Thoughts on domination, niwaki and the topiary arts

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

:  of, relating to, or being the practice or art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes; also  :  characterized by such work

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! 🙂

I can't even begin to imagine how this all went together, but I do admire both the technical finesse and the sense of humor that no doubt went into the creation of this oversized gardener.

I can’t even begin to imagine how this all went together, but I do admire both the technical finesse and the sense of humor that no doubt went into the creation of this oversized gardener.

Same with the Lemurs. How did they make those tails?

Same with the Lemurs. How in the world did they make those tails and faces?

I adore the sheep! They are just wonderful! I'd love one, but I imagine they too, are beyond the skills of most.

I adore the sheep! They are just wonderful! I’d love one, but I imagine they too, are beyond the skills of most.

This hairy bronze sedge dog is a study in shaggy monochrome. Coolest thing ever.

This hairy bronze sedge dog is a study in shaggy monochrome. Coolest thing ever.

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!

'A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' - a famous painting by the pointillist painter George Seurat became the inspiration for Topiary Park in Columbus Ohio.

‘A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ – a famous painting by the pointillist painter George Seurat became the inspiration for Topiary Park in Columbus Ohio.

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”.

Found on Pinterest, via gardensclick.blogspot.ch

Knot gardens were formal, geometric arrangements that functionally separated herb- and flower beds. Photo from Pinterest, via gardensclick.blogspot.ch – a now defunct website.

This knot garden from the Bill and Mary Wayne Dixon garden shows the knots better than the previous photo. Photo from

The empty voids of this knot garden from the Bill and Mary Wayne Dixon garden shows the intertwining knots better than the previous photo. Photo from http://luxecrush.com/buzz/article/garden-glory

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”.

Here is the Parterre from Bodysgallen Hall, borrowed from the Britannica webpage on parterres. This is more like a parterre than a knot garden in that it doesn't feature the intertwining hedges as shown in the Dixon garden above.

Here is the Parterre from Bodysgallen Hall, borrowed from the Britannica webpage on parterres. This is more like a parterre than a knot garden in that it doesn’t feature the intertwining hedges as shown in the Dixon garden above. The knot garden has most definitely gotten flatter.

This parterre from Versailles is flatter still. The hedges have been nearly completely eliminated. Photo from Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

This parterre from Versailles is flatter still. Except around the edges, the hedges have been nearly completely eliminated. The nearly two-dimensional scrolls are very flat. Photo from Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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…

This maple at the Portland Japanese Garden has been carefully shaped to showcase its character and the essence of itself.

This maple at the Portland Japanese Garden has been carefully shaped to showcase its character and the essence of itself.

Here in Portland, you often see trees that have been sculpted like this. The method is often called

Here in Portland, you occasionally see trees that have been sculpted like this. The method is often referred to as “cloud pruning”. You often see trees like these as part of a group with other plants of less rigid shapes – a vignette of sorts, conveying certain Asiatic sensibilities. Seeing this one in its context, however made me stop, and turn the car around.

This is what I saw. What the...?

This is what I saw.

Or, actually - THIS is what I saw - from the highway. What the...?

Or, actually – THIS is what I saw when I first drove by on the nearby highway. What the…? What is it? Is it art? Is it Asianesque? Or is it maybe just a little bit crazy? If it’s art, it should convey some kind of statement… right? If so, it continues to elude me. Unless of course “We really like cloud pruning and staying in control” is a statement.  I agree it looks a lot more interesting like this than just a blank wall would have, but I’m still a little mystified. As for Asianesque, massing it like this removes all the subtle, understated elegance of niwaki – it is far too in-your-face. Anyway, I was puzzled by this, and very intrigued. Not that everything has to fit into a label or anything, but I would like to understand if there was any kind of reasoning behind it. It certainly exudes a high level of control. I would expect all the company execs working there to have carefully sculpted hair held in perfect place with lots of product. What do you think? Is it just because it looked kind of cool and unusual? It certainly caught my eye…

Months after I laid eyes on the decorated wall, I was working on a project in a suburban neighborhood. Blobbed plants were everywhere:

Green grass, and perfectly blobbed shrubs.

Green, immaculately  manicured and edged grass, accented by perfectly blobbed shrubs. I mused over the very rigid non-garden appearance of this garden, and briefly reflected on the people that inhabit such a place. Then I turned the corner…

... and saw THIS! Wow... who does this?

… and saw THIS! Wow… Who DOES this? I’m surprised they let the branches of the Deodar Cedar above drape naturally, with such uneven, jagged edges – this is clearly a household where restraint, control, and submission reign supreme. I couldn’t help wondering what their bedrooms look like…

If their garden is any indication of personality traits, I bet you there is a fair amount of sadistic pleasure being peddled in there, behind the heavy drapes. I'm not judging - just trying to grasp and accept other people's realities.

If their garden is any indication of personality and preference,  I bet you there is a fair amount of sadistic pleasure being peddled in there, behind the heavy drapes. I’m not judging – just trying to grasp and accept other people’s realities. And – lost in my curious fascination – trying to figure out who is the Dominatrix of that poor garden.

