Living art for holidays, beyond-Topiaries make great additions to landscapes

November 18, 2011

by Mimi Saenz and Debbi Roskey,
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
PHOTO BY DEBBI ROSKEY/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
Whimsical topiaries add design to most any landscape.  This rider on horseback is part of the Chisholm Trail topiary garden in Yoakum.
PHOTOS BY MIMI SAENZ/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
LEFT:
Topiaries can be as simple as ivy planted in a pot trained to grow around a wire.
RIGHT:
Sturdy herb plants, like this rosemary, took only 20-30 minutes to groom into a cone shape from its previously fuller shape.
LEFT:  PHOTO BY MIMI SAENZ/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
Cloud tree that is in need of its semi-annual trim.
RIGHT: PHOTO BY ROY COOK/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER

22-year-old pruned sea green juniper with limbs that previously extended to the ground.
Topiaries are one of the oldest living art forms. The act of sculpting or shaping a plant into a particular shape can be found as far back as ancient Roman times. They can add a touch of formality to a space when shaped into clean, geometric lines, or can be as whimsical as your imagination allows. Here are a couple of ways to start a topiary. You may shape a tree or shrub, preferably an evergreen, into a particular form, or you can use an evergreen trailing plant to cover a frame.

Evergreen trees or shrubs

While most any sturdy evergreen specimen can be shaped into a form, take into account what type of leaf will work best for your project. The smaller and denser the leaf, the more forgiving it will be in the event of an error when trimming. According to a local nursery owner, the three most common topiary tree specimens for this area are privets (Ligustrum japonica), which have a larger leaf, junipers (Juniperus chinensis "Blue Point") and yaupons (Ilex vomitoria "Nana"), both of which have smaller leaves. All can be hand-pruned or trimmed using common electric shrub clippers.

Sturdy herb plants

If working with a large plant seems overwhelming, a sturdy herb may be an alternative for you. Walk into any nursery, especially around Christmas, and you will see neatly trimmed rosemary plants (Rosmarinus officinalis) shaped into cones. There are several other herbs that, because of their upright growth, would make wonderful topiaries, including lavender (Lanadula miltifida), savory (Satureja Montana) and santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus). Not only will these herbs make a stunning display, but they are also scented and edible.

Trailing plants

Training a more flexible plant to grow into a certain form is an alternative. The form can be a mere post, an arbor with intersecting vertical and horizontal lines, or something as elaborate as an intricately curved wire design with many twists and levels. The concept is the same - to cover and/or fill the frame.

There are several suitable plants that work well in our planting zone (usually 8b or 9a). After determining the placement of your topiary, see what plants will meet your growing conditions. Plants, such as creeping fig (Ficus pumila), Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum Asiaticum) or English ivy (Hedera helix), are better suited to medium to low light conditions, while Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum Jasminoides) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) may thrive in full sun.

Create a whimsical topiary

You may want to be creative and make your own topiary. It can be a challenging, but rewarding project. There are many books available that show you how to make your own wire displays or you may order them out of a catalog.

Animal Shapes

If making your own wire form, it is recommended you start small. A topiary frame in the shape of your favorite animal is a good way to utilize a vining plant.

First, find an old, stuffed animal. Rabbits, cats, dogs and Teddy bears are the most popular. Next, using heavy-duty gloves and pliers, wrap chicken wire around your model, starting at the top, to form and mold the shape. Leave an opening at the bottom to pull out the stuffed animal. Stuff the wire frame with sphagnum moss and plant a vine inside. Plant clippings of vines in the moss (plugging) to ensure better coverage of the frame. Water and fertilize as needed to establish.

Plant in flower pot

This is a simple project that can be done by planting a vine in a flower pot. Using a medium-gauge wire, attach a topiary wire frame to a pot, and watch it grow around the frame.

To add depth to a topiary, try using different plants or the same plant in contrasting colors. Trim your plant close to the frame as it fills out. Once established, it may be transplanted into a larger pot or planted in the ground.

Step-by-step information

The topiary books on the market give in-depth information, such as wire form ideas, other plants that may be used and more creative ways to display your topiaries. Why not create beautiful living art that's sure to make your neighbors green with envy?

A topiary will make a wonderful addition to your landscape for the holidays - and beyond - and can be a perfect living gift this holiday season.
CREATE A TOPIARY USING A STURDY PLANT

1. Select a densely-leafed plant, preferably an evergreen
2. Decide upon a desired shape
3. Use hedge clippers to form the shape
4. Prune regularly to maintain shape
5. Water appropriately based on plant's requirement

1. Obtain chicken wire and form into desired shape
2. Stuff with moist sphagnum moss
3. Insert desired densely-leafed plants between wires into moss
4. Place in appropriate sunlight based on plant requirements
5. Prune and water appropriately based on plant requirements

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RESOURCE BOOKS

"The Complete Book of Topiary," by Barbara Gallup and Deborah Reich
"Topiary in the Garden: How to Clip, Train and Shape Plants," by Jenny Hendy
"Container Topiary," by Susan Berry and Steven Wooster
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.