Making Ivy, Garden, Animal, Herb, Or Floral Topiaries

How to make many different kinds of topiaries; read this article for more information.

Sculpt, grow, and sell whimsical plants in the shapes of animals and topiaries that grow around wire frames for indoor or outdoor gardens and planters. Start with a bit of chicken wire; make any size topiary to fit small offices or living rooms, terraces, or backyards. They sell for prices ranging from $5 for windowsill animal shapes to thousands of dollars for commissioned elephant-size topiaries for parks, zoos or museum gardens.

Grow and sell whimsical plant sculptures for schools, zoos, individual gardens, gift shops, bazaars, or sell through gift catalogs. Master illusion. Make clouds of flowers balanced on slender twigs. Fashion birds from jasmine blossoms for windowsills. Sculpt swans out of Glacier ivy. Sell moss-covered teddy bears in a box of potpourris. Festoon potted boxwood trees with tiny mandarin oranges for indoors. Grow a miniature rosemary tree into the shape of any animal.

Chia seeds, herbal knot gardens, interlaced yew branches, miniature tree tunnels, crown shrubs clipped in the shapes of peacocks, rabbits, camels, bears, lions, or any other shapes are easy to make. Train ivy over a wire mesh screen to form a portrait, animal, bird, or shady wall--indoors or out, for offices, homes or gardens.

No experience is necessary to train plants to grow around templates and mock topiaries, 3-dimensional stencils, cutouts, chicken wire frames, ceramic animal forms, and other foundations. Alphabet topiaries are popular. People enjoy plants growing in the shape of their initials or customized name in tiny plants. You can make more than $30,000 a year fulltime, half that part-time--to start. This is not a dead-end business. You're commissioned to shape plants.

How much money can you make in the topiary business? To start, you can sell the smaller topiaries from your home for $10 to $100. If you go out to someone's home to build a topiary in their backyard, charge by the hour $25-$100, depending on work required.

To create an elephant the size of an elephant or a six-foot-six topiary of a llama or camel, charge at least $35 an hour for yourself. Charge $20 for each crewmember needed to help you, if necessary. Add to that the cost of the templates and any chicken wire frames you order built for the occasion. Some people order their hedges cut into topiaries for special events such as weddings, anniversaries and parties. Cutting hedges into vertical or horizontal initials or dates such as "50th anniversary," are gaining in popularity with corporations, schools, and individuals celebrating events in homes that have large gardens with rows of hedges.

Mazes are popular. So are trees grown together to form canopies. Create a bower or garden room with arches and tunnels of hedges made by braiding trees together.

Make topiaries in the shape of dinosaurs. "Chia Pets" advertised on television a decade ago still sell well in department stores and through mail order. Create miniatures of animals from templates and cover them with moss, ivy, or other plants. Cover anything durable with plants and sell them for $10 and up. They are popular as gifts. Enclose a package of seeds, and sell topiaries by mail with growing instructions to buyers around the world.

Chuck Colburn makes topiaries for the San Diego Zoo. In addition to the zoo horticultural, exhibit, and topiary work, Colburn and his wife also have operated their own successful topiary business for 24 years. The business, Colburn Topiary, is in Elfin Forest, Escondido, in San Diego's north county, 619) 752-1077.

As an entrepreneur, Colburn has made wonderful topiaries for Disneyland, two Disney stores, Disney Studios, Disney Development Company's Fantasia Golf Course, Children's Hospital, private estates, and the Victorian San Diego landmark, Hotel Del Coronado. Many other independent ornamental horticultural sculptors and artists also make topiaries for the zoo and have their work on display. And some topiaries are even done by zoo staffers.

"What you look for when someone hires you do make a topiary is a design that has to be developed," said Colburn. "When you decide on a design, then you begin making the rest of the topiary in steps." Colburn's wife is a sculptress trained in metals and fine art who brings her skills and experience to the topiary business. On the other hand, you don't need any art skills or experience to run a topiary business of your own--especially if you're an average person who wants to open a small business.

