There’s nothing wrong with a bit of cutting and shaping; that much becomes obvious about every six weeks when I look in the mirror and anxiously place my “I have to get in THIS WEEK” call to the salon.
But just as I’d never try to trim my own hair in a million years, I wouldn’t know how to begin to attractively sculpt a sizable bush or hedge in my own garden. That’s why I don’t have any. When we moved in nine years ago, there was a row of yews in front of the house that I’ve since replaced with hardy rhododendrons, which don’t need to be clipped into boxy or rounded shapes—though I wish someone would tell the landscapers at my office park that. Someday, I’ll replace the rhodies with a native shrub that flowers, berries, and is supposed to be messy looking.
Designers who put together display gardens at garden shows tend not to be as fond of messy as I am. That must be one of the reasons organizers of Canada Blooms, the big Toronto garden show, are mentioning that “ironic animal topiary” is making a somewhat limited comeback. It’s all in service of that scary gardening sub-category known as “whimsy.” (I’ve noticed that anytime I mention sculpture or anything art-related in a blog post, by the time it gets to Garden Voices, it will be tucked into that category.) The one place where they do this type of thing terribly well is—of course—across the pond, where we saw a few minor examples in the summer of 2004. (One, in need of trimming, is shown at top. It’s from Knightshayes, in Somerset.) Among the American examples is a fine topiary garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, as photographed by John Pfahl for his book, Extreme Horticulture.
I must say, if I had to have that type of small leaved, dense, all-green shrub, I’d probably want to trim it into something, just to keep it from being boring. But I doubt I could get it to look like anything recognizable. The Christopher Lloyd fans among us will remember that among his eccentricities was the maintenance of a magnificent group of yew topiary animals. I believe there are several reasons this tends to go over well in England—the main one being, of course that the clipped shrubs look good through the winter. I also think that this triumph over nature goes right along with the planned exoticism of the blazing tropicals Lloyd favored. Even if the empire has shrunk, the carefully tended remnants of it can still be celebrated, far away from their native habitats. Which is fine with me; I’ve never thought there was anything particularly natural about a garden.
That’s why I love a good garden show, the more over-the-top the better. I am hoping for some exotic and outrageous displays in Toronto—a detail from last year is shown above—and will be reporting on them, as well as my interview with Barbara Damrosch, next weekend.