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:

These shrubs look like the molars of my lower jaw. Wonder if a dentist lives here?

These shrubs look like the molars of my lower jaw. Wonder if a dentist lives here?

About annamadeit

Born and raised in Sweden, my aesthetics and outlook on life are strongly shaped by a culture rich in history and tradition. I care a great deal about environmental responsibility, and my aesthetic reflects the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia. I was trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati and as a color specialist at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm. I'm obsessed with plants and gardens, and aim to take my skill set a step further by designing gardens as well as interiors. As someone so aptly said: " Architecture is the skin that separates the exterior from the interior". So true - you can't successfully focus on one without incorporating the other. I'm also an avid cook, and I love to ski. In addition, I put time and efforts into trying to rectify things that I feel are wrong in my immediate community. As you will see, The Creative Flux will touch on all these things, and more. For sure, it's all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blog!
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20 Responses to Thoughts on domination, niwaki and the topiary arts

  1. mattb325 says:

    Love it! Personally I find pruning and shaping plants very relaxing, a sort of zen-like quality. But for some, it is about control as you say, so if you do knock on the door, be prepared for anything!

    • annamadeit says:

      I think pruning is very relaxing too, and enjoy it once I get into it. I tend to think long and hard before I make that first cut, but after that I loosen up. As for knocking on the door, I’m sure I’ll chicken out. But it sure is tempting…

  2. Pauline says:

    I love a firm, formal structure with plants billowing and frothing to make a contrast. Also the formal structures look wonderful in the winter if /when we have snow. Love the shaggy dog made of sedge, it is fantastic, it reminds me of my last dog, she was very shaggy too!

    • annamadeit says:

      So true – you can really see the structures in a white world. It’s like Nature is making the gardener’s job easier. Except in the dead of winter, none of us feel compelled to go out there and do anything about it. 🙂

  3. Alan @ it's not work, it's gardening! says:

    Those topiary characters are amazing! Your cloud pruned shrubs against the wall could be “art” without making a statement — it certainly evoked an emotion or response from you! 🙂

    The pruned “boulders” in the last (well, second to last) image are actually quite amazing. Not something I’d do in my garden, but impressive and beautiful nonetheless. Great post!

    • annamadeit says:

      Haha – you are right, of course! It most definitely evoked a response. And yes – anything done to that degree merits a bit of respect, even if the concepts seems alien.

  4. Alison says:

    So much interesting stuff to think about in this post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos, and the history of topiary and knot gardens. I too can’t stand the cat pee smell of boxwood.

  5. Eve says:

    I actually love the (azalea?) boulders at that last house. I find the forms surprisingly fluid and humorous, like they are creeping up on the homeowners, much better then the hemispherical trios at the earlier house. If they are indeed azaleas, the effect would be even more surreal when they are in bloom- psychedelic lava-lamp blobs of fuchsia and crimson coming to get you…

  6. Kris P says:

    I have mixed feelings about topiaries. While I can appreciate the restrained use of cloud pruning in a residential landscape, seeing too many manicured forms makes me queasy. However, I love the Disney-esqe sculptures of the Montreal Botanic Garden (which I hope to see in person some day) and Ohio’s Topiary Park. I appreciate the artistry of parterres but, as I prefer to view garden close up rather than at a distance, I don’t think I’d ever install one myself. If you’ve never seen them in person or in photos, you may want to Google succulent topiaries at San Diego Botanic Garden – they’re SoCal’s answer to Montreal’s topiaries.

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh, those are fantastic too, Kris – thanks for telling me about them! (And much closer than Montreal…) Yeah, there is a very sinister undertone in too much perfection that my sensibilities rebel against. But yes – I too appreciate the amount of work it takes to pull something like that off.

  7. I always think big round shrub balls look like life pods. I keep waiting for an alien to pop out. I think the cloud pruned shrubs look stupid but at least it’s better than the absurd rectangular barricade-type shrubs I see everywhere around here. I think grasses would have looked nicer in that spot.

    • annamadeit says:

      Life pods? Now that’s interesting…. It would be kind of cool to pair one of your life pods with one of Eve’s fuchsia or crimson aliens – don’t you think?

  8. Judy and I are going to Montreal at the end of the month, now I can’t wait to visit the Botanic Garden there. As for the cloud pruning against the wall, I think what the designer is telling us is this: If one cloud pruned shrub is nice, then ten are ten times better.

  9. sue says:

    It’s all STIHL’s fault. In the hands of the uneducated,, power pruners are ruining landscapes right and left. These yard janitors have no idea how a plant grows or flowers, so they just “neaten it up” at each session. Result: green hockey pucks and stressed-out plants. Blogger-Designer-Author Billy Goodnick hosts the web page “Crimes against Horticulture” and invites visitors to post examples of ‘crimes’ they encounter. So far public shaming hasn’t made a dent in the crime rate.

    • annamadeit says:

      Haha – yeah, I’m familiar with Crimes against Horticulture. Too bad it’s not helping much – I love the idea of it. Truly, some neighborhoods look just ridiculous!

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