Topiary - it either amazes or amuses. It is certainly fascinating. I remember, back in the 1990s, visiting nurseryman and garden creator Frank Lawley who, with his wife Marjorie, had spent 15 or more years developing a garden at Herterton House in Northumberland. I found him snipping away at box hedging and topiary shapes in the front garden using the tiniest clippers I had ever seen and a 12in ruler. Such is the care and meticulous attention to detail taken in training and maintaining topiary.
Whether we are talking tidy geometric shapes or bird and animal forms, parterres or knot gardens, mazes or labyrinths, topiary simply would not exist if it were not for regular clipping to restrain growth, maintain shape and ensure a dense, close texture. Rules are simple - clip at the time appropriate for the species, never without good reason, never when it is frosty, never take too much, always cut in balance and never use blunt tools or equipment.
Topiary clippers and shears are often preferred by many where there are small volumes of work or intricate shapes. Powered trimmers - electric, battery or petrol - are a must for extensive areas.
The park and gardens at Levens Hall in Cumbria were laid out by French gardener Guillaume Beamont between 1689 and 1712. Layout has changed little over the centuries - miraculously it escaped the natural-landscaping trend of the 1730s - and some of the trees and bushes are now more than 300 years old. Yew and box predominate, with Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) forming low edging to the beds of bulbs and annuals. Many of the topiary pieces are abstract or geometric but some are named, including King & Queen, the Judge's Wig, Howard Lion, Great Umbrellas and the Jug of Morocco.
Tasked with the care and maintenance of this world-famous topiary site is head gardener Chris Crowder, who has been at Levens Hall for 30 years and is only the 10th head gardener since the gardens were created. He has a small, highly skilled group of five, mainly part-time workers. Additional assistance comes from international interns as well as a growing band of volunteers.
Trimming the topiary is an annual job. It takes months, beginning in late August or early September and often not completed until after Christmas. Crowder prefers to use petrol or battery hedge trimmers, though some clipping is still done by hand. For the high reaches, scaffolding and a hydraulic lift are both employed.
Crown Topiary is the UK's largest specialist topiary nursery. The family-run business, established in 1982, is based in Hertford and carries an extensive portfolio of topiary stock. Using a wide variety of plants, it trains and supplies preprepared topiary ball domes, cones and pyramids, spirals, arches, cloud formed hedging, screening pleached trees and more.
Asked whether they use powered hedge trimmers, co-owner Wendy Hammond replies: "Been there and didn't like it. They tend to tear rather than cut and what we want is a clean cut. We favour CK shears with an 8in blade. They are lovely and lightweight. We tried one-handed clippers but your hands ache when you have so much cutting to do."
Hammond explains that good housekeeping is vital when working on topiary. "We use antibacterial spray to keep the shears clean and help prevent disease. It is also important to keep them sharp to make a good clean cut."
G-Series: grass shears and hedge cutter - image: HW
CK Tools offers drop-forged and hardened carbon steel shears, the latter being lightweight, non-stick coated and chrome plated. A wide range of hedge shears is also offered by Spear & Jackson, including wavy or straight C50 carbon steel blades with long-reach, telescopic or wishbone handles. It also makes Razorsharp Advantage and Kew Razorsharp topiary shears with 164mm and 126mm blades.
The Japanese know about sharpness, as any Silky Fox saw user will tell you. Niwaki topiary shears, also made in Japan, are purpose-built for box and topiary other delicate jobs. The 240mm blades and slender handles (570mm or 810mm) are balanced for detailed work, and the Aogami blue paper steel blades are described as "lethally sharp". Expect to pay close to £150 (including VAT).
Also offered by UK-supplier Niwaki, based in Shaftesbury, is the Tobisho Topiary Clipper costing from £109. Tobisho is a family-run firm in the Yamagata Mountains, an area famous for its steel. The company's 275g drop-forged topiary clipper has 120cm carbon steel blades, ideal for box trimming.
Slightly heavier is the Niwaki 120cm bladed topiary clipper. These weigh 335g, are made from the same forging technique and are equally good for box or yew. Prices start from £99. The Wakasay topiary clipper is a one-handed shear with 130mm spring-action blades. For those hard-to-reach subjects, Niwaki provides safety at work with the Tripod ladder.
