In olden times theof evergreen trees and shrubs into every kind of fanciful shape was an important part of gardening. During the last years of the reign of Queen Anne, Peter Collinson, the naturalist, described how as a boy he used to visit the small gardens of his relations at Peckham which were remarkable for their ornamentally cut ‘greens’, yews in the shape of birds, dogs, men and ships.
The fashion went out in the 18th century and has never really returned. It is as a rule only in the small gardens of old houses in the country, and particularly of inns, that today we see the pleasing entertainments of clipped yews coming to life in a variety of forms, from the simple or even elaborate geometric, to the horse and jockey with the hounds.
Traditionally, yew has long been the material from which British topiary is formed. It long ago replaced the Mediterranean cypress from which the topiary of the ancients was formed for this tree is only hardy in the mild parts of Britain. The basis for a sizable piece of topiary may well be a mature yew in a garden, for yews will stand the most murderousif it is not all done at once but spread over two or even three years.
In this way a sizable tree can first be cut to form a pyramidal shape. A wooden template is easily knocked up to press against the tree as a guide for working. Another step can be taken by cutting slices into this pyramid, right back to the trunk, so as to form a series of layers.
Smaller yews can, again with the aid of a semi-circular template, be gradually cut to form balls that rest at the end of close-. clipped yew hedges as finials. Or these may stand, as they do at Levens Hall, Westmorland, on solid blocks of yew, a simple and very effective design for a small garden.
Most ingenious and perplexing in its origin is the yew corkscrew, also a device suitable for a small garden. It takes the form ofa yew spiral, broad at the bottom narrowing to a point at the top. The mystery of its construction is quite simple. A young yew is placed beside a stout stake; all the side shoots are cut off or pinched out so that it grows on a single shoot. This shoot is, as it extends, wound spirally round the stake. Every side shoot is removed. So, as it thickens, it becomes rigid; the stake is removed and the centre is, like a cork-screw, hollow.
Fanciful topiary arches can be made. They too, are trained to wood frames which are eventually removed as the branches of the yew become rigid. Perfectly simple, rectangular, massive frames for elaborate wrought iron gateways are also very effective. The top consists of two leading shoots trained on a cross bar until they meet and thereafter thicken out.
It is when we come to representation of living creatures-the peacock or the huntsman on his horse, that we become really excited. It is usually the result of some years of work by the owner of the cottage outside which such marvels are displayed. A young vigorous yew is trained on bamboos. First, a branch is selected to form a bird’s tail and two more trained to sticks placed fanwise for the tail. Consistently, all shoots extraneous to the design are pruned away; those that are to take part in it are led onwards as far as they are needed and allowed to thicken as required. The body is allowed to swell and clipped to form its final shape.
Box is sometimes used for topiary, but now not so often as formerly. Lonicera nitida can also be used for small works; it needs frequent clipping.
Topiary work does not, as is sometimes suspected, take many years to reach completion. Yews, if well fed, grow surprisingly quickly.