Topiary or not topiary?: Few people make the effort to shape their hedges into peacocks, ships or rabbits anymore

More's the pity, says Anna Pavord, who is trying to persuade her Irish yews to hold hands

It's time for the circle of Irish yews we planted on the bank a couple of years ago to turn into people. The 11 trees have grown well and we've kept them slim by tying in the growth at regular intervals with nylon fishing line. Each yew is now about seven feet tall. We could just clip their tops and sides and keep them as separate columns, but from the beginning, I imagined them clasping each other in a circle, like Greek men dancing. The yews now need persuading to grow arms and heads.

The top growth is still young and flexible, and I think the best way to train the topiary will be to drive in stakes behind each tree so that the tops of the stakes are at neck level (the yew people will be a little bigger than life size). Then we can cut willow stems – there's plenty of that about – and tie those horizontally to join the tops of the stakes. Willow is whippy and should bend to make a circle. If we used stakes to make the top support, we'd end up with angles like a dodecahedron.

A handful of the top growth needs to be tied down to the support on the left of each tree, another handful on the right. The bit in the middle for the moment can continue to grow straight up, until it is bulky enough to make the head. For a while the structure will look weird. But I reckon in three years the green fingers of the yew trees will be touching each other in the circle. The heads may take longer.

Topiary is a particularly molten form of sculpture and you have to work with what you've got. The yews may not want to dance. But I'm remembering the monumental piece of topiary in a Lincolnshire place we once rented. The date of the fancifully Gothic house (1846) made me sure that inside the 25ft-high lump of yew we inherited was a peacock screaming to get out.

I charged up the A1 to Clipsham where there is a superb collection of topiaried yew trees, maintained by the Forestry Commission, and got Eric Wyer, chief clipper, to look at our specimen. He reckoned five years to restore it completely, but it was looking brilliant after only three. The chief difficulty lay in physically getting Mr Wyer to the right height to cope with the trimming. The Forestry Commission uses mechanical hoists and the first year, we hired one of those for the job. The expense was crippling. The following years we hired portable scaffolding towers, which were ideal. When the bird was fully back in shape, we could clip it from a ladder. The underpinning was tough and tight and all the bird needed was a once-a-year trim to shear off the previous year's growth. That's a job to do any time between August and Christmas.

That was the most satisfying, most pleasurable piece of topiary I've ever lived with. The bird on its spiralling base was superb, especially in winter, when it gazed in at the bedroom window, green in a landscape that was sear and bare. But the next tenant abandoned the bird. Now, 10 years later, there is no sign that it ever existed. Sacrilege.

Topiary is scarcely ever out of fashion. Mostly it's geometric stuff: spirals, cones, balls, cubes, columns. In town gardens, it looks superb, particularly in winter when the frippery of flowers has gone. But who is making peacocks, battleships, rabbits and teapots now, to delight gardeners in 100 years time? We garden selfishly now: instant gratification and to hell with the future. Driving up and down England, my routes used to be marked by the pieces of topiary I looked forward to: a cat and a dog running along a council house hedge in Raglan (now replaced with a line of Leyland cypress), wedding cake stands either side of a gate at a cottage in Herefordshire, supplanted now by a breeze-block wall. Maintaining a piece of topiary is simple, compared with the art and labour of creating it. But even these great, inherited pieces, the folk art of cottage gardens, are being cut down. I can't bear it.

The bulk of the lollipop bays, the clipped cones and balls of box and yew that you find in garden centres (or in the Columbia Road market in London) are imported from Belgium or Italy. Buying a ready-trained bush of box or yew is undoubtedly the easiest way to introduce topiary into a garden. If you think of the price in relation to a sculpture, it is not expensive. Box and yew are the classic subjects for topiary, because the growth is tight and only needs clipping once a year. If you want to make your mistakes less expensively, try privet for a maquette. Privet is quick and gives quite good results. But its leaves are much bigger than those of box or yew, so the final result is coarser. Shapes need to be kept simple and clipped frequently.

Barnaby Googe, writing in the Four Books of Husbandry in 1577, particularly mentions rosemary as a good subject for topiary, though the stems are lax when young and it never makes a large specimen. Many rosemaries are sprawlers, so you need to use a naturally upright variety such as 'Miss Jessopp's Upright' and clip twice a year: once after flowering in early summer, and once in late summer. In our new garden, I hoped to furnish the front of a steep bank with rosemary, clipped into globes, as French gardeners use santolina. But even the upright types tend to splay apart from the centre. I may have to let them sprawl, as they so obviously want to do.

Rosemary needs sun. Yew, box and bay will all survive in shade and in thin soil, which is another reason they do so well in town gardens. Bay lollipops are great favourites in tubs either side of a doorway. They are not difficult to train. Buy a straight-stemmed young plant, fasten the stem to a cane and as the tree grows, pinch out the side shoots gradually to leave the lower part of the stem bare. When the trunk is as tall as you want, pinch back the shoots at the head to make them bushy.

Established specimens can be kept in pots indefinitely. They become difficult to repot, but you should at least scrape away the top few inches of compost each year and replace it with a fresh mix. You also need to water and feed the plants regularly. I use Osmocote slow-release granules. Scattered on the pots in spring, they last the entire season. If the evergreen foliage gets dusty in summer, spray it with a hosepipe.

Topiary specimens to plant from early November onwards are available from Langley Boxwood Nursery Ltd, Langley Lane, Rake, Nr Liss, Hants GU33 7JN, 01730 894467, boxwood.co.uk. The Romantic Garden, Swannington, Norwich, Norfolk NR9 5NW, 01603 261488, romantic-garden-nursery.co.uk. Hopes Grove Nurseries sell box balls from 30-40cm (£28) to 60-70cm (£129) and cones from 50-60cm (£25) to 100-120cm (£109). Find them at Smallhythe Rd, Tenterden, Kent TN30 7LT, 01580 765600, hopesgrovenurseries.co.uk

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
News
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
news
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot