My first encounter with fanciful topiary came when I was 18 and arrived for the first time on the campus of my Boston area college. Situated atop a hill, my dormitory offered an idyllic view of the lake and of a fantastical topiary garden on the other side.
Now, I know that one does not need to be Edward Scissorhands or to employ an army of pruning professionals to be able to enjoy topiary at home. All it takes is an appreciation of the art of living sculpture and the imagination to incorporate it into a garden plan.
From one of the neglected garden books in my collection, I discover that topiary — the practice of pruning or training evergreen shrubs into shapes — has been around since Roman times. Over the ensuing millennia, it has gone in and out of fashion, but enjoyed a renaissance in the Art and Crafts garden of England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Large manors and estates in Europe featured mazes, hedges, parterres and knot gardens, as well as potted boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) pruned into cubes, orbs, cones, spirals and other shapes.
Shrubs having dense foliage, small leaves and a fast rate of growth serve the best as specimens to prune into shapes. Although boxwood is the most commonly employed shrub, others also are well-suited to the task, including dwarf yaupon, Japanese yew, hollies, laurel and ligustrum. Some of the larger leafed plants (ligustrum, for example) lend themselves to larger topiary form, while smaller leafed plants (dwarf yaupon) work better for potted specimens.
Few local gardeners have the space, patience, or desire to tackle large topiary sculptures like the birds at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania or the fox and hounds at Ladew Gardens in Maryland. But low hedges dividing garden plots into geometric shapes can still be adapted for use at home. For ideas, visit the Pitot House on Bayou St. John, the New Orleans Botanical Garden or Longue Vue House and Gardens.
It isn’t necessary to install a totally controlled and clipped garden to benefit from topiary: Cones and orbs can be accents in a perennial flower garden and add focal points, much as a stone sculpture or bird bath would. The idea is for the topiary and its geometric shape to contrast with the color and looseness of the flower beds, serving as an appealing counterpoint.
Because topiary is in vogue again, local nurseries offer a variety of specimens for the home garden, most of them intended to remain in containers. Spirals are in favor, as are “lollipops” (a ball atop a single trunk) and “double lollipops” (featuring two orbs, one larger than the other, separated by a foot or more of trunk). Most topiaries for sale at nurseries are pricey because of the time it takes to create them.
One technique for creating shapes out of living plant material bypasses the tedious pruning and shaping process and relies instead on wire or metal frames that can be hand crafted or purchased online. The frames provide a sort of shortcut to creating topiary: Filled with sphagnum moss, wrapped in wire or fishing line to hold the moss in place, and planted with plugs of a fast growing plant (often English ivy), they yield a shapely topiary in a fraction of the time it would take to grow a shrub into the desired shape.
Whatever topiary choice a gardener makes, it’s important to care for the plant properly to reap years of rewards from the investment. Southern Living magazine recommends keeping the soil moist in a container-grown topiary, but preventing roots from sitting in water by filling the saucer beneath the pot with gravel. Apply a slow release fertilizer once in the spring and prune new growth back to the body of the topiary to promote density.