A Topiary Day

It has been a beautiful autumn day, even if it is only the first day of September. The sky is a deep Mediterranean blue with wisps and puffs of white cloud. The sun is bright and warming, but not too hot for working outside, in fact it is a real pleasure to be outdoors and soaking up the sun.
The topiary, my girls were looking a bit dowdy and in need of smartening up, the perfect job for such a perfect day. Medieval topiary was light and delicate if the illuminations are to be believed. Time for a haircut.
The girls are the medieval yew topiary estrades that I have been growing and training since they were young saplings some ten years ago. Medieval topiary is shown in the manuscripts as being from one to three layers of discs, one above the other. It was grown in small pots, largish pots, very expensive blue and white containers, in raised beds or as part of a turf seat.
Medieval topiary is shown as light and delicate; not the heavy solid blobs you now find in most gardens.
It sounds rather dull and unexciting, but each piece of topiary develops a character of its own as it grows. No two are ever alike. There is the tall, slender one, not much flesh on her. She would be overly fussy and forever moaning about everything in a nasal whine. In complete contrast are the twins. They are large-bodied lasses; brash and bold. The twins stand out from the crowd simply by being larger than everybody else and putting the others in the shade with their exuberance. The other girls probably look down on them behind their backs. Then there is the youngster who quietly hides in the background. She is shy and nervous, not helped by being the smallest of the crowd. One day she will blossom into a beautiful woman, but for now she is mostly ignored. The oldest topiary is definitely more masculine; very butch and beefy. Today she would be re-styled as the flouncy girl she used to be.
Enough of such gossip though, and on with the work. It is a medieval garden, so I try to use medieval tools as much as possible. The shears are what people refer to as, ‘Old-fashioned sheep shears’ but which are in fact the only shears available during the medieval period. They were used by fletchers to shape the feathers on arrows, tailors to cut cloth, gardeners to trim grass and plants, and of course by shepherds to shear the sheep. An Iron Age pair of shears was found at flag Fen during the archaeological digs. A very expensive offering, they were found with a wooden case that had been carved to hold them securely in place.
People often use such shears and then give up, saying it is too much like hard work, and go back to powered hedge cutters or hand shears. Like most things it is easy when you know how. First make sure they are sharp. If not file the angled side of each blade until they are and then remove the burr from the flat side. Make sure the blades are clean. If not rub them down with fine emery cloth or wire wool. The main problem is the grip. The thumb and forefinger have to grip the handle just above the point where the blades cross when they are fully open, but are still touching. This give a good pressure and stops the blades from opening too far and separating, which becomes very annoying after a while if it happens too frequently. They correct grip saves much frustration. If you have soft hands, then wear gloves, otherwise the blisters will put you off using the shears again.
Shears get into fiddly parts of topiary where other tools either cannot reach or will not cut properly if you do get them in. These shears give a good, clean cut as long as you don’t try to cut wood that is too thick. (You will soon find out what too thick actually is). They are also nimble and can cut lovely curves on balls and spirals.
When you shape topiary you must hold the shape you that you want in your mind’s eye, but be willing to follow the genius of the plant you are shaping. Somehow the personality of the topiary comes from within the plant, rather than what you impose. Don’t force things. Let it just happen. This may sound rather airy fairy and New Agey, but relax, it really does seem to work.
Don’t forget.
If you have lots of yew hedges to trim they can be sold or donated to companies who will collect the trimmings.
It is the new growth that the companies want as it contains the most chemical from which the drugs can be extracted. I used to work in a garden where we collected the trimmings. It is best to put sown sheets before you start cutting so that the trimmings fall onto the sheets, which keeps them clean and makes it easier to collect them.
There is lots of information about this on the internet. I am providing just one link. There is usually a company near you who will be interested in your hedge cutting waste.

I am a garden historian, but a practical one. I resarch how gardening was carried out in the past, rather than just researching gardens. It can be very interesting. Some things that I learn seem to be rather unbelievable. Some other methods are still very practical. Visit my web site- www.historicgardener.co.uk

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