Topiary is the art of creating sculptures in the medium of clipped shrubs and sub-shrubs. The word derives from the Latin word for an ornamental landscape gardener: topiarius. For over 2,000 years, the art and craft of topiary has been practised in gardens; with time, patience, and suitable plants, "living sculptures" can be produced.

Topiary is often used in formal gardens to add shape, height, and sculptural interest; well-clipped pyramids, columns or spirals are used to emphasise the proportion and symmetry of a design. A single piece of topiary can provide a strong focal point, whilst several clipped trees or shrubs can supply the garden with a design cornerstone.

Simple, geometric shapes such as cones or spheres are usually the best forms of topiary for a formal or classical garden, although more whimsical styles such as animals, birds, or objects (such as chess pieces) can add a lively and witty touch. These more elaborate forms may be suitable in both formal and informal gardens, depending on the style, but would be out of place in a wild or naturalistic garden setting.

Slow-growing, dense evergreen plants are the best sources for topiary, such as cultivars of box (Buxus sempervirens), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), yew (Taxus spp.), myrtle (Eugenia spp., Myrtus spp.), holly (Ilex spp.) and privet (Ligustrum spp.). Ivies (Hedera) may also be clipped and trained over frames to form various shapes.

In our Topiary section, we look at how you can create your own simple or complex topiary pieces, and offer you step-by-step guides to clipping and maintenance.