Topiary and Espaliers

Topiary is an old art form that involves training plants to grow into decorative and predetermined shapes.

These shapes may be geometric, such as a ball n top of a bare stem; or more imaginative, such as in the shape of an animal. Topiary can be small or large. Some topiary in historic gardens is as tall as a building; kept in shape by regular pruning undertaken on scaffolds, ladders, or with modern travel towers.




Training & Pruning to shape in the Ground

Training & Pruning to shape in a Tub/Pot

Growing climbing plants over a wire framework already in the desired shape. A shaped framework may be filled with moss (or some other absorbent material), or a plant may be growing in soil below the framework.



As a feature plant placed in a focal point in the garden.

Grown over a house or garden buildings. Cover a wall with a dense climber such as ivy and prune to include false arches.

In pots to frame an entrance way to a building

As a hedge or barrier.

As landmarks to delineate the edges of paths and walkways

In window boxes to give a formal appearance to the front of a property

Interspersed with hedging to mark out garden beds.


Traditional straining and shaping of a plant into a large topiary may take 5 years.

Growing it over a frame filled with moss may produce a similarly shaped and sized topiary in 1 year.



An increasing variety of frames are available from some boutique nurseries, florists, and even more mainstream garden centres.

Some frames might be partly lined with a hanging basket liner, then filled with good soil. The plants can then be grown on the inside of the frame like a hanging basket

Some may be simply stuffed with sphagnum moss or a similar absorbent material.

Plants can be planted directly into the moss then watered and fed regularly. Unless soil is present, you may be better using a hydroponic fertilizer to ensure that the complete range of required nutrients is supplied.

This type of topiary has the advantage of being portable. You can bring it to perfection, then move it to a garden bed as required.



Portable or Fixed?

Topiary can be grown in a tub –so it can be moved about the garden

Large topiary is best grown directly in the ground as a permanent feature.


Which Plants?

Topiary is often  created with conifers or small leaved shrubs such as English Box (Buxus) or Lonicera nitida.

Other plants sometimes used include:


Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila) is ideal for growing in moss filled frames.

Other possibilities are: Ivy (Hedera sp.), Jasmine (Jasminum officinalis) (for large projects), Ceropegia woodii, Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), Dichondra sp., Lysimachia nummularia  and  Baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii).



Training is a never ending task with topiary.

Do this by: weaving, twining, tying.

Branches that deviate from the desired shape can be tied back until they remain in the desired position. Branches that cannot be manipulated are removed. As with growing over a moss-filled frame, frameworks can be used to assist in achieving the required shape. These are normally removed afterwards.

Due to the nature of the well-defined shapes of topiary, you also need to be continually pruning. Frequent light pruning is preferable to less frequent, heavier pruning.





A ball on top of a single upright stem/trunk. Many different plants have been created into standards. These include Lavandula sp., Wisteria sinensis, Citrus sp., and Rosa sp.


A series of two or more balls, usually decreasing in size from top to bottom. Suitable plants include conifers, Lonicera nitida, Buxus sempervirens and Ligustrum umbellata.


A series of branches with balls on the top of each one. This is also referred to as cloud pruning.


A spiral shape decreasing in diameter towards the tip. Conifers are often used.


A conical shape similar to the narrow end of an egg. Suitable trees include Yew (Taxus baccata), Syzygium sp., Acmena smithii, and Buxus sempervirens.

Novelty Shapes

There are many novelty shapes that have been used in topiary. These include teapots, helicopters, beehives and animals.

Generally speaking, the most suitable plants for training into topiary are evergreens with small leaves and a compact habit. They also tend to be relatively slow growing which means that they tend to be quite expensive; having to spend longer being fed and trained in the nursery before they are released for sale.



Espaliers are trees and shrubs that have been pruned to create a flat shape. They are often planted against walls or sometimes used in rows as an edging to distinct areas of a garden. Fruit trees have been used extensively in the past, though ornamental plants such as Pyracantha sp., Cotoneaster sp., and Garrya elliptica are also well suited.

There are lots of possible shapes, including:

Diagonal cordons

Vertical Cordons

Serpentine cordons

Horizontal cordons

Palmate Oblique

Single U shape




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