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Stuck-at-home Britons reveal their privet passion for topiary 

Lockdown was miserable, but this is shear delight! Stuck-at-home Britons reveal their privet passion for topiary

  • Topiary is undergoing a renaissance among ordinary lockdown gardeners 
  • The art was popular with the early Romans and in Italian renaissance gardens 
  • James Todman is among those leading the revival with his videos on Instagram

Grandiose shrubs painstakingly clipped into ornate designs were once the preserve of stately homes – but topiary is undergoing a renaissance among ordinary lockdown gardeners, often armed with nothing more than a pair of kitchen scissors.

The Royal Horticultural Society says searches for the subject on its website have risen by 81 per cent over the past 12 months, while next month’s Chelsea Flower Show will feature two specialists for the first time.

James Todman is among those leading the revival, with videos on Instagram and TikTok demonstrating the skill using the most basic of equipment.

A topiary expert is seen creating an elaborate deer. The Royal Horticultural Society says searches for the subject on its website have risen by 81 per cent over the past 12 months

‘People used to think topiary was just for the rich with large formal gardens but I went on social media to make it more accessible,’ he said.

He shapes cheap conifers, such as lemon cypress or white cedar, using kitchen scissors or ordinary garden shears. He added: ‘Spirals and ball shapes seem to be the most popular. I think people have just found it therapeutic in lockdown to do a bit of clipping and create something lovely.’

Topiary was popular with the early Romans and in Italian renaissance gardens, but it fell out of fashion. Walt Disney is credited with reviving interest in the 1960s, when he styled the shrubbery in his new theme parks into the shapes of cartoon characters.

James Todman is among those leading the revival, with videos on Instagram and TikTok demonstrating the skill using the most basic of equipment

James Todman is among those leading the revival, with videos on Instagram and TikTok demonstrating the skill using the most basic of equipment

Historically, the common box has been Britain’s favourite topiary plant, but the ravages of box blight have led experts to promote alternatives such as privet, yew, holly and beech. Guy Barter, of the Royal Horticultural Society, said most people were unaware just how difficult box is to keep disease-free.

‘You have to spray it with pesticides three times a year and that is not sustainable,’ he said. ‘It may be all right if you have a team of gardeners but most people just don’t have the time these days.’ 

Expert Stanley Johnson will be at the Chelsea Flower Show with the topiary animals in which his company Agrumi specialises. He will be recreating a New Forest scene with ponies, deer, hares, sheep and pigs.

‘We do a dolphin and a fabulous red deer stag, a great beast,’ he said. ‘Labrador is the most popular dog but people also ask for Airedales.’

Jamie Butterworth, managing director of Form Plants, will be displaying some of his most intricate specimens at the show, including a 15ft cone.

He said business increased by 250 per cent during the pandemic and he prefers to shape yew, a holly called ilex crenata, or purple beech rather than box.

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