Topiary is the art of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes. And it’s been practised since Julius Caesar’s time! These shapes can be as simple as rounded domes, or as intricate and fun as ships and animals. But, no matter how simple or intricate the shape, all topiary needs trimming to maintain sharp outlines and defined designs. 

Trimmed topiary

Levens Hall in Cumbria has the oldest surviving topiary garden in Europe, created in the 1600’s.  The garden at Levens is full of tall, intricately shaped, ancient shrubs which take the gardeners as long as six months to prune! Fortunately, the average gardener can get (slightly less extravagant) design jobs done in less than a day. Early summer is a great time to get trimming. However, if you don’t have time to do it now, there will be another opportunity to do so at the end of the summer. Slower growing shrubs, like Yew and Box, should only need an annual trim. Faster growing specimens, such as Privet, may need trimming twice a year.

Tools for the job


Luckily, nothing too complicated is needed to create gorgeous designs. Simply make sure you have the following:

  • Sharp blade hand shears
  • Sharp blade secateurs
  • Tarpaulin


It’s important to make sure that the blades on the tools you use have been freshly sharpened so that they cut cleanly rather than crushing and potentially tearing the stems.

Place the tarpaulin around the base of the plant. This means the tarp will collect any clippings, and will make it easier to remove waste at the end of the session.

Start by trimming the longest shoots using the hand shears. Make sure you keep the blades parallel tot eh side of the plant. This will give an even finish, overall.

If you’re nervous about spoiling the shape, trim lightly until you can see the existing form clearly. Then you can go back and trim closer to the edge of the structural shape.

Next, continue trimming top to bottom. Work your way around the entire plant.

Any thicker parts of the plant should be cut with the secateurs.

When you’ve finished trimming, run your hands over the entire plant to loosen and trim any stems that may have been tucked away.

trimming longer pieces of topiary

Top Tips

  • Carry a mister, cloth, and spray with you. Wipe clean your cutting blades periodically to remove accumulated plant sap.
  • Secateurs rather than hand shears are best used to trim large leaf topiary specimens, like holly, where you need to cut the leaf stem, not the leaf. A cut holly leaf will turn brown.
  • If you have large topiary plants, then it’s best to use a powered trimmer and tripod ladder.
topiary bird

Topiary shouldn’t just be reserved for grand country estates. Get your garden looking beautifully curated by trimming your topiary, today! 

Discover the top plants for topiary in your garden:

Or check out my Pinterest board for more ideas: