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Past Articles Library | Topiaries: A Classical Tradition in Plant Art Inside and Out

Topiaries are a plant art form that was described as early as 23-79 A.D.  During this time Ancient Romans would prune cypress trees into different shapes.  As Rome fell so did the popularity of topiaries.

During medieval times, this art form was again discovered but utilized fruit trees instead of cypress trees.  The Dutch, during the 15th century became interested in sculpting plants into animal shapes.  In 17th century England, a resurgence of this art form reappeared.

During the 18th century, plant design became more natural and in turn plant sculpture became out of vogue.

As estates grew across Europe so did the popularity of topiaries.  This period of history brought new plant material and gardening techniques to the estate horticulturalists.

The concept of topiaries traveled to North America by way of Willimsburg, Virginia in 1690.  Topiary popularity grew until World War I and World War II.  Both of these events caused the large estates in Europe to fall and with the dismantling of these estates so did the popularity of plant sculpting.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, topiaries began to show up.  These topiaries were not the traditional kind that were found in the garden but instead began to show up as houseplants.

Today, topiaries can be found anywhere.  Some take the shape of animals while others are pruned a certain shape associated with a particular holiday.  Regardless of the shape of design, the easiest topiary to create is the indoor variety.

Creating an Indoor Topiary

There exist three types of indoor topiaries.  The first one is referred to as an herb tree or standard.  This style is normally only created using a woody-stemmed herb.  The appearance of this type of topiary is that of a bare stem that is topped with vegetation that is pruned into a bushy ball.

The second type of indoor topiary creates the same look as above but utilizes a ball form that is planted.  This creates a mature looking topiary instantly.

The third type of indoor topiary is one referred to as a multilayered topiary.  This type consists of a form that the plant material is trained to grow up and take its shape.

Creating an Herb Tree

This type of topiary starts out with small, well-rooted cutting of a woody-stemmed herb, such as bay, rosemary, and lemon verbena.  Once the herb has been selected, the next step is the selection of the container.  A chopstick supports this type of topiary.  For stability, the pot must be deep enough so that at least one half of the chopstick is inside the pot.

After the container has been selected and it has been cleaned, the next step is to place drainage material in the bottom of the container.  Fill the container half way up with a good all-purpose potting soil and place chopstick into the soil.  Make sure that the chopstick has reached the bottom of the container before going on to the next step.

Continue to fill the container until you reach ½ inch from the top of the pot or the rim.  Once this is done, plant your well-rooted cutting in the center of the pot and adjust chopstick as needed.

After the herb has been planted, it is time to begin pruning.  Remove all the leaves along the stem until just before the top of the chopstick is reached.  This type of topiary should not tower over the height of the chopstick.

Once this is done, tie the woody stem to the chopstick ever 1-½ inches using soft twine.  Hand prune the ball into desired shape and finish off by pinching shoots to promote bushy growth.

Creating a Mature Topiary

This type of topiary requires a topiary system, large clay pot, and plant material.  To begin the process, first wash and prepare large clay pot.  Place the pole of the topiary system in the drainage hole and secure to the pot using the metal support that comes with the system.  Fill in with drainage material.  Once this is done, fill the container ¾ full of an all-purpose potting soil. 

After the soil has been placed in the container, it is time to plant.  This type of topiary can be planted with both ivy and flowers but make sure that all plant material used has the same growth requirements. 

Once the plant material has been chosen, simply plant the bottom first.  After this is done, it is time to create the ball on top.  To do this, first attach the wire basket to the pole and line the basket with sphagnum moss or coconut fibers.  To speed up the look, one can simply place a hanging basket of flowers inside the basket of the topiary.

Another technique for this type of topiary requires one to plant in the top basket.  To do this, simply add the sphagnum moss or coconut fiber, fill with soil and plant.  The plantings are not limited to just the top of the basket but plants can also be planted along the sides.  This is simply done by making a hole in the lining material, placing the plant in the hole and pushing back together the lining material.

The plant material placed inside the container can either be trained to grow up the pole and into the basket or left to cascade around the planter.

Creating a Multilayered Topiary

The multilayered topiary requires the gardener to have a form.  This form can be purchased or made by the gardener.  To make your own only requires a coat hanger and your imagination.  Bend the coat hanger into desired shape.  Once that is done place it in the container as described in Creating an Herb Tree.

After the form has been secured and the container has been fill ¾ with an all-purpose potting soil, it is time to plant.  Place at least one plant on each side of the form.  Fill the container with additional potting soil as needed. 

Once this is done, it is time to begin training the plant material.  Simply begin this process by wrapping plant material around the form.  Remember though, to alternate the direction of the plant material.  This will help fill in the form faster.  After all the plant material has been wrapped around the form, simply secure it loosely to the form with soft twine.

