On my big garden wish list this year is a tidier garden with fewer but stronger design elements. Structure is an important part of the garden design arsenal as it delivers an antidote to the wishy-washy banality of the otherwise green carpet of lawn. Sometimes I think it might as well be grey.
Human instinct loves to be feed a bit of order in the chaos; a strong line here or there goes a long way to connecting people with their surroundings. All too often order can be overdone, with ostentatiously showy hard landscaping, the veritable "look at meee!".
Which is a roundabout way of getting to talk about topiary. It is the subtle variation in form and purpose that topiary offers a garden design, that gives a garden something altogether more dignified. You can of course go out and buy a great big ball, spiral, and poodle or birthday cake shaped topiary if you like. And although they'll be worth every cent it's going to pack a serious financial punch.
Before we get to the meat of this tightly clipped sandwich, yes topiary is time-consuming, and yes, if you start from scratch you will have to wait a while before your corkscrew looks like the one in Kew Gardens but you know what? That's gardening. Plants are living things and you if you want to administer a completely fictional form on to your green subject you're going to have to work at it. It's your will versus your plants'. Being proactive is everything. You need to feed it and water it. Regular clipping also means you'll be in touch with your plant; if there's a problem you'll be able to remedy it before it turns into a disaster.
Another important aspect of topiary is plant selection. This depends on so many things, climatic conditions being paramount. However this not the only consideration. Faster-growing plants may give you a sense of instant gratification especially when you are getting started with a new plant, but be warned. Just because you want the weekend off doesn't mean your plant is going to stop growing. Fast-growing plants can also grow big and unless you are prepared to trim the roots as well as leaves, a la bonsai, then make sure you plant them in an environment they will thrive in.
The two classic plants of the Persian and Hellenistic garden tradition - where topiary has its origins - are the laurel or bay tree and the buxus. Both of these set the standard - pardon my pun - for what you're looking for in a potential topiary. Both have strong evergreen leaves. The buxus is notable for its compact small foliage which lends itself to forming strong shapes, while the laurel has a larger leaf which does not show any damage when it is cut in half and has a lovely silvery smooth trunk which looks wonderful when it is exposed. Lonicera nitida is fast growing, does well in a pot and is relatively forgiving. This means that if you do neglect it, it can be trimmed back hard into shape and will re-foliate nicely. Teucrium fruticans or tutti-frutti is another fast growing shrub with a striking glaciated, silver foliage and is perfect for large simple shape which doesn't require a stem. Tutti-frutti refoliates well after trimming; on the other hand it requires constant attention to keep its form and can look messy very quickly. More traditional topiary varieties such as thuja, conifer and junipers are worth a shot if you are wanting trees on a large scale.
Natives should not be overlooked either with coprosma, corokia and hebe all providing varieties which are receptive to a little shaping. For larger specimens though the tightly packed foliage of the totara is a real winner.