Whatever happened to topiary? Topiary, just in case you don’t know, is defined as the art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes. The shrub most commonly used by the topiary practitioner is undoubtedly Buxus sempervirens, or to give it its common name, box. I could count on the fingers of one hand all the locations of examples of topiary that spring to mind. It’s one of those things that seems to be slowly slipping into another era, a bit like thatching or sharpening hand saws.
And I suppose the reason is simply that things change – tastes, priorities and preferences are in a constant state of flux. Have you come across anyone this millennium hanging woodchip wallpaper, or mounting a line of a brass ducks above their mantel piece? Probably not.
Similarly, when was the last time you saw someone planting a line of Leylandii as a hedge around their house? The only contact Leylandii is having with humanity these days is through the medium of the chainsaw. They have been finally and thoroughly recognised for the scourge they are and are relentlessly and mercilessly being ripped out. It wasn’t like that in the 70s and 80s when they were being put in. We couldn’t get enough of them back then.
I cite topiary primarily as an example of how things change, its decline is probably to do with the fact that there is not much box planting going on these days. Box is synonymous with the formal garden and there are not too many of those being designed and built anymore. We are more into variations on the theme.
For example, I am building a townhouse garden at the moment and the trusty box has been eschewed in favour of purple barberry as a border. The garden by the way is symmetrical and has a straight border, but not in the traditional formal style. The planting will bear no resemblance to the schemes you would associate with a formal garden, for example, there will be no pivotal, central feature such as the ubiquitous stone water fountain.
The townhouse or urban courtyard garden is the one setting that I habitually come across which retains the potential to work as a formal garden. We cherry pick elements from the genre but put a different spin on them to try to catapult the mood into the twenty first century. Which can be difficult.
This development was designed to give off a contemporary feel. The plaster finish, the entrance gates, the window shape and material, the entry doors. These things convey a sense that the architect was trying to be quite ‘now’. But at some point in the process he or she evidently developed a mild dose of schizophrenia because as soon as you get inside you are confronted with full on French country chic. The profile on the finish carpentry, the décor, the stairs, the kitchen, the bathrooms. The whole place screams multiple personality disorder.
And this is an issue that is at the heart of most of our design missteps – incoherence. To what does this French country style refer? Why the stark, unjustifiable clash in themes between inside and out? A fundamental tenet of any design is that you deliberate on the nature and character of the setting, decide upon an appropriate theme and that every subsequent decision should then reinforce that theme. It clearly doesn’t happen.
And we can have incoherence on a micro or macro level. The micro level is in settings such as the one I describe above, disharmony between inside and out or front and back. But possibly a cause for wider concern is the macro disharmony in our landscape brought about primarily by our dysfunctional planning system. One person likes cedar trees and block walls, another likes laurel and low timber fencing, another likes privet and high wrought iron fencing. OK. The problem is they all live right beside each other.
And that can only mean one thing, a dog’s dinner. Or in the French country style, un dîner de chien.