Indoor Topiary Care

Topiaries are beautiful but to keep this beauty going requires a few simple steps.  The first is to water the topiary well but do not drown it.  Always check soil moisture before watering.  Second, rotate the topiary so that growth is even.

Creating an Outdoor Topiary

Modern-day topiaries are not limited to the indoor environment.  Many can still be found that are created the Old World way.  Outdoor topiaries come in two types.  The first type is one that consists of a three-dimensional frame that is stuffed with sphagnum moss and planted into.  The second type consists of pruning a shrub into a chosen shape.

Three-Dimensional Topiary

This type of topiary can be found indoors when done on a small scale and outdoors when done life-size.  The process begins with the frame.  This frame can be purchased or created by the gardener.  To create your own is simple and only requires chicken wire or light gauge wire, wire cutters and/or pliers.  The easiest type of form is a free form type.  This normally consists of simple shapes like cones, spheres, and easy animal shapes.  The second type is the wrap around.  This consists of a form that is created by wrapping the wire around an object and then removing the object from the form.  Stuffed animals, toys and garden sculptures are commonly used molds for this type of form.  The last type of form is a wire sculpture.  This is created by cutting away and adding to a wire shape for more detail.

Preparing the Form

After the form has been purchased or created, the next step is to prepare the frame for planting.  This is done by stuffing the frame with presoaked sphagnum moss.  To aid in this process, start stuffing the small areas first and secure the moss into the frame with clear, microfilament string or fishing line.

Continue stuffing the small areas, once this is complete start filling the larger areas.  Secure the moss to the form with the microfilament or fishing line.  After the form has been stuffed completely, one can begin the planting process.

The planting process begins with plant selection.  Ivy and vining plant material is the perfect choice for this type of topiary. Presoak the plant material for at least one hour before using.  Utilizing plant material that has soaked reduces plant stress during this process.

Start the planting process in the large areas of the form.  Make a hole in the sphagnum moss with a wooden dibble or screwdriver.  Once this is done, gently remove the plant material from its container and place in the hole.  Do not tease the roots.  In this type of planting, one is not planting into soil but instead moss.  It is very important to keep as much of the soil intact as possible due to this fact.

Once the large areas have been planted, the next step is to plant the small areas.  This can be done in two ways.  The first way is to plant as above.  The second way is to secure vines with fern or hairpins to the sphagnum moss.  Make sure though that the vines make contact with the moss so that they root.

To care for your topiary, mist with water often to encourage rooting and check moisture level of the moss.  If the topiary is small enough, submerge the shape in a pail of water.  If the form is too large, it will need to be watered with a soaker hose. 

Since the plants are not planted into traditional soil, one will need to apply an all-purpose liquid fertilizer during the growing season.

To aid in the shape, continuously prune and pin the vines throughout the year.

Topiary Created with a Shrub

This type of topiary consists of placing a form over a shrub and cultivating that shrub into the form’s shape.  Plants that are normally associated with this type of topiary include boxwood (Buxus spp.), holly (Iiex spp.), and Yews (Taxius spp.).

Creating this type of topiary starts off with the form selection and location.  The form needs to fit into the location that you have chosen.  Also, consider the style of the garden space when selecting your form.  Formal gardens typically call for formal types of frames but animal shapes can be found in many European formal gardens.  Just keep in mind though, that the topiary should add personality and whimsy to the garden space.

After the location and form has been selected, the next step is to prepare the soil.  Remove any sod and add needed soil amendments.  Once this is done, do a dry run of your form.  This requires the gardener to set the form on the soil and decide what position the form needs to be placed.  After this discussion has been made, mark the areas where the form touches the ground with powdered milk.  These marks will create a guide by which the gardener can calculate how many plants are needed and provide a plan of placement.

After the plant material has been purchased, the next step is the planting process.  Start the process by digging a hole on the marked location that is twice the diameter of the root ball and slightly shallower than the height of the root ball.  Once this is completed, cut away the container from the shrub and tease the roots.  This will encourage the roots to grow outward instead of in a circle.  Place shrub in the hole and fill in with a good quality compost.  Repeat with all the shrubs and then water in.  Add any additional soil as needed.

Next, the form will be slipped over the shrub or shrubs and secured to the ground.  Push as much of the plant material as you can into the form.  What will not go into the shape will need to be pruned away.

Once the form is in place and pruning has occurred, mulch the area with three to five inches of wood chips, grass clipping or dried leaves.  Water as needed and only fertilize during the growing season.

Pruning will need to occur at least once a year to help maintain and fill in the form.  Other ways do exist to aid in filling in the shape.  This includes weaving the plant material into the form and tying it into shape with green garden ties.  If using the tying method, make sure that the ties are not too tight.  This type of obstruction will reduce or prevent growth.

Topiaries or plant sculptures, in general, take a lot of work but they can add personality that ones garden space may be lacking.


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