Topiary Or Not Topiary

Topiary Or Not Topiary

Mike Rickhoff

19 September 2019

“So,” I get asked by the concerned and much ruffled innocent bystander, “what are you chocking on?”

Or from the more colourful and well informed personalities out there, I will often be interrogated as to whether or not I am ‘smoking my socks.’

“Forsooth,” say the conversant souls, “why ever would you do that to yourself?”

Well, just so that all minds are put at rest from the get-go, I must immediately say that I am certainly not talking about some sort of masochistic self-flagellation or self-sacrificing ‘eat-only-the-hindquarters-of-ants-on-even-dates-diet’.

I’m simply throwing it out there; the whole cutting-edge (see what I did there?) activity of creating the renowned topiary – celebrated by some, disparaged by others…

Green Sculpture:

I mean, we are taking what would otherwise be an unruly, free-spirited shrub and shaping it painstakingly into a contrived shape or form convenient to the ideals and creativity that drive the human condition – much like taming or domesticating a pet to our convenience, teaching a parrot to talk or breaking-in a horse or two – we do so like to shape things to our own desires and expectations, don’t we?

So then, a cave becomes a home, a dog becomes a pet, grass becomes a lawn… and a shrub?

Well a shrub becomes a TOPIARY.

Of course, I do agree with all the ‘yes buts’ and ‘no buts’ out there, there is the whole question of maintenance, pandering, spoiling or disciplining as the occasion demands – as with an obstreperous brat or naughty pooch – and otherwise being held slave to the topiary.

But you know what?

Well, I just love my topiary as much as I do that seemingly incorrigible hound – you know, the one that ultimately showers more in reward returns than in bother invested.

This wonderful craft of topiary – some may say the art of green sculpture – well, it just won’t go away will it?

The History of Topiary:

It has, after all, been with us since the time of the Roman Empire and probably before that even.

So when the whole of Caesar’s dream came tumbling down in the fifth century that was probably supposed to be the end of it, right?

Wrong, enter the much publicised Renaissance a whole bunch of time later in the fourteenth century – lo and behold, out pop magnificent classical formal gardens and yes, in walks the tenacious topiary.

I have seen, in my habit of paging through page after page of landscape literature, visiting many open gardens or surfing the much vaunted web, how the ageless qualities of topiary lends itself for inclusion in classical formality, Oriental Zen gardens and modern contemporary spaces.

Topiaries Today:

Today, it is undeniable, that topiaries are as popular as ever and they continue to add formality and structure to all styles of gardens:

  • either as a massed composition in a topiary garden,
  • accent to compliment hedges in a parterre or turf and topiary space or
  • simply as green focal points within a more free form landscape

Topiary Ideas:

Topiaries can be shaped into fun forms like cute animals and this can catch the interests of children, bringing them into the garden and even letting them get involved in the project.

Tall columnar topiaries are excellent for framing other features like statuary, or for sentries on either side of a door, vista or garden portal.

And when I say it just won’t go away, I mean, it-just-won’t!

I guess there have been lulls in the whole activity from time to time, but there they have lurked in the horticultural shadows only to re-emerge stronger and more effervescent than ever – I have watched them surreptitiously from my own beshadowed corner.

I have also keenly and amusingly observed the effect of trends, fashions and styles over time.

Yes, you guessed it, the topiary finds a niche just about every time, from ancient to contemporary – in it fits like hand into glove.

And here’s the thing, it stays fresh – as an idea, an inclusion or a new twist.

Man, I just love it!

“So tell us more,” I hear you say. 

Okee dokee, this is how I see it…

Types of Topiary:

To my mind I would suggest that there are three types of traditional topiary:

  • shrubs that can be pruned into shape freehand,
  • shrubs that can be pruned into shape using a wire frame-guideand
  • vines that can be trained to grow over a frame of the desired shape.

I must caution here, that all of these methods require time and patience and can take several months to assume a good shape!

How to Topiary:

The freehand method requires a good eye and some experience so if you are just starting out I would seriously recommended that you start off with a framing method.

With the vine method you can keep wrapping those adventurous plant tendrils around a frame and trim until the frame is fully covered.

When I do topiaries, I do it in small incremental steps that allow the plant to bush out between prunings; so don’t try and get the shape you want in one go, severe pruning can harm and shock the plant – ask me, I’m a past master at rushing headlong into things.

What Plants Work Well for Topiaries:

In terms of the plants I would choose, I have found some plants ‘topiarise’ (great word, hey?) better than others.

I can recommend shrubs with small leaves and a more dense texture – so look out for:

  • juniper,
  • boxwood,
  • rosemary,
  • syzigium,
  • westringia and
  • abelia to name a few.

Small leafed ivy is excellent for vine topiaries.

Oh, and another sage word of advice; be careful to avoid using invasive plants and if in doubt check in with your Lifestyle Home Garden for advice.

Tips To Topiary:

I invariably, but not always, begin a new topiary using relatively young shrubs or vines as I have found that they can be shaped and bushed out from an early age.

Plant the shrub in a pot or in the ground and position it within the frame of your choice. Many frames can now be purchased from garden centres or a simple wire frame can be made at home.

For a shrub, trim off any branches that poke through the frame to begin with and trim any new ones that grow through over time until the plant assumes a tight compact and clear form over time.

In the case of a vine, plant the vine in the same way within a frame of choice and carefully wrap any tendrils around the frame using soft plant ties. Trim off any tendrils that are too long for the frame. As new tendrils and side-shoots appear, either continue to wrap around the frame or trim them off as the case may be until a full look starts to appear.

After this it’s really just a case of maintenance with small trimmings every couple of weeks.

Feed the plant with a good organic plant food, guard against garden pests and water well as with any other plant and your topiary is sure to give you a great deal of pleasure and add some real character to your garden or patio.

Yes, we are really domesticating our plant in a real sense and so the care and attention (and discipline) that we invest in our other Earth Life Forms must follow the same path.

So, I guess there is a love-hate relationship out there when we talk about topiaries.

As for me, I will carry on my love-love thing with this great creative pursuit – I suppose I will always be happy ‘smoking my socks’…