Tip into Topiary

If you fancy two lollipop-shaped standards to flank your front door, or a pyramid to anchor an otherwise sprawling garden bed or if you yearn for an elegant cone as a focal point in your courtyard then topiary is for you.

But be prepared to lavish your topiary with loads of attention, as well as litres of water and seasonal doses of fertiliser.  Oh, and you’ll need to prune it five times a year, and if it’s in a pot, turn it by a quarter every four weeks.

Nick Marker of Totally Topiary has been tending topiaries for more than a decade on the NSW Central Coast, and in the early days, before he started supplying nurseries, he sold his beloved creations at markets around Sydney.

It takes me between three and six years to grow a good-sized topiary so if I felt that a customer wasn’t going to look after it, I’d tell them to buy something else.  Having a topiary is like having a pet; you have to pour love into it

In fact Nick will size you up before he’ll sell you a topiary.  If you lack commitment to watering, fertilising, trimming and turning, he will refuse to sell you that perfectly round buxus ball in the terracotta pot you covet.

Over at Elegant Outdoors, in Sydney’s Turramurra, topiary specialist Sean Milliss doesn’t have the same luxury but he occasionally wishes he did. “I try to give the customer as much information as possible but sometimes I know that the piece I’ve worked on for so long is going to be ruined,” he says.

Milliss has been creating topiaries for 17 years and during that time he’s seen the interest in this style of plant increase.

So too has Judith Sleijpen, designer and consultant with Gardens, Balconies & Beyond on Sydney’s north shore. “The statistics tell the story,” she says. “Around 90 per cent of Australia’s population lives on the seaboard and nearly 40 per cent of those live in medium or high-density housing.”

Meaning there’s been a proliferation of small gardens, courtyards and balconies that are perfect for these pampered plants.   Couple this with a trend to growing plants in containers, and horticulturists are nurturing topiaries to meet the market.

It’s a trend that has been fuelled, too, by leading garden designers such as Paul Bangay. Sleijpen points out that container gardening particularly suits renters, who can simply pack up their pots when they move out.   In addition, in a small space you need only one or two sculptured beauties to create impact.   Make one of those a dwarf citrus and you’ll get fruit as a bonus.

In Melbourne, David Bennett, the principal landscape designer at Gardens & Pools By Design, says the formal style of garden, which has been the traditional home of topiary, has always withstood fads.   However, he adds, there has been a change in our desires: we now want to gaze out of windows or wander through bifold doors and view a garden that is attractive for 365 days of the year. “Topiaries have come into their own because they look great in every season,” Bennett says. “Homeowners will accept one knock-out deciduous tree but most are no longer interested in cutting back perennials that only deliver for four or five months.”

In keeping with the trend, Bennett uses topiaries as living sculptures instead of large urns or vases. Indeed, he relies on topiaries to provide formal structure, to terminate a focal point and to offer a seasonal contrast between a deciduous climber and a small topiary that never drops its leaves.

An example of this contrast can be seen in the garden of Pamela Jefferson, of Melbourne’s Vermont South, where two graceful tulip trees shade a “cloud” topiary. “I love the different shapes,” says Jefferson, who can see the tableau from the windows at the rear of her house. “The trees change colour and drop their leaves and the balls remain green. It’s where your eyes come to rest.” Steve Answerth, who has tended to Jefferson’s topiary for 10 years, says the secret is in the trimming: “You have to be careful not to separate the balls but allow one to grow into the next to create a mounded mass.”

While Answerth shapes this topiary three times a year, Bennett reckons most of us need not be quite so fastidious, as new varieties perform well. “These days we can put in cones, lollipops and spirals and with the right maintenance, they’ll look terrific for years,” he says.

Thinking of tipping into topiary?    Here’s the basics:

Best shapes:  
Standards, globe, cone, pyramid, spiral, multi-tiered, multi-headed and espalier
Best plants:
Lilly pilly, orange jessamine, any citrus varieties, bay tree, juniper cultivars such as Keteleeri and Spartan, and various species of Buxus such as English, Dutch and Japanese Box
Suitable for:  
All formal gardens, or providing a focal point in courtyards and balconies