All you need is to be told how-to, and that's what Barbara Gallup and Deborah Reich made sure the average person with no experience knows. In 1987, Barbara Gallup and Deborah Reich, world-renowned topiary designers wrote an excellent how-to book called The Complete Book of Topiary, Workman Publishing, New York. Complete instruction in how to make topiaries is found in the how-to book. It's one of the best topiary training books for beginners.

Reich is a New York-based horticulturist and landscape designer. Her book is available through Workman Publishing, 1 West 39th St., New York, NY 10018.

Most people think of topiaries as hedges clipped in the shape of a bear or camel. However, the business is about shaping and training plants to grow toward the sun or artificial light. Plants will grow around anything since they are growing toward the light. You can create topiaries with herbs. Clip Old Faithful fountains with plants. Make topiaries made of geraniums, roses, ivy, and Chia seeds. Braid and knot tree trunks, corkscrew spirals, and straight-stemmed spirals. Plant grafts that grow into animal shapes.

You don't need more than $25 to start a topiary business. It's not art talent as a sculptor that makes a good topiary. It's buying the foundation made of floral foam, chicken wire, ceramics, templates, twine, or stencil cutouts around which you will train the plants to grow.

To start, buy a few frames, plants, and finished topiaries to study for indoor and outdoor display. A topiary can be as simple as cutting out a circle or square in the center of a hedge wall. To sell your services, it's best to first begin with animal shapes and develop small, indoor topiaries so you can build potted samples of your work. Cutting large hedges into animal shape isn't mobile or portable when you make the rounds of gifts shops. Slides of your bigger projects will do.

To make topiaries in animal or bird shapes as samples, first buy the supplies. They'll cost you less than $50. You'll need the following: Long-fiber sphagnum moss and a wire topiary frame from your local garden center.

You'll also need rooted cuttings or small plants in two to three inch pots, fertilizer, and waterproof adhesive tape or fishing line. Soak the sphagnum moss in a pan of lukewarm water until soft and smooth.

A weak solution of water and fertilizer also is good. Squeeze the excess water out of the moss-- a handful at a time. Then build a 2-inch thick layer of plants in the bottom of the frame. The wire topiary frame comes already twisted in the shape of an animal or bird, and you buy the frame from a garden center or order from a topiary supply catalog. Later you can make your own frames in the shapes of anything for which a customer asks. Start with buying ready-made frames. Later, you can twist your own frames out of chicken wire after you look at several templates.

Remove the plants from the pots. Arrange them around the perimeter of the layer. The roots will rest inside and the stems will protrude sideways through the wire frame. Don't push the plants in too deeply. Sprinkle loose soil from the pots over the roots.

Build layers of moss and plants as you work your way around the frame. First a layer of moss, then a layer of plants as you build just like you were making a lasagna layering the cheese, the meat, and the vegetables over the layers of pasta. Press down gently on each layer of moss until you fill the frame. Pin and shape to cover the frame of the stuffed sculpture.

Patricia Hammer, the topiarist at Longwood Gardens uses this simple method. The idea is that you build as you go. It's important to emphasize that you need no experience to make and sell topiaries. The finished work looks as if you are a talented artist and sculptor who clipped plants into the shape. In reality, you trained the plants to grow toward the light around the wire frame bought in a garden supply shop.

Animal shapes include penguins, bears, birds, fish, dinosaurs, or lions, dogs, and cats. Other shapes available include sailboats, statues of people, classical Greek-style heads, religious symbols, fiction characters, famous people, and other more customized wire frames. When you have built up and grown successfully a simple wire-frame topiary, and the plants are growing heartily, it's time to build a wrapped form.

Buy these supplies: enough sheet moss to wrap around your frames, soil-free growing mix, long-fiber sphagnum moss, a wire topiary frame of individually customized sizes or standard forms, fishing line or florist's wire.

