Topiary is … back?



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.

Previous articleGarden Show Idea: Run a Pole Through Flower Pots
Next articleWhere Michele’s next slate mantle is coming from
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Elizabeth, I’m going to be really, REALLY interested to see your response to Canada Blooms! I was there in 2004 (or maybe 2005) and while it was fun to a point, I discovered something. The landscape designers do things rather like the fashion designers who trot out the most bizarre and outrageous new ‘fashions’ at their shows; they’re avant garde, perhaps (or avant-garden) but just like most of us wouldn’t wear most of the exotic and outlandish creations to go shopping or work in our yards, we’re not going to be too inclined to put a queensized bed in the middle of a pool in the back yard. I saw very little there that I found practical, except for some plants and some of the great gardening tools at Rittenhouse’s site in the trade part of the show. You’ve been to shows in other parts of North America, so I’m really keen to hear your thoughts.

  2. Wow, fun idea!

    I have a fantastic book called “The Golden Age of American Gardens” that has a lot of really gripping late 19th century photographs of the gardens of the rich. Topiary was wildly popular among the robber baron set. I recall one unbelievable collection of spooky topiary in a seaside garden on Boston’s North Shore.

    Personally, I LOVE the idea of topiary–not giant bunnies, but weird abstractions looming in a garden.

  3. Am I the only person new enough to gardening that my first response to reading “Christopher Lloyd fans” made me think of the actor who played Doc Brown in Back to the Future? Good point, Elizabeth, why do people shape rhododendrons so heavily?

  4. Just this past summer I visited the topiary garden of Pearl Fryar in Bishopville, SC. Self taught, not rich, and positively amazing! Looking more Dr. Seuss than Disney-perfect, his work proves that you don’t have to go “across the pond” for a unique take on this classic technique. There was even a short film put out about his life and art, and I’d urge anyone interested in topiary to check him out if they get the chance.

  5. Maybe this is just a Canadian thing. According to one of my sources for a recent article on conifers, standards are still very popular in Canada, much more so than in the states. It doesn’t seem like a big leap from standards to topiary.

    I’ve seen a few topiary examples that I liked (for example, a hedge shaped like a dragon was much more interesting than a green wall) but in general they seem too gimmicky, too Disney World to suite my tastes.

Comments are closed.