At our meeting on 15th March our speaker on the Art of Topiary was James Crebbin-Bailey. James runs a business (Topiary Arts) engaged in topiary, mainly cutting and shaping trees and bushes in gardens large and small but also growing plants for topiary, running workshops, teaching practical topiary and, as with us, talking to groups. James was a gold medal winner at Chelsea in 2011 and 2012 and he has exhibited at a number of other garden shows. His last appearance at Chelsea was in 2014. He said that the effort of this last exhibit nearly killed him and he no longer exhibits at shows. He mentioned that designing an island bed is a lot more difficult than one with a backdrop on the edge of the marquee as they are viewed from all sides. Ideally, as with any good garden, you shouldn’t be able to see it all at once and it should contain surprises. James’ philosophy is that topiary features in a garden should be a talking point and, quite often, should make you laugh.
James’ inspiration for taking up topiary came from the architect Lutyens, the garden designer Peto and the wonderfully named practitioner, Mr Cutbush. The main part of James’ talk consisted of pictures showing the gardens in which he had worked and the huge range of styles he maintained or created. Topiary is mainly practised on box and yew plants. They are slow growing and many examples are over a hundred years old. The standard shapes are balls, cones and pyramids and spirals but we were fascinated by many free flowing designs that came from the creator’s imagination; very often James’ own inspiration.
The logo of James’ company is a peacock and he showed us several styles including one in full display plumage. There were also dogs, a teddy bear, heraldic devices and a couple of steam trains. One of the trains lacked wheels when James was asked to cut it so he is now growing box bushes along the side of the train which he will shape into wheels. Another very popular form of topiary is practised on low growing hedges which are suitable for formal situations such as a parterre.
These may consist of squares, triangle or diamonds enclosing flowers or intricate linked patterns as used in a knot garden. James showed us examples of architectural patterns and a woven willow feature that had given him inspiration for topiary designs. A further style is cloud cutting which is generally used on really large shrubs and trees. This is where, what might just be a straight formal hedge, is cut into rounded shapes ressembling clouds. These are sometimes hundreds of years old.
James showed us several before and after pictures, together with pictures taken over time, which demonstrated how savagely a bush or hedge might be cut for the basic design and then developed over time with regrowth. There was a significant difference between the looseness of an original cutting and the denser and sharper outlines that were developed within a couple of years’ formation.
Some general points that James made during his talk were that sculptured shapes look good in grass; the best time for cutting box is in June and July while yew can be left until August and September; always cut plants on a dull day (sunshine will turn the cut leaf edges brown), plants used for topiary are still plants and they need feeding (well rotted horse manure is good) and watering. It is easy to grow cuttings from box although they will take time to develop. They can be pushed into a slit trench in an area of dappled shade and left alone for a year or so by which time they should have rooted.
James ended his talk with a brief practical demonstration of topiary. Using short ‘Japanese shears’ he clipped a small standard box into a ball and then, with longer japanese shears he cut a taller, cylindrical shrub into a spiral. Clippers used for sheep shearing are often sold in garden centres for topiary but they are not very easy to use. He explained that for a ball you can use a template made of a circle of galvanised wire, although he cuts by eye alone.