Top topiary: clipped privets and well-trimmed bushes

PUBLISHED: 09:42 30 July 2016

Highgate Topiary, Privet and Spotted Laurel clipped into Rounded Forms in front of South Close mansion flats, N6

Highgate Topiary, Privet and Spotted Laurel clipped into Rounded Forms in front of South Close mansion flats, N6

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

How to get topiary to match Muswell Hill’s best-trimmed bushes? Quality, well-crafted Japanese tools will give you the edge.

Highgate Topiary, Privet and Spotted Laurel clipped into Rounded Forms in front of South Close mansion flats, N6 Highgate Topiary, Privet and Spotted Laurel clipped into Rounded Forms in front of South Close mansion flats, N6

From the left side of the bus along Muswell Hill Road, approaching Highgate, you may have noticed a sudden glimpse of topiary, of round green shapes bubbling up against red brick.

As with much topiary, it has an intriguing air of improbability. What are they doing there, these portly forms?

Stopping off for a closer look reveals a considerable company of clipped privets and spotted laurels. No peacocks or dragons, just the stout parties jostling each other within the rising space. Edged by golden privet, they flank the steps to the mansion block in South Close.

Are they its guardians, or trying to take over? Who shaped them in the first place? When? Who keeps them in trim?

Niwaki topiary shearsNiwaki topiary shears

I lurked about South Close recently, hoping that someone might appear to whom I could put some of these questions. After an agreeable interlude of talking to living cats and reading the plaque to a dead one, “Cosmos the Cat, He loved the Close and the Close loved him,” a helpful man let me copy down the caretaker’s details.

I was soon in touch with the resident in charge of the communal gardens. She reported that the topiary forms have been there for a long time, but that to be more precise would take research. She was, however, clear that they take much maintenance, and have a surreptitious habit of getting taller. James Christen, of Quercus Gardens, is the one who shapes them.

When I spoke to James, he confirmed that he and his men know those forms well. Every two or three weeks they are in amongst them, wielding a mix of hand and power tools. He had never heard any explanation of how they came to be there, they just are. This just being there accords well with how they look – they have real presence, of a mildly extraterrestrial, don’t-mess-with-us kind.

Topiary, “the art of shaping trees and shrubs by clipping and training” is well practised and appreciated in Japan. Of late, the British gardening public has been able to acquire the hand tools traditionally used there through Niwaki, who had a stall of their wares at this year’s Grow London Fair on Hampstead Heath.

Niwaki snip and secateursNiwaki snip and secateurs

The company was set up by Jake Hobson to import these Japanese gardening tools to the UK. Japan is where Jake first learned about topiary and became used to Japanese tools. He was working in a tree nursery in Osaka.

When he returned home to practise these skills, he concluded that Japanese tools are much better than ours for all sorts of hand tree work.

Better how? Jake says “The steel is higher quality and takes a sharper edge, the tools are well balanced, simple, traditional.

“Coming from a culture that values craftsmanship, the Japanese don’t expect tools to be cheap or gimmicky. They expect to keep the same saw, hatchet or shears for decades, meanwhile sharpening and looking after them.”

Setting up Niwaki (i.e. Garden Tree) came about gradually, but now the company needs bigger premises. Knives, pruning saws, secateurs, whetstones take up little space, but the tripod ladders are another story. These ladders, with their third, adjustable leg, feel wonderfully stable – my current experience of them was only on concrete, but still, I’m hopeful. Indeed (I address this to any readers who may also feel that prancing about on ladders is not the fun it was) I think these three-legged ones may extend our rung-life.

Niwaki, Chaldicott Farm, Semley, Dorset SP7 9AW


0345 474 1041

There‘s an attractive catalogue, with kitchen knives and other additional sundries.

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