Topiaries are a form of classical design where plants are trained or pruned to take a certain shape. There exist two forms of topiaries. The first form is an indoor topiary that is formed solely by pruning and training to grow up pole or a two-dimensional shape. The second type is the outdoor version that grows inside a form and is pruned to enhance the shape.
The history of topiaries is long and full of twists and turns. The word topiary comes from the Latin word topiarus, which means landscape gardener. The earliest mention of topiaries can be found around 23-79 A.D. During this time, topiaries were very popular in Ancient Rome where cypress trees were pruned into different shapes. This continued until Rome fell. Then topiaries fell out of popularity for several hundred years.
This art form was again discovered during medieval times and utilized fruit trees instead of cypress. The art of plant sculpture was once again discovered during the Italian Renaissance.
During the 15th century, the Dutch became interested in plants sculpted into animal shapes. This interest again returned to England in the 17th century.
The 18th century saw a move toward more natural looking plant material and topiaries fell out of favor.
As estates became more prolific across Europe, the concept of topiaries became very popular with Victorians. This era introduced new plant material and techniques.
Topiaries made their way to North America by way of Williamsburg, Virginia in 1690. Growth of plant sculpting continued until World War I and World War II. Both these wars caused the large estates in Europe to be dismantled and in doing so the art of topiaries again fell out of favor.
Topiaries started to show up again, not in the garden space, but instead as houseplant during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Today, topiaries can be found inside and out. Some are fashioned for a particular holiday while others take the shape of an animal, but regardless the easiest to start with is the indoor variety.
Indoor Topiary Styles
This type of topiary comes in three different styles. The first one is a free-form style that utilizes woody-stemmed plants. Traditionally, this style has been reserved for herbs and in doing so has become known as herb trees or standard. This type of topiary consists of a bare stem that is topped with a bush ball of vegetation.
The second type presents the same look but utilizes a basket on the top to create the bush ball. Plants are planted in the bottom and in the top to create a mature topiary instantly.
The third type, called a multilayered topiary, consists of a form that allows plant material to grow up. This plant material is trained to take the shape of the chosen form.
Each type of topiary is associated with a certain group of plants that enhance the design. The first type of topiary or standard is easily constructed using woody-stemmed herbs, such as lemon verbena, bay, and rosemary. The plants that are chosen need to be rooted cuttings that are small. Newly rooted plant material is more forgiving and easier to work with during this process.
Once the plant material has been chosen, the next step is the pot. The shape of the container is not important but it needs to be deep enough to hold at least one half of a chopstick. This is very important since the chopstick will support the plant. After the container has been chosen, simply place drainage material in the bottom, push the chopstick into the drainage material until the bottom is reached and fill half way up with an all-purpose potting soil.
Next place plant in the middle of the container, continue to fill with soil and adjust chopstick as needed. Once this is done, it is time to remove any plant material along the stem. This is easily done with florist or garden pruners. Continue to remove plant material until you reach the level where you would like to start the ball shape.
Once all the plant material has been removed from the stem, gently tie it to the chopstick every 1 ½-inches using some type of soft twine. After this is done, it is time to shape the ball. This is done by hand pruning the ball into its general shape and finishing it off by pinching shoots to encourage bushy growth.
The second topiary style is one that can be used inside or out. To do this type of topiary, you will need a large terra cotta or plastic pot that has a drainage hole. If you are using a plastic pot, you will also need some material, such as small stones, to weight the container down. In addition to the pot and stone, you will need a topiary system. This system consists of a metal pole with a circular metal support system and a basket.
Once the container and topiary system have been picked out, it is time to start assembling. To begin this process, simply place pole in drainage hole and secure to the pot with the metal support system. Fill in the container with an all-purpose potting soil mixture. Then, begin the planting process. This type of topiary can hold both flowers and ivy but choose combinations that have the same growth requirements.
After the bottom has been planted, it is time to create the top. This is done by attaching the wire basket to the pole and lining the basket with sphagnum moss or coconut fibers. For an instant topiary, place a hanging basket inside the basket but if you want more of a designer look, simply plant it with an assortment of flowers.
To help create a more traditional looking topiary, train the ivy to grow up the pole and secure into the bottom of the basket. Another approach is to poke holes through the sphagnum moss liner and plant directly into the holes. When using this approach, make sure to push the moss back around the plants.
The multilayered topiary is just as easy to make as those described above, but requires a form. This form can be purchased or handmade from a simple coat hanger. To begin this process, one must choose their plants. This style of topiary requires a plant that likes to climb such as ivy. After the plant material has been chosen, the next step is securing the form into the container, which is easily done as describe in the directions for the standard topiaries.
Once the form has been secured, plant at least one plant on each side of the form and fill in with potting soil. The next step in this process is training the plant material. This is easily done by winding one stem at a time around the form. When doing this make sure to alternate the stems from one side to the other. Once all the stems have been directed onto the form, secure with soft twine as needed.
Regardless of which type of topiary you create, there are a few simple steps to follow when it comes to care. Water the topiary well, but do not drown. A well-watered topiary will not cause leaf drop, which in turn causes holes in your design. The second step is to rotate the topiary so that you get even growth around the whole design.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.