How to prune topiary

By Martyn Cox

Read our guide to pruning topiary to add shape and structure to your garden, even during the winter months.
TopiaryTopiary is a good way of adding distinctive shapes to your garden

Whether they are grown in a pair of sleek galvanised steel containers outside your front door or planted among perennials in a border, box topiary shapes are among the most useful plants in the garden, providing structure, texture and all year round colour.

Although box balls, cones, cubes, pyramids, domes, spirals and a menagerie of animal shapes are among the trendiest things you can grow, they quickly lose their appeal when a crisp outline is lost beneath a shaggy coat of new growth. The answer: give plants a trim in June.

When to prune topiary

Prune topiary in June. You might notice your box bursting into life in March and lots of lime-coloured shoots concealing the dark green shape beneath but d on't be tempted to prune them until June.

Trimming young, sappy growth in the spring is likely to bruise the foliage, leaving you with a topiary shape that is unsightly. It is best to prune in mid-June, when the leaves are hard and leathery, and again in late summer if necessary.

Don't worry if you did prune your topary in the spring, the bruising will be eventually hidden by the subsequent flush of growth.

How to prune topiary

It's possible to trim simple shapes - such as cones and balls - by eye, but for greater accuracy use a garden cane as a cutting guide for straight edges or make a template.   

To prune balls, take a length of garden wire and twist it into a circular shape that can be held and moved over the plant as you prune. To ensure you are left with a perfect sphere, make the frame smaller than the mass of foliage.

Restore a cone shape by standing above the plant and pruning in an outward direction from the centre, working around the plant. Alternatively, rest three canes on the sides of the cone and push into the ground. Secure the canes at the top to make a wigwam and bind the sides together with garden wire. Use your shears to prune to this framework.

Topiary spirals may look complicated, but it is easy to re-establish an overgrown specimen.  Working from top to bottom, prune the upper surface of the spiral making sure you remove the foliage as far back as the main stem. Next, trim the upper and then the lower turn of the spiral to create its curved edges.

Pruning tips

With practice, pruning topiary is a doddle. For the greatest success use a pair of hand held trimmers - these look a bit like sheep shears - to leave a lovely clean finish, and regularly step back to double check your progress - unfortunately, if you make a mistake there's no turning back.

Further information

Burgon & Ball sell an extensive range of topiary shears

To buy topiary shapes, try The Romantic Garden Nursery

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  • Siobhan

    Posted: Sunday 27 July 2014

    My reasons: I am a devoted gardener who has downsized from massive to tiny town garden. I have exhausted all development possibilities and space for planting in soil. I need a project to keep me going - but also to add another 'type' of garden object to my place. I favour Box Ball topiary as I find the animals a bit twee. I am not controlling (I love wildflower gardening) or bored it is just a practical next step in a town garden. Good luck with your project!

  • Liz

    Posted: Friday 21 June 2013

    Ashley, i am purchasing a smaller topiary "kit" as a gift for the guy who has everything and has been impossible to buy for. His wife is on holiday for several weeks and i thought it would give him something to do while she is gone. No idea if this will be a success. I would say he is a guy who likes his garden, has had some success with bonsai so i know he is patient and also likes to try doing new and quirky things. Hope this helps

  • ashley

    Posted: Monday 22 April 2013

    what type of person goes into topiary? a creative one? a controlling one? someone who is just bored? i am doing a college project on a topiary and your help would be greatly appreciated. i would love to hear what type of person you are


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