Start with one roll or enough to cover your frames. The sturdier wrapped form for non-vining plants are good for plants that will not totally cover the frame's surface. Good plants to use are dracaenas, spider plants, or succulents. Wrapping adds increased dimensions of the form, an increase of about an inch all around.

Shake the sheet moss in a weak solution of fertilizer diluted in tepid water. Each time you pick up a handful of moss, squeeze out the excess water. You'll need a filling. So mix one part of soil-free growing mix you can buy in any garden shop with two parts of sphagnum moss. Then moisten the mixture.

Line the base of the frame inside the bottom with the thickest pieces of sheet moss. As Deborah Reich explained, "Cover the lower half of the frame on the outside with sheet moss. Tie a piece of the fishing line or florist's wire to the frame and wrap it loosely around the sheet moss. Baste it in place to cover the frame. It must hold the filling."

Fill the cavity created by the covered portion with the stuffing mixture. Add layers of sheet moss to the lower half of the frame repeatedly. Continue to tie a piece of line to the frame. Wrap it around the sheet moss. Baste it in place. Fill the cavity created with the covered portion with the stuffing mixture.

The entire frame eventually will be covered by sheet moss and filled with growing mix. Use the fishing line or florist's wire to lash the whole form so that it holds the sheet moss and filling in place. Smooth the surface by petting the topiary. Tie one end of the wire to the frame. Leave a long tail. Keep the wire taut. Wrap the line snugly around the form several times. Tie off the wire securely using the long tail. Repeat this step as necessary. Start with separate lengths of line. When the entire form is sturdy and smooth, the topiary is done.

Add small bits of thinner sheet moss to fill out details. Build ears and paws if you're making a topiary animal. Build up character and definition to your pet topiary. Don't fill in the fine details and other small areas with growing mix. Topiary, Inc. in Tampa, Florida has an illustrated list of reasonable-priced wire frames. Topiary by Lucky in Danville, Kentucky, sells wire frames. Totally Topiary, owned by Barbara Gallup specializes on custom designs for frames and topiary. Order frames and templates by mail.

Vine Art, Portland Oregon offers galvanized wire topiary frames in an assortment of shapes. Dorothy Biddle Service, U.S. Route 6, Greeley, PA (717) 226-3239 has supplies for mock topiary and florist's pins for training vines on portable topiaries.

Topiary suppliers are local to individual areas of the country. First talk to local garden centers and florists, horticulturists at your area's zoos and botanical gardens, and go through gardening supply, landscape architecture, and florist supply catalogs. Use glass eyes and "hats" to animate the topiaries.

To train vines, such as ivy, on stuffed forms, train the stems on moss by pinning them to the surface. They will send out small roots wherever the shoots touch the moss. Don't pin down the edges. Pin between the leaves, never through them. Train one even layer of growth. Leaves trapped beneath other leaves soon rot. Each day the plants will grow. Train and pin new shoots to fill bare patches. When you cover the surface, trim awkward stems with a scissors.

Once the topiary is growing, it requires watering, feeding, grooming, insect control, and disease control. Misting will not keep the plants watered. Add water when the soil surface is dry to the touch. Each month, apply a balanced water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro or Peters. Don't fertilize in late fall and early winter when plants are resting.

To groom a topiary, remove yellowing leaves with scissors. Pin down stems that cover the frame. Remove excess growth that doesn't contribute to the shape. Cut out sections where stems are woody with leaves set far apart. Train tendrils to cover bare patches. Start outdoor figures with boxwood and yew.

