deteriorate, especially when outside in all weathers.

Is topiary easy to maintain?

Most topiary is very easy to maintain. Once the shrubs or trees are established, then you only need to give them a trim once or twice a year.

Evergreen shrubs need two trims – one in late spring and the other in early autumn. The topiary trees look fine with one cut a year. That’s less maintenance than many of the flowers in your borders.

It’s a good idea to water trees and shrubs in their first two summers, especially if they are unusually hot or dry.

But as the plants grow, the roots go deeper, so you shouldn’t need to water them.

And topiary shrubs and trees don’t require fertilisers either, although adding a layer of compost or other mulch to your garden borders once a year will benefit all your plants.

You do need some level of expertise to do the trimming but it is not difficult to learn.

You will find quite a lot of nonsense on sites selling artificial topiary trees.

One company declares that real topiary is delicate and ‘hard to care for’. It isn’t.

If you go into a well-established garden, such as the famous Great Dixter, Hampton Court and many others, you will see topiary that was planted a 100 years ago. It has survived wars, recessions, changes of gardener, all kinds of storms and a very broad spectrum of other weather. Many topiary gardens have lasted longer than the people who planted them.

Pin to remember topiary on a budget

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Stunning topiary that won't break the bank!

4 comments on "How to buy sensational topiary on a middle-sized budget"

  1. Jennifer says:

    Very very helpful

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