What catches your eye first when you visit a garden - structure or colour?
I'm guessing structure: trees, buildings, features like steps, pots and pergolas. You might glance briefly at a curtain of purple bougainvillea or a rose garden at its flowering peak, but generally it's the shapes that dominate the landscape.
Visiting Les and Elaine Musgrave's garden, The Kaya at Wildes Meadow, the first scene to stop me in my tracks, despite stiff competition from eye-catching autumn colour, was a collection of shrubs, beautifully clipped into knee- to shoulder-height mounds.
Les, a skillful and accomplished gardener, had used evergreen shrubs in varying shades and textures and grouped them in the dip of a slope, to lead the eye down to a small pond in the centre of a glade. The solid domes contrasted satisfyingly with the loose shapes of the nearby trees and the smooth grass underfoot and provided a focal point that held everything together.
Clipped plants using leaves with different colours and textures are used throughout The Kaya. Sometimes they are contrasted with upright columns, weeping standards and spiky plants. Sometimes they repeat a shape like a dome or box near smaller, clay terracotta balls placed among low ground covers.
They are integral to the garden's design, giving it unity regardless of season or weather.
Topiary, or the art of clipping evergreen woody plants into clearly defined shapes, dates from Roman times, the word coming from the Latin for landscape gardener, topiarius, someone who created topia or places.
It remains popular to this day and is a wonderful tool for gardeners in dry climates, as you don't need a vast range of plants to create an interesting and inviting garden.
It's also brilliant when you are starting a new garden and are desperate for instant structure.
Even a fast growing tree takes five years to provide height and presence, but with topiary size is less important, it's the dominating shapes that count, and there are plenty of fast-growing plants like artemisias, santolina and curry bush (Helichrysum italicum) that clip easily and make good-sized plants within a couple of seasons.
Topiary is also extremely useful in reviving overgrown or neglected gardens. Straggling old abelias, ceanothus and westringias, for example, are easily clipped into simple cubes, cones or balls and are transformed from eyesores into attractive features.
When planting shrubs to be topiarised, remember that constant clipping produces constant growth, which is tiring even for slow subjects like European box.
Give them a good start with a large hole and lots of compost and mulch, and feed and fertilise regularly. Keep replacements up your sleeve with cuttings.
The sky's virtually the limit when it comes to choosing shrubs to clip. Look for drought-hardy plants with small leaves in different colours and varying textures: matt, rough, shiny.
Silvery teucrium, green-grey rosemary, steely blue rue, soft green Pittosporum tenuifolium - all are rewardingly quick and you'll be thrilled with what you can achieve.
Admire beautiful topiary at the late James Fairfax, AC's Bowral garden, Retford Park, open the first weekend of each month. Bookings essential, check www.myopengarden.com.au/
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