Despite our heritage of exquisite and eccentric topiary gardens - Levens Hall, Cumbria, Avebury Manor, Wiltshire and Great Dixter, East Sussex for example - the world topiary market is now led by growers in Holland and Italy. Dutch topiary, like its English counterpart, uses buxus and yew and tends towards classic shapes, while the Italians use a small-leaf privet that is not very hardy in our climate, which allows them to go in for the showy stuff - butterflies and birds with intricate patterns on their wings and tennis racquets, for example.
Enter Elizabeth Braimbridge, a woman with the foresight to anticipate the present demand. Ten years ago, she gave up her City job in order to spend more time travelling with her husband, Mark, a surgeon on the international circuit. At the same time, she rented some land in Hampshire from a business associate and started the Langley Boxwood Nursery. A decade later, she is the leading topiary grower and supplier in Britain, counting the National Trust, Hampton Court and the Marquis of Bath among her customers.
It is far easier to make a quick buck on bedding plants and perennials which have a high turnover, rather than have expensive land turned over to bushes that can take 10-15 years to grow big enough to create a large piece of topiary. "Most nurseries have stopped even growing hedging box," says Mrs Braimbridge, which explains why it is so expensive - up to pounds 300 for a large bush.
Langley Nursery has a mixture of home-grown plants and those imported from Holland and nurtured on to appropriate size. Three-tiered pom-pom bushes, obelisks, spirals, cubes and pyramids stand in serried ranks while, in another part of the nursery, there are larger pieces such as greek urns and a "royal crown" (a classic topiary shape). Teddy bears, pigs and dogs are also popular.
Another reason for the high costs of topiary is that demand always exceeds supply. "The problem is making sure that you can supply the bigger schemes," says Mrs Braimbridge. "What suprises us is the demand for size. We have a perpetual search for great big balls of box or yew, as well as columns and obelisks. The big schemes ask for 100 of a particular shape, but there probably aren't 100 species in existence." She recently supplied 35,000 hedging box plants, which all had to be the same colour, for the parterre in the restored privy garden at Hampton Court Palace. The next big project is the hedging for an erotic "Love Maze" commissioned by the Marquis of Bath at Longleat, Wiltshire.
For those of us with less ambition, and rather less space to spare than the Marquis of Bath, a piece of potted topiary (Langley sells mini standards from pounds 10) on the patio adds a touch of class and has the advantage of being both evergreen and low-maintenance, needing only a spring clipping which gives the plant a chance to releaf during the rest of the season. And, for those with time to spare, you can grow your own.
Mrs Braimbridge reckons that a small spiral should take about 18 months to get going from an existing bush. Carpentry skills and a good eye for balance and design are handy - one of her cutters was previously a hairdresser. Contrary to general belief, you grow the bush to a decent size and then cut and train it back to shape, rather than grow it into the training wires and rods. Carpentry skills and a good eye for balance and design are the skills required. "They look horrid when you start off," says Mrs Braimbridge, "but you've got to be brave." A newly cut teddy bear with a cane up its back and branches wired to its paws is not a pretty sight, but in a few months, it will have regained its dignity.
Langley Boxwood Nursery, Rake, Nr Liss, Hampshire (01730 894467)