Organizing Theory & Artistry

Landscaping Basics: Topiary

"Topiary2-Mendocino Coast." Photo by seligmanwaite. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Since I am focusing this month on yard and garden, I find myself examining plantings wherever I go. On a recent walk, I looked closely at the natural forest and saw how random and scattered natural plantings are. The plants grow clustered together in such a way that it is hard to tell one plant from another. The random patterns sometimes look like a cluttered jungle and other times beautiful art.

In human-planted gardens, we set rigid boundaries for plants, we mulch them and control them to grow where and how we want them. It is interesting to see people’s personalities expressed through their gardens. Some people have very tightly clipped and controlled gardens and others a more flowing, looser style.

After posting about evergreens on Monday, I have also been looking more closely at evergreens in various plantings. I decided that I really like the look of evergreen shrubbery when it is clipped into topiary forms. But is topiary possible for a beginning gardener? Today’s post asks exactly that.

What is topiary?

Topiary is an old art form that first surfaced in ancient Egypt and classical Rome. It involves training a plant to take on a desired form. In a way the topiary is a form of plant abuse. You clip and prune the branches in ways they ordinarily don’t grow. The plant, under stress from this process, produces growth in other directions to compensate for the loss of the clipped branches. This may not be the healthiest way for the plant to grow but it does allow for a lot of creative possibilities.

Lion topiary at Disney's Epcot Center. Photo by dbking. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Topiary fell out of fashion in the early 1700’s but was revived in the 1840’s. In the United States, we owe the revival of topiary forms largely to Walt Disney, who wanted Disney characters recreated in topiary at his Disneyland theme parks. You can click here to watch a short movie showing the process Disney uses to create the topiary frames for their characters. Note that Disney even builds an irrigation system inside the frame! The Disney topiaries are really quite incredible, using a variety of plants as decorations for hair, clothing, etc.

What plants can be used for topiary?

A variety of different types of plants can be used for topiary. Generally evergreen plants are used so that the topiary shape can be admired year-round. Herbs, especially rosemary, can be used for topiary as can houseplants like ivy. Below is a list of some of the most common plants used for topiary:

Evergreens
hollies
boxwood
arborvitae
bay laurel
myrtle
yew
privet

Herbs
rosemary
lemon verbena
fringed lavender
dwarf sage
sweet bay

Other
ivy
flowering plants such as lantana, fuchsia, and hydrangeas.
small-leaved scented geraniums

How difficult is it to make a topiary?

Topiaries look really difficult to make but watch the videos below and you will see that they aren’t all that complicated. Below are some videos showing the process. First, a quick video showing how you can quickly just put a cage form over an existing plant to start growing a topiary.

If you are not keen on cutesy metal forms, you can also freehand simple designs like lollipop trees. Mike and Marlis Stribbling show you how in the two videos below. First, how to create a simple lollipop tree form.

Second, how to trim a more mature topiary hedge.

What tools do you need for topiaries?

The tools for topiaries are fairly simple. You need to have a good pair of topiary shears, some plant stakes or metal forms and a means of attaching the plant to the form, such as a Tapener machine or ties.

Poodle Topiary Frame from Green Piece Wire Art at amazon.com

Topiary Shears from amazon.com.

Grape shears at amazon.com.

Velcro plant ties at amazon.com.

I hope that this discussion of topiary gives you the courage to give it a try. Topiary is a great way to add an element of sophistication to your garden. If you have some boring hedges that you are not too fond of, perhaps you will like them better with a topiary twist. If all you have is an indoor garden, you can also share in the topiary fun. Some of the hilarious animal shapes could give personality to a garden and perhaps encourage children to take an interest in plants.

One caution on topiary, however. I wouldn’t try topiary on a plant that I absolutely loved and couldn’t stand to lose. Because it is possible that the severe pruning involved could gradually weaken a plant and cause it to die, I would only experiment with topiary on a plant that I could easily replace.

I will end this post with some unbelievable topiary examples from around the world. Please share your thoughts on topiary in the comments.

Rabbit Topiary at Palace, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Arthur Chapman. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Lady and gent topiary in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by ptc24. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Brontosaurus Topiary at the Musee de Paleantologique in Villers-sure-mer, France. Photo by Parksy19644. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Bedfont Church Topiary, London. Photo by Dick Penn. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
Squared off shrubbery in the Jardins de Valloires, France. Photo by Pot Noodle. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
Square trees in Paris. Photo by srboisvert. From the Flickr Creative Commons.