Misting and soaking helps with insect control. Your garden center will suggest a variety of materials to get rid of insects. Try the natural, organic solutions first. Over watering contributes to diseases. Fungicide solutions, such as benomyl and some natural compounds are available from organic gardening centers. To make large, six-foot tall topiaries out of hedges, you need to buy landscape architectural supplies at garden centers and landscape design centers. Before you start clipping mazes, arches, windows, and initials from high hedges in gardens, begin with the indoor topiaries and animal shapes. Herbs may also be used for topiaries

Your second project can be a peacock. Purchase a peacock frame or make one yourself from heavy gauge wire. You'll need a spreading yew bush, a wire peacock frame, a 3-foot piece of wire if your frame doesn't have a spike twine, and a pruning shears. Wrap wire with adhesive tape to strengthen. Decide which branches will be the head and tail. Separate branches into two bunches and tie with twine. Wiggle the frame down over the bush.

Push the spike into the ground. Bend the 3-foot piece of wire into a "U" and steady the frame with it. Untie the yew bush. Bend, tie, and tuck branches to fill out the frame.

As the plant grows into the shape of the peacock frame, clip off any stems that stray outside the wire. Each season, shear to keep the bird's shape. Allow the bush to grow an inch or two outside the frame to hide the wires.

"Pleaching" is a method used to create an architectural topiary on bushes or hedges. You could cut out in the middle of hedges a rustic tunnel or make a palisade by braiding branches. The braided or woven branches create a canopy or solid wall.

Intertwined branches grow together. These natural grafts support an arch or roof. You make a rustic pleached tunnel by planting a row of saplings on either side of a path. Tie the tops together. Fashion trees to a series of arch-shaped supports. To make windows in hedges, you'll need a trashcan lid or window screen for a template and pruning shears.

"Hold the template or screen up to the side of the hedge and nick out an outline of the window," Gallup and Reich explained. "Remove the template. Starting in the center, cut away the hedge a bit at a time until you reach the nicked outline. Trim the windows when you prune the hedge."

To carve any decorative form on a hedge, "Hemlock, yew, and cypress are three evergreens that have the fine texture necessary for this kind of detail," Gallup reported. "Start on the decorations when the hedge is in need of a trim, with at least six inches of new growth."

Twine is the usual guideline and cardboard cutouts in the shapes you want. To carve birds and swans out of hedges, Gallup stated, "Allow a cluster of stems to develop in one spot. Tie them together. Divide the shoots into two unequal bunches. The larger group will become the body and tail. The smaller bunch is for the head. Tie the large bunch together where you want the tail."

Tie the smaller bunch where you want to define the neck. "Take the two or three longest stems," Gallup and Reich reported. "Bend them down and tie into a curve to create the head." The rough outline of a bird will emerge. Clip into a well-defined shape as the stems grow. Often you can purchase cardboard cutouts in any shape in the size of the hedge.

Purchase Halloween figures or other animals at a topiary shop or from a catalog. Have photos enlarged into cardboard cutouts and use as a template to clip hedges around.

You also can build a wire frame over a cardboard template and grow the plants over the customized frame. Chicken wire forms are good because you don't need many tools. A roll of chicken wire and wire cutters, some thin wire is all you need at a cost less than $25. For instructions on how to make a dinosaur or teddy bear, and many other shapes, see The Complete Book of Topiary.

Gallup and Reich's book is so clear and easy to understand, you don't need experience or talent. Build topiaries without a garden. I highly recommend this book. The only space needed is your kitchen counter top or any small folding table. For buying already-built frames, see your topiary supply house or garden shop.

The twelve top plants for topiary include the following: baby's tears, boxwood, creeping fig, cypress, hemlock, lavender, myrtle, pine, privet, rosemary, yaupon, and yew. For more information, write to your local botanic garden or get in touch with topiary experts from your local zoo, or some of the suppliers: Topiary Expert:

Elfin Forest Chuck Colburn Janet Schuster PO Box 03014 Escondido, CA

Suppliers: Vine Arts Portland, OR 97203 (Vine arts sells galvanized wire topiary frames in many shapes)


Society of American Florists and Ornamental Horticulturists 1601 Duke St. Alexandria, VA 22314

To find how-to topiary classes in your area, check your library and adult education classes.

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