by Sara Henderson, Director of Gardens
The Victorians were an adventuresome lot and one character trait that is often attributed to them is the desire to tame the natural world. Additionally, in spite of being down right stuffy at times, their style tended toward the exotic and attention getting. Clipped plant forms fit right in.
Topiary is the practice of training, primarily by clipping, living plants into a desired shape and it has been practiced since Roman times. The shapes were often whimsical or geometric but could be anything the gardener desired. It saw a resurgence of popularity in 16th century France, whose formal gardens set the stage for the more restrained English gardens. These gardens utilized the techniques, but their forms, while precise, were much less whimsical. A tightly clipped hedge or conical evergreen was seen much more frequently than a leaping rabbit or posturing peacock.
This clipping was practical as well. Many of the available plants had rather wild habits. Abelia, hollies, elaeagnus, loropetalum, and ligustrum are but a few of the popular Victorian choices that must be trimmed regularly to maintain control. Thankfully modern breeders have tamed many of these and they no longer need such severe treatment. This has occurred to such an extent that many gardens are now able to allow these shrubs to show off their natural beauty and the hedge clippers are relegated to the back corner of the tool shed.
We are trying to reach a balance at Oakland, clipping some things but allowing others more freedom. It is important to be true to our Victorian roots by including clipped forms, but we use them sparingly. We also use plants with clearly defined natural shapes to provide sculptural forms without the labor intensive clipping. Over time we may add more, but probably not leaping rabbits.