Topiary and Routine Tree Pruning

Few aspects of gardening arouse such passions as topiary – and love it or loathe it – you have to admit it is a very skilful part of the gardener’s art. Once traditionally used almost exclusively to produce strong architectural forms to reflect the geometric order of formal garden designs, modern topiary has expanded to more “fun” shapes, from birds to cartoon characters.

Even if your aspirations do not extend to adding topiary works to your plot, if you have trees, sooner or later you will have to get to grips with pruning – an essential part of keeping a tree healthy and vigorous, while also maintaining a shape that is pleasing to the eye.

Simple Topiary

Evergreens make the best subjects for topiary, since they retain their full form throughout the seasons – with the likes of box, privet and yew being ideal. The easiest way to begin is with a simple shape such as a cone and often first attempts are best started in a container to make access easier – as well as allowing you to work in a little more privacy until your confidence increases.

Having selected a suitable young plant, in the first year clip it by eye to form the general shape you want. As it grows, by the second year you will need to make a cutting guide – a wigwam arrangement of canes and wires to establish the geometric lines required – and then clip it to conform, while in subsequent years, it is simply a matter of trimming it to keep this crisp outline.

Alternatively, a different kind of topiary can be created by training the growing stems of plants, such as ivy, around a frame. Throughout the summer, as new shoots are produced, there will often be a fair bit of work involved in tying them in to generate the shape and it is important to do this while they remain pliable enough to be bent to shape properly. However, since this approach is both very effective and a little more forgiving of errors than traditional clipping, it is worthwhile making the effort; some remarkable results can be created this way.

Tree Pruning

How much routine pruning any given tree requires largely depends on what kind of tree it is and what sort of intended overall effect it is supposed to have. To produce a simple, well balanced ornamental shape, for example, requires relatively little work, while other more complicated displays can demand considerable effort. Good pruning is particularly important with young, newly established trees to produce strong growth and evenly spaced main branches, to set the framework for their future development.

The first step is to take a careful look at the tree, examining it for dead or damaged branches and any signs of disease – removing affected portions as necessary. Weak or straggly growth should also be cut away, before looking at the overall shape of the tree and deciding which branches to trim.

Knowing where to cut is important to ensure the health of the tree, so take care to be accurate. For trees where the buds are arranged alternately along the branch, make your cut on an angle above a suitably positioned, outward-facing bud; where the buds lie opposite each other, trim the branch horizontally, just above a pair of strong, healthy buds. A sharp pair of secateurs, or saw, is an essential tool for this job.

Trees make particular focal points in any garden design – whether artificially sculpted or growing in a more natural habit. Regular trimming will always be a feature for topiary, though once most broadleaved trees have become established, there is seldom much need for further pruning. However you choose to cultivate trees in your garden, knowing when, how and why to prune should help ensure that they always look their best.