Gardening often involves some kind of artificial growth control. For the most part, it’s a fairly innocent activity, like mowing, edging, weeding, or deadheading. Sometimes, it’s a more invasive form of control, like pruning or shaping, or even complete removal. Often, this more drastic activity has something to do with size, shape or form, but even so, it’s usually rather subtle, the end goal being one of either prevention, preservation, or presentation. Once the errant branch has been removed, the remaining parts are normally left to do what they were always intended to do – keep growing.
Then there is the playful kind of growth control. One can have a lot of fun with some metal wire and a pair of pruners. The Merriam-Webster definition of topiary goes like this:
Definition of TOPIARY
With the great eye and imagination of wondrously talented garden artists, topiary has become quite the art form. The fabulous creatures in the Montreal Botanical Garden is what first sprung to mind. My friend Hollye snapped these photos when she visited, and I’m using them with her permission – thanks Hollye! 🙂
For now, I’m living vicariously through Hollye’s travels, but this park has firmly implanted itself on my bucket list! I love how expressive every single creature is. I expect the dog to start chasing his tail at any moment.
In Columbus, OH, in the park behind the main library, and what used to be the old School for the Deaf, garden visionaries have been busy too. Eons ago, when I was still a page at that library, the initial wire frames went in. By now, they are filled with greenery. Be sure to click on the link in the caption – the winter photos are the best!
The forced shaping of plants goes back quite far. In the Middle ages, so called knot gardens served as elegant divisors of the many beds of herbs and flowers. The knot gardens consisted of geometric, interlacing, compartmentally arranged, low, clipped hedges – often out of boxwood, but any easily shaped, low growing plant would do. The hedges served to functionally separate the various plants from each other. I have always crinkled my nose at the cat-pee smell of boxwood, and apparently contemporaries had opinions on it as well. Per Wikipedia, the 16th century English herbalist, poet, and writer Gervase Markham remarked upon its “naughtie smell”.
During the French Renaissance, the traditional knot gardens evolved further into something called parterres, where the importance of the pattern itself superseded the original intent. These immaculately cut tapestries were meant to be admired from above. For maximum contrast, the voids were either filled with fine, colored gravel, or sometimes with flowers. At their most extreme execution, the hedges were done away with completely, and were replaced with other contrasting materials like shells or coal, or even “wooden or leaden shapes”.
Of course these stem from the days when armies of gardeners would cater to those in society’s higher strata’s every whim. As the world changed, so did the availability of cheap labor. But it doesn’t always have to be so complicated. There are simpler topiaries too – like the ubiquitous, suburban boxwood balls, poodles, spirals and cones that grace so many front steps. Even in those simpler forms, they are a stab at formalized artistry, and is perhaps an attempt at conveying a certain air, or asserting a status – more so than the pure artistry and playful brilliance of the critters at the beginning of this post.
The Japanese culture adheres to yet another form of shaping – niwaki. The word itself means ‘garden trees’. Through the use of a set of traditional pruning techniques, trees and shrubs are shaped to bring out the essence of that particular tree or shrub. Just like Japanese gardens are about creating an artful, stylistic representation of the real thing, Niwaki is about using shaping techniques to find and enhance the inherent character in a tree – not so much about the tree itself. I’d even venture as far as to say that the Carex dog in the fourth photo manifests the inherent character of that particular grass beautifully. Does that make it Niwaki? I really don’t know, but it’s interesting to ponder…
Months after I laid eyes on the decorated wall, I was working on a project in a suburban neighborhood. Blobbed plants were everywhere:
Oh well, I’m doing some more work in that neighborhood soon. Maybe I’ll just knock on their door and ask… Wouldn’t that be fun?______________________________________________________________
UPDATE, August 22, 2015: I went on a garden tour today. As we were leaving, we drove past this: