Denise Schreiber is the infamous Mrs. Know It All of The Organic Gardeners on KDKA radio and author of Eat Your Roses.

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Topiary Gardens
by Denise Schreiber       #Art   #Design   #Landscaping   #Pruning   #Shrubs   #Themed Gardens   #Trees

Ultimately, gardening is the act of ‘controlling’ plants and shaping the landscape to our own designs. Topiary takes ‘gardening’ to a higher level.

The evergreen topiaries at Longwood Gardens, with their varied shapes and sizes, are enormous.

Topiary, the art of training live plants to grow into a myriad of shapes and forms by clipping foliage and branches has been practiced since Roman times. The word itself comes from the word topiarius, a description of an ornamental landscape gardener or the creator of topia, or places that were landscapes created in frescos. Pliny the Younger described topiary in a letter about the creations of elaborate plant forms at his villa. What topiary is not are the green meatballs sheared to within an inch of their green lives.

For many centuries topiary fell out of favor, only to be revived in the 16th century. One of the most well-known topiary gardens is the Palace of Versailles in France with its hedges throughout the gardens accented by obelisks on the corners of the garden. Topiary regained popularity during the Victorian era and could be found at some of the great estates in Europe, including Great Dixter in Sussex, England. 

Here in America, topiary was brought to the forefront during the reconstruction of the gardens at Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and the topiary maze was replanted at the Governor’s Palace. The Victorian era also ushered in portable topiary.

The Victorians treasured their houseplants and many had conservatories in which to grow them. The portable topiary was a small plant, usually in a pot that could be moved around the home, showcasing them during parties and other social events. One particular type was a funeral piece. It was a stylized piece made of wire designed for a funeral. One of the more popular designs was a chair called the “Empty Chair” to depict sorrow.

Orchids are grown in standards at Longwood Gardens’ conservatories.

There are several public gardens in the United States known for their topiary gardens including Filoli Gardens in Woodside, Calif., Ladew Gardens in Monkton, Md., The Old Deaf School Park in Columbus, Ohio, and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. The topiary at the Old Deaf School Park is unique in the fact that it is based on an Post-Impressionist painting, Georges Pierre Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It is the only known topiary to be based on a painting. It is in fact a “landscape of a painting of a landscape” and contains 54 topiary people, eight boats, a cat, a monkey, three dogs and an actual pond. For true whimsy and outlandish but spectacular topiary visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where topiaries have been created to represent many of the Disney characters including the hippos from Fantasia and the mouse himself, Mickey Mouse.

Topiary encompasses many ways of training plants. There are shrubs that are grown inside wire cages until they fill them then are trimmed on a regular basis. The most familiar form in the United States is the classic shearing of evergreens into balls, cones, obelisks, animals, boxes, spirals and other shapes. There are the forms that are stuffed with potting mix and moss, with plants inserted in them until they grow roots and cover the form. Sometimes they are filled with flowering plants or different colored foliage to create a pattern. There is the familiar wire form for training ivy or some other vine into a circle or a heart and plants that have been trained from a single stem into a standard.

Bonsai is a form of topiary but the thought processes behind it are different. Bonsai recreates the natural form of a tree affected by wind and weather as it would grow in nature but in miniature. Bonsai plants are trained with wires and judicious pruning of foliage as well as roots.

Choices for Topiary

When choosing your plants for topiary you should consider the size of your topiary, the color, leaf shape, growth rate and habit, flowers and cost. The plant should be scaled to the size of the topiary. Using a boxwood to create a basket topiary is obviously not the right choice whereas using ivy or creeping fig might be ideal. Using a slower-growing plant is sometimes helpful when growing smaller topiary to keep it under control.

Suitable Plants for Topiaries 

• Flowering maple (Abutilon spp.)
Begonia (Begonia spp.)
Boxwood (Buxus spp.)
Camellia (Camellia spp.)
Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum spp.)
Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides cultivars)
Ficus (certain species)
Fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.)
Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.)
Impatiens (Impatiens spp.)
Ivy (Hedera spp.)
Juniper (Juniperus spp.)
Crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.)
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis)
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
Liriope (Liriope spp.)
Crabapple (Malus spp.)
Rose (Rosa spp.)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.)
Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyeranus)
Yew (Taxus spp.)
Arborvitae (Thuja spp.)
Princess Flower (Tibouchina spp.)

This is just a starting point for plants that you can use for topiaries. For more information on how to make your own topiary there are several good books on the subject. The New Topiary, Imaginative Techniques from Longwood Gardens by Patricia Riley Hammer is filled with lots of how-to techniques, drawings and photos as well as an extensive list of plants. The Complete Book of Topiary by Barbara Gallup and Deborah Reich is filled with line drawings and easy-to-make topiary designs.

Top: Evergreens are trained into whimsical shapes (note the birds at the top) at Longwood Gardens. Middle: Chrysanthemums are planted into wire forms to create a myriad of shapes for Longwood Gardens’ Chrysanthemum Festival, which featured more than 20,000 blooming chrysanthemums grown in extraordinary ways. Bottom: Poinsettias are grown as standards and as hanging balls at Longwood Gardens’ Christmas display.

Indoors or Outdoors?

Caring for your topiary depends if it is an outdoor or indoor plant. For those grown outside, regular watering and fertilization according to plant needs as well as a scheduled maintenance trim once a month. Good sharp pruning shears are necessary for small plants and sharp hedge shears or clippers are used for larger ones. Depending on your location, your topiary may need to be moved indoors if it is portable and not likely to survive a winter. Cool temperatures and bright light provide adequate conditions. Rose standards should be moved to a protected location or protected according to the All-America Rose Selections ( recommendations.

There are some insect problems that can occur on topiaries that live indoors, such as whiteflies, spider mites, scale and aphids. To discourage those invaders, there are some simple rules to follow. Keep plants in the proper conditions. Don’t allow them to become stressed by overwatering or underwatering. 

Good air circulation is vital for all houseplants. Keep the foliage clean by wiping it down once a week with a damp cloth. Don’t mist it because that can cause fungal problems. By following these suggestions, you should avoid most, if not all, pest problems.

Plants that are trained into a shape, rather than sheared into shape, benefit from regular trimming. Topiaries such as bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) or rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.) should be clipped on a regular basis and, as a bonus, the clippings are edible as well.

Bumblebees come to life as moss-stuffed wire forms planted with multicolored plants. These bees buzz at Longwood Gardens’ conservatories.

From State-by-State Gardening. Photos courtesy of Longwood Gardens.


Posted: 01/16/13   RSS | Print


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