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Past Articles Library | Gardening Design | Making Topiaries in Your Garden

Making Topiaries in Your Garden

Topiaries are either vines that are encouraged to grow over wire forms in the garden, or shrubs and trees that have been pruned to resemble animals, people, and inanimate objects. Bonsai trees are a special type of topiary.  It takes patience to make topiary, but topiaries add a lot to the landscape.  They can become the focus point in your garden.  Making one yourself saves you a lot of money because professionals charge hundreds of dollars to make them.

Tools.  Making a topiary is easier is you use topiary sheers, but can be done using long handled clippers if you do not have topiary sheers.  Be sure and clean your tools before you prune with a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water.  You should clean your tools in this solution before moving on to another plant to clip.  This will help prevent diseases in your garden from spreading.

Tree and shrub topiary.   You must prune it often to keep it in the shape you want it to be.  Not every tree and shrub can tolerate that.  Those used most often are European box  (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja species), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex species), myrtle (Eugenia or Mytus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species).

It is easiest to do topiary by choosing a small, juvenile shrub that you can mold as it grows.  However, topiary may be done successfully on older trees and shrub.  It is harder than starting with a young plant.

The next step is to build a wire frame in the shape you want your shrub to grow in.  You place this frame over the topiary to guide you when you prune it.  Some professionals do not use a frame, but most do.  It makes pruning the shrub or tree much easier.

Topiary occurs in slow motion.  If you prune too much off, you can kill your shrub or tree.  While pruning, think of what you want the plant to look like when you are done with it.  Prune off no more than three inches while working toward that shape.  If you are trimming a young shrub, you can get it to fill in by trimming one inch off in those areas.  The shrub will become bushier in response and fill in the blank spot. Every three months during the growing season, you should train and prune the topiary plant.  If you are making a complicated topiary, it may take years to train your plant into the topiary you want it to be.

Vine topiary. This type of topiary can be used to cover a form completely. First, you have to decide what shape you want and purchase or make a form of that shape.  Then you must choose a plant.  There are many vining plants, but English ivy is used more often, because it grows quickly, is tolerant of many different growing conditions, and looks really nice when it is done.  However, you can also use other vines, such as periwinkle or Boston ivy.

If you fill the form with sphagnum moss, it will look fuller faster. Sphagnum moss is not strictly necessary, however. Plant the vine around the form.  Encourage it to grow up the form by wrapping it around the form. You will need to prune off or pinch off any pieces of the plant that will not grow on the topiary form.  The amount of time it takes for the topiary to fill out and cover the form depends on how big the form is.  If you have a large topiary, you can plant multiple vines around it and train them to grow on the form.  The topiary will look finished faster with more than one plant growing on it.

Bonsai trees. Bonsai is a special kind of topiary that is done to make the trees into miniature trees that grow in interesting shapes.  They are usually kept inside in pots. 

Bonsai originally started in China, not Japan.  The trees became associated with Zen Buddhism.  However, today bonsai trees are used for their traditional uses, but are also used for decorative and recreational purposes.

A particularly good tree for a beginner to use is the juniper tree.  It is evergreen and lives over most of the northern hemisphere.  Other conifers that work well are pines, spruces, and cedars.  If you prefer a deciduous tree, Japanese maples work well, as do magnolias, elms, and oaks.

You must decide if you want to keep your tree inside or outside.  Indoors is more protected but tends to be drier and with less sunlight.  Outdoors, the bonsai must deal with the cold and with storms.  Some good inside varieties are:  Ficus, Hawaiian Umbrella, Serissa, Gardenia, Camellia, Kingsville Boxwood.  Some good outside varieties are: Juniper, Cypress, Cedar, Maple, Birch, Beech, Ginkgo, Larch, Elm.  Some of the trees, such as juniper, can work inside or out.

Next, you must decide how large a tree you want.  Bonsai range from six inches to three feet.  Think about where you are going to keep your tree and how much time you have to devote to it.  Larger trees need more maintenance than smaller ones.

When you are ready to purchase your bonsai, decide whether you want to grow it from seed, from a cutting, or buy a tree that is already grown.  Growing one from seed lets you have control over every aspect of its life.  However, it can take five years to grow into a mature looking tree.  Taking a cutting from an existing tree will let you have a tree faster than growing it from seed, but let you have more control over it than buying a grown tree will give you.

Next, you will need to choose a container for your tree.  Get one that is large enough that the soil in it will cover the bonsai’s roots, but not much larger.  The pot helps restrict the growth of the tree, so a larger pot can let the tree get too big.

Bonsai trees need to be repotted occasionally to let them grow larger or to renew the soil in the pot.  Gently take the tree out of the current pot.  Clean the roots of soil so you can see them easily.  The roots don’t have to be spotless, just clean enough for you to see them.

Prune off any large roots or any that are growing up.  You want a network of long, slender roots that sit just under the soil.  This allows the tree to intake the most water and nutrients it can.  One large thick root would not allow as much in.

Put a layer of course soil in the bottom of your pot.  Cover that with is smaller grained but still drains well.  Otherwise, the tree will get root rot.

Now you are ready to place the tree in the pot.  Make sure that the roots are covered by the soil in the pot.  You can put a layer of moss or small pebbles on top of the soil to help keep the tree in the pot.

After you re-pot your tree, place it in a semi-shaded area and let it rest for two to three weeks until it recovers from the re-potting.  Water it, but do not add fertilizer for this period of time.


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Low Light House Plants

Many plants thrive on very little light, making them ideal for those parts of your house that are not well lit.

A couple good choices for areas without lots of light are:

Chinese Evergreen

For more information about this, watch our video on low light houseplants in the video tips section!

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