A Clipped History of Topiary
In 4000BC Egyptians clipped boxed hedges in their gardens. In 2016 your posh neighbours also have boxed hedges flanking their property to offer privacy and shoo away the neighbourhood riff-raff. Six thousand years separate these two gardens, but not much has changed, topiary is still going strong.
Topiary is one of society’s oldest gardening forms, and is the art of shaping trees and shrubs into ornamental leafy sculptures. These shapes can range from the ordinary (a hedge, cone, ball or spiral) to the types of shapes that might elicit a car crush if one were driving past unexpectedly.
Behind all great topiary is an even greater topiarist. A good topiarist is like a good hairdresser, they know when to stop cutting. Tim Bushe is a modern-day topiary hero. An architect by trade who studied sculpture art, Bushe is familiar with the 3D form. He fell into topiary when his wife half-jokingly suggested he trim their front hedge into a cat. Bushe decided a simpler shape would better suit his first attempt, and a few days later the couple had a steam train in their front yard.
Since the steam train, Bushe has added dogs, elephants, squirrels, dragons and more to his repertoire. In the mid-2000s, Bushe started offering his topiary services professionally, donating payment received to the UK’s Hft charity – it’s not your average hedge fund. Eventually his wife got her cat, which proved to be the world’s most low maintenance pet.
Before Bushe, topiary had another poster boy way back in the 17th Century. His name was André Le Nôtre, a French landscape architect and the principal gardener for King Louis XIV. If Le Nôtre had a modern day LinkedIn profile it would probably read: “I’m the guy that designed the gardens of Versailles. Hire me.” Topiary was heavily featured in the gardens, which cost the people of France a mere 2 billion francs, a revolution, and an excellent Les Misérables soundtrack.
It’s true that the best topiary gardens flourish with land and lots of it. For the rest of us there is bonsai. Though should you ever inherit a 250-acrage of lush countryside, perhaps follow the lead of 1930s socialite and huntsman Harvey S. Ladew. He bought his Maryland property and turned it into a not-for-profit garden for all to enjoy that’s still open today. Ladew Topiary Gardens depicts a foxhunt complete with horses, horsemen and dogs chasing foxes sculpted from yew, buxus and holly. Though, the thrill of the chase is at a literal standstill in this garden.
Topiary is not a gardening form for the fast-paced. An average perennial takes up to 13 years to mature in size and requires a zen-like patience before the snipping begins. In 1689 the world’s oldest dedicated topiary garden, Levens Hall, took 22 years to complete. The garden surrounds a 500-year-old Elizabethan manor house in Cumbria, UK, and remains a popular tourist destination. The site is also famous for being an alleged hub of supernatural activity – previous owners are said to haunt guest bedrooms. Remember these people devoted their entire life to topiary, they may as well enjoy it for eternity.
If ghosts aren’t your thing, topiary can also be experienced in safer environments. Try the happiest place on earth, Disneyland, where topiaries of Walt Disney’s cartoons litter the theme park. Or try the silver screen, where in 1990 a misunderstood topiarist stole hearts. His name: Edward Scissorhands.
Sometimes you don’t even need to leave the house to experience topiary. Next time your neighbour wakes you up on a Saturday morning with the hedge trimmer blaring, know that you could be living next door to a topiarist-in-the-making.
This story was originally published in Lunch Lady Issue Four.