Topiary is the art of fashioning living plants into ornamental shapes. The art of topiary has been practiced for centuries, dating back to the hanging gardens of Babylon. Topiaries were also very popular in English gardens. Many shapes in the English gardens were formal such as globes or pyramids. Today's topiaries take on a variety of shapes from formal to playful. Watering cans, teddy bears and many other fun forms join the more traditional shapes. A trip to Florida and Walt Disney World shows the level that the imagination can go with plant creations.
Two types of topiaries exist, slow-growing shrub topiaries and the quicker sphagnum topiary. Shrub topiaries require a carefully designed frame so that the diameters of the frames are no smaller than 4 inches. This ensures the topiary will not become constricted and girdled as it grows. Evergreen shrubs that are naturally full, fairly fast-growing and shear well produce the best topiaries. Shrubs are planted at each point the frame comes in contact with the soil. After the shrubs are planted, the frame is "planted" over them. Plants are fertilized and irrigated regularly. The shrubs are pruned, tied, and clipped to fill in the frame. Shrub topiaries can take 3 to 10 years to complete. Once mature, regular shearing is needed to keep the original shape of the topiary.
The second type of topiary is the sphagnum topiary. With this method, a complete topiary can be produced in less than three months. Chicken wire is applied to a frame to form the "skin" of the topiary. If not present, cut an opening for filling. Using sphagnum moss as the planting medium, stuff the frame firmly to hold the desired shape. For large frames, create a three inch layer of moss and fill the rest with packaging popcorn.
Place rooted plants through the wire and into the moss. Some forms may need sections of wire cut out in order to install plant material. As new growth occurs, hold the growth in place with hairpins, and train it to cover the form. Many trailing types of plants will root as they grow. Ideal plants for use in sphagnum topiaries include English ivy or creeping fig. Any plant with small leaves and a trailing habit can be used.
Sphagnum topiaries require regular pruning to maintain their shape and to promote multiple branching. Fertilize regularly with a water soluble fertilizer to encourage abundant growth. To water the topiary, submerge the entire form in a tub of water or thoroughly soak with a watering can. Most require frequent watering.
Topiaries have become popular features as landscape focal points as well as for indoor decoration. These living forms are easy to create. Start with a simple frame and try your hand at creating living artwork.
This article originally appeared in the April 14, 1995 issue, p. 45.