More topiary-specific shears are offered by PG Horticulture, including the CL-A Plus lightweight, drop-forged shears with 200mm blades and aluminium handles. The company also supplies the Okatsune 175mm-bladed Buxus shears, ARS hedge and trimming shears plus basic shears intended for conifers.
With a blade length of 180cm, the two-handled Topiary Hedge Shears from Burgon & Ball might fit the bill where large-scale Buxus trimming is required. Weighing just 750g, they have aluminium handles with rubber grips and bump stops to reduce jarring. The company also offers a selection of topiary shears for one-handed use, including the Professional Soft Squeeze designed for precise work and with a choice of 90mm or 130mm blades. Leather-handled soft squeeze topiary shears are also available.
Wilkinson Sword has a wide choice of cutting tools but for topiary work the company recommends its double-handled wavy blade hedge shears, the straight 8in-bladed RazorCut Pro, general-purpose telescopic or Ultralight hedge shears, which weigh 30 per cent less than standard shears. For single-handed operation, Wilkinson Sword offers traditional topiary shears with a spring handle for controllable, quick repetitive cutting. The blades are precision-ground, hardened steel.
Built for comfort
German manufacturer Gardena produces the Comfort Hedge Clippers 570, noted for their lightweight (690g) comfortable use and 200mm non-stick coated, straight-ground blades. Gardena's Boxwood secateur is designed for precise shaping of shrubs and features two Technogel gel-pad handle grips. Wolf Garten has also designed shears specific for topiary work. The company's Box Tree Shears feature short blades and fine-adjustable bearing clearance.
Bulldog Tools offers traditional topiary shears with spring handle, wooden grip and stainless steel blades. But a new type of shear comes from Jakoti Hand Shears of Somerset. With carbon steel, self-sharpening blades, these one-handed shears are said to suit topiary as well as trimming ornamental grasses, deadheading and lawn edging.
For more unusual solutions, such as tri-bladed, telescopic long-reach and lightweight 8in topiary double-handled shears, plus a selection of single-handed topiary shears and even clippers for bonsai, check out the latest offering from Darlac.
If you want power in a compact size, then take a look at the new Makita UM603D 18V G-Series grass shears. Yes, grass shears. But with 2,500 strokes per minute this 160mm double-reciprocating unit features three cutting regimes and comes with a 200mm hedge trimmer attachment.
Levens Hall: living sculptures considered the finest, oldest and most extensive - image: Levens Hall Estate
A clipped history of topiary through the ages
Topiary, in geometric and fanciful shapes, decorates gardens across the world. But it is most notable in Europe, where it dates back to Roman times.
Around 38BC, Pliny the Elder wrote about methods of cutting trees into shapes and Pliny the Younger wrote a description of the elaborate shapes, figures of animals and obelisks in clipped greens - the art of "topiarius" - that adorned his villa in Tuscany.
It was in the 16th century that simple topiary - cubes, balls, pyramids and cones - was popularised in elite estates, only to be swept away by the likes of Charles Bridgeman and William Kent in the 1720s and 1730s. Examples survived in cottage gardens, where animal and bird shapes were more often seen.
A topiary revival began in the 19th century as taste grew for "Jacobethan" architecture and following garden writer John Loudon's laments for the loss of the practice. Beginning in 1830, William Baron created a garden for the Earl of Harrington at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire. It caused a sensation when opened in 1851, being a series of formal gardens displaying architectural topiary. Reported with great acclaim in The Gardeners' Chronicle, topiary once again became fashionable.
Today there are notable displays at many properties throughout the country, including Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, Great Dixter in East Sussex, Packwood House in the Midlands, Plas Barondanw in Wales and Pitmedden, Scotland. But known the world over, the living sculptures at Levens Hall in Cumbria number more than 100 and are deemed to be the finest, oldest and most extensive.
Burgon & Ball: 0114 233 8262
CK Tools: 01758 701070
Darlac: 01753 547790
Gardena UK: 0344 844 4558
Jakoti Hand Shears: 01749 938008
Niwaki: 01747 445059
Makita: 01908 211678
PG Horticulture: 01327 828373
Spear & Jackson: 0114 281 4242
Wilkinson Sword: 01869 363635
Wolf Garten: 01869 363674