Wednesday, September 19, 2012



Located in England’s famously picturesque Lake District, Levens Hall boasts the world’s oldest topiary garden still surviving in its original design. Dating back to 1694, the topiaries reflect the late-17th-century taste for clipping trees and shrubs into abstract masses or geometric forms. Huge yew and beech hedges create garden rooms (state rooms, really), and parterres are punctuated with towering top-hatted shapes seeming to totter on a single trunk. The garden also includes an orchard, a nuttery for growing beechnuts and walnuts, and a bowling green.


Drummond Castle and grounds were established in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1490. The tower house remains largely intact, but the gardens have been substantially changed over the centuries. Today there is some back-and-forth over the authenticity of the grounds (restored or re-created?), but most agree that they represent a grand 17th-century Scottish garden. The parterre, with its low clipped embroidery hedges, is in the shape of a large St. Andrew’s cross—geometric topiary forms being all the rage in the latter part of the 1600s. The regimentation of the layout is leavened with the addition of leaning topiary trees that lend an impish, Harry Potter–ish charm. These tipsy towers accentuate the long views from the garden, across verdant fields to distant hillsides.


After you have eaten all the foie gras and truffles you can during your visit to the Périgord region of France, consider a postprandial visit to Marqueyssac. The original garden was created in the 19th century and enhanced when a new owner, Julien de Cerval, acquired the property and made it his life’s work. In 1861, De Cerval began laying out a dreamy topiary garden on a hill high above the Dordogne River. He spent the next 30 years overseeing 150,000 boxwoods groomed to mimic the surrounding hills of the Dordogne Valley or, when viewed from above, the backs of grazing sheep. This might be the most relaxing garden in France. Even the garden’s website evokes twilight thoughts of peaceful slumber: Gaze at the count-the-sheep topiaries, or just listen to crickets and snipping shears.


The house at Cliveden, originally built by the second duke of Buckingham in 1666 as a retreat for entertaining friends and his mistress, was rebuilt twice after fires in 1795 and 1849. Overlooking the Thames in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, the palatial house and its extensive gardens were reimagined again in 1893 as an Italianate masterpiece by William Waldorf Astor, the first Viscount Astor. An avid fan of the Renaissance, Viscount Astor purchased the grand balustrade from the Villa Borghese in Rome and moved it to Cliveden to enhance his garden viewing. He also added the Long Garden—planted with topiary corkscrews, pyramids, and peacocks, which were once again popular during that period in garden design. Stately parterres bedded with blocks of color also feature mature yew topiaries resembling Fisher-Price stackable toys. In 1942, Cliveden was given to the National Trust and substantially replanted and restored. The most recent update is a one-third-acre maze of 1,100 clipped yews. Don’t worry about wandering endlessly inside the towering labyrinth: A Maze Keeper is on duty to make sure visitors eventually find their way out.


When you find yourself caught in the seemingly endless tedium of Interstate 95 around Baltimore, take an off-ramp to the wonderful topiary gardens created by Harvey S. Ladew. A bon vivant born during New York’s Gilded Age and a famous cutup, Ladew (1887–1976) purchased a Maryland farm, later developed 22 acres of it for a garden, and then decided to do all the landscaping and garden planning himself. A sporting gent, Ladew often rode to the hounds during visits to England, which inspired his not-to-be-missed topiary hunting scenes complete with fox and hounds bounding across lawns and horses and riders clearing fences in pursuit. In another garden area, Ladew’s huge oval swimming pool is surrounded by wavelike topiary hedges topped with green swimming swans. Ladew was able to infuse his rooted-to-the-earth sculptures with a sense of motion that is unique in this arena of garden design.


Located 30 miles from Philadelphia, Longwood Gardens was deemed by Geoffrey Jellicoe, founding president of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, to be “one of the truly outstanding American estates.” Established and organized largely by Pierre du Pont in the early 20th century, the property originally belonged to founder of the Province of Pennsylvania William Penn. Penn sold it to a fellow Quaker named George Peirce who shared his curiosity and reverence for plants and the natural world. The Peirce family established an arboretum there and when the land came up for sale in 1906, Du Pont purchased it largely to save the trees. After traveling the world and visiting many famous gardens, Du Pont settled down at Longwood to begin building his own extensive gardens. Influenced by European topiary art, he established a garden of yews clipped into geometric forms and the shapes of animals and even a table and chair. Today the garden contains more than 50 topiary trees.


Green Animals is a garden that the children will especially love. Following the European Renaissance tradition of creating furry shapes in clipped trees and shrubs, Green Animals features a menagerie of adorable creatures. Located in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, on a hill overlooking Narragansett Bay, this topiary masterpiece features teddy bears, an elephant, an ostrich, a unicorn, and more than 75 additional forms of green fauna. The property was originally the summer home of Thomas Brayton, treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company, and his family; it was the head gardener who began clipping and experimenting with topiary forms in the first decades of the 20th century. Brayton’s daughter Alice eventually took over the property in 1940 and renamed it Green Animals. By 1947, the garden had achieved such renown that a young Jacqueline Bouvier had her debutante party there, and today it is owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. If you are so inclined, your little ones can attend the annual Green Animals children’s party—along with a thousand other people.


This eccentric garden was begun in 1941 in Santa Barbara, California, by Ganna Walska (1887–1984), a much-married Polish opera singer whose motto was: “I’m an enemy of the average.” Some areas of the gardens have blue slag glass recycled from the Los Angeles–based Arrowhead Spring Water factory lining the pathways, but despite these flights of fancy, the plant collection at Lotusland—numbering more than 3,000 specimens—is quite serious. Walska began her topiary collection in 1958, but 40 years later it was in such decline that the remaining frames were removed. In 2001, the topiaries were replaced and today 26 new animals create a green topiary circus. This is a public garden in a private residential area and visits are arranged by appointment.


Pearl Fryar’s garden in Bishopville, South Carolina, is an ongoing work of contemporary horticultural art. Fryar began creating his topiaries in the 1980s as he rescued trees and shrubs that local nurseries had thrown away. He planted these sickly orphans on his suburban property and, in the process of nursing them back to health, started shaping them into abstract forms. The plants prospered under his care and, unlike other topiary gardens with clipped forms appearing almost exclusively in yew, box, or privet, Fryar’s topiaries are shaped from more than 50 different trees and shrubs. Today Fryar welcomes visitors to his whimsical garden, and he now lectures nationwide on topiary. His garden, containing more than 300 plants, has received international acclaim and preservation plans are in place with the Garden Conservancy and the Friends of Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden.