Build your own topiary

Create and build your own indoor or outdoor topiary. Here are tips on choosing a plant, a design, and a plan for maintenance.

Not many gardening projects are more enjoyable than making topiaries. A topiary is actually a whimsical, sometimes bizarre type of pruning. Through pruning, plants are trained into three dimensional shapes that add amusement and beauty to landscapes and gardens. Often the shapes take the form of animals or birds. Sometimes they are geometric patterns or may even take human form. The final results of topiary are dependent on the diligence in pruning, choice of design, and the type of plant used for the project.

Topiary is not a new gardening concept. It was very popular in the 16th and 17th century in England, and it has even been traced as far back as to the Roman Empire. Topiaries were very popular with English noblemen and there is even one such garden still preserved from that era at Levens Hall in the North of England. In this garden there are topiaries of giant chess pieces, the likeness of Queen Elizabeth I, several animals, and birds. Topiary popularity faded a bit in the 18th century as it was seen as a luxury in that more no-nonsense time. It made a comeback in the late twentieth century, however, though in a more scaled-back version than the Roman or Victorian English gardeners promoted.

There are two types of topiary: topiary that is entirely natural and consists of an elaborately pruned and shaped plant; and a topiary that is made from a man-made form of wire and chicken netting, with vine trained over it. Both types of topiary can be made for both indoors or out of doors.

With an entirely natural topiary, your first step is to choose a plant. Yew is perhaps the best choice for most topiary projects. It holds up well in cold climates and it easily adapts to constant and even severe pruning. Juniper, boxwood, and arborvitae are also good possibilities.

After you've chosen your plant, you will need to choose the size you wish to start with. Training a plant into a form takes patience and time. If you start with a small yew, for instance, right from the nursery, it will take about 10 years to produce a topiary that is about 8 feet high. If you choose a larger plant to start with, of course, your results will also be quicker. For more complex designs, however, it is best to start with a small, young plant.

No matter what size plant you choose, you will need to prune diligently. All new growth will need to be cut back and all dead and broken wood will need to be removed. For your first project, if you are working with an existing shrub, examine the shrub and see if it suggests a form all ready. It will be easier to maintain and have a more satisfactory result if the shape lends itself naturally to the design.

No matter what design you choose to create, you should keep in mind that the south side of the plant will grow faster than the north side. You may want to sculpt the more complicated, smaller portions of the design to face the north as it may be easier to maintain. For example if you choose to make a duck design, the duck's beak and head, if sculpted on the north side will be easier to keep fine-tuned than if it was sculpted on the faster growing south side.

Depending on the design, you may find you need armatures to support particularly long or heavy branches. Armatures may be purchased commercially, but you can also make your own out of 1/8 or ΒΌ inch rods of soft steel. You can bend the rods with pipe wrenches to the shape and length you need, and then wire or solder it together if necessary. Place the frame inside the design and anchor it into the ground. Then loosely tie the branches or vines you are training to the frame with soft materials like cotton string or raffia. Be sure to check that the ties aren't too tight as the plant grows, that it chokes them off. You will need to adjust or clip off old ties and add new ones as the plant grows.

Also, remember that all plants need light, so any design you choose should allow sunlight to reach the bottom branches in order to maintain the over-all health of the plant. You will want to avoid a design that keeps sunlight from the bottom of the plant. You will also want to water and fertilize the plant regularly to keep it healthy.

Rigorous pruning should take place in spring and early summer, especially if working with evergreens. If the cut ends don't get time to dry and harden before winter, it will hurt the plant. All summer, however, light pruning can and should be done to keep the design full, neat, and the plant healthy.

If you want to have a topiary indoors or don't want to wait the years it will take to work with an all natural creation, you can create a topiary from a man made frame. Just bend aluminum wire into the shape you wish to create and tie the joints with copper wire. Insert the "stem" of the design down into the dirt and wrap the vine around the form, tying it with florist's string or some other soft material.

Another pretty possibility for a topiary creation on a frame is to cover the frame with chicken or florist netting and stuff it tightly with moistened sphagnum moss. Then insert rooted cuttings of English Ivy or creeping fig into the moss. This will actually grow into a plant and will live for a couple of years, if kept fed and misted daily with water. Prune this type of topiary regularly also and tie any stray vines to the frame as you would in the more traditional topiaries.

An additional tip for both all- natural topiaries and those on pre-made forms, don't hesitate to plant more than one plant together to form the topiary. The branches from two or more plants intertwined together will provide more support and fullness to the design, especially larger designs. And don't hesitate to experiment. You will catch yourself smiling unexpectedly at the results.

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