Using and Maintaining Topiary in the Landscape

What is Topiary?

Topiary is the ancient craft of shearing plants (usually evergreens) into shapes, like boxes, balls, and pyramids. There are a few different shapes and forms. One especially popular type of topiary is the spiral topiary tree, which may take the form of a single spiral of foliage looping around a tree or a double spiral of foliage winding its way to the top. Poodle trees are topiary trees with single trunks that are pruned so that two or more “balls” circle the trunk in tiers, like a poodle’s tail. In some poodle trees, one or more of the balls may be replaced by a box, a teardrop, or a spiral shape. Pompoms are topiaries pruned so that each branch ends in a “pompom” of foliage. They may be upright, like a tree, or more shrub-like and lower to the ground. 

What Trees and Plants are Used in Topiary?

The ideal topiary plant is an evergreen that is slow-growing, hardy, long-lived, amenable to pruning, and resistant to pests and diseases. Small leaves are also a plus, because they hide pruning cuts better than large leaves. Boxwood topiary, for example, is less likely to have a “just pruned” look compared to privet topiary. 

Some evergreens that make great choices for topiary are yew, Dwarf Alberta SpruceEmerald Green Arborvitae, Boulevard False Cypress, Gold Mop False Cypress, and Scotch Pine.

Many junipers lend themselves well to the art, too, and some offer blue or gold foliage in addition to green. Witchita Blue, Old Gold, Sea Green, Hollywood, and Hetzi Columnaris make handsome juniper topiaries.

A few plants form a sort of natural topiary without any pruning at all. They have a dense, rounded shape that requires no shearing on your part. Globe Blue Spruce is one no-shear “topiary” that we offer; it is sold in a low-grafted form and also in a high-grafted standard (lollipop) form. We sell the natural topiary Little Gem Spruce in a high-graft form as well. This dapper dark green standard tree keeps its tight globe shape without any trimming. And don’t forget about our high-grafted Dwarf Korean Lilac, which takes on a nice rounded form with little to no help from you. This tree is deciduous with the added bonus of lots of fragrant blossoms in the spring.

What about Ivy Topiary?

The definition of topiary can include vines and other plants that are grown on special topiary frames. Ivy or other climbers may be planted at the base of a metal frame, the vines eventually filling in to cover the support. Topiary frames are sometimes covered in sphagnum moss and then planted with succulents or annuals to make an accent piece for the patio or even for indoor decoration.

Hedging as Topiary

Hedging is a form of topiary, too. If you maintain a hedge, you may already be a practitioner of this time-honored craft! Of course, hedges can take many shapes besides the traditional boxy form and may be fashioned into serpents, waves, or castle walls. They may be “cloud-pruned” to resemble fluffy clouds, as is the tradition in Japan and some other Asian countries. 

Low hedges can be used to create parterres or elaborate knot gardens, and taller ones can make living mazes that you can get lost in. The gardener’s imagination is the limit when it comes to hedge art!

Using topiary in the landscape

Successfully integrating topiary into your landscape is a matter of placing it where it can shine and become the star it wants to be. Keep underplantings low; go with a short evergreen groundcover or close-cropped grass. Better yet, surround your plant with wood mulch or gravel. A solid background in a contrasting color will make the unique shape of your topiary really pop, so site it where it will stand out from its surroundings. Consider stringing lights on a spiral topiary or adding spot-lighting to any type of topiary accent to extend its appeal after dark.

Formal Landscapes

Topiary and formal landscapes go together like champagne and caviar. Since Roman times, topiaries have been associated with grand formal estates, and they also fit nicely into more modest but formal landscapes where that classic, polished look is highly valued.

If you love manicured gardens with clean lines, good structure, and neatly trimmed shrubbery, then topiary will mesh effortlessly with your garden style. It will be the final touch to make your landscape picture-perfect.

Informal Landscapes

Perhaps you favor a more informal landscape design. Maybe you like your garden to be full of wildflowers, native trees, colorful perennials, and ornamental grasses. You may enjoy a free-spirited informal garden where plants are allowed to assume their natural forms, gently caressed by the wind, blurring hard edges, and spilling onto pathways.

In that case, topiary can have an important role in your garden, too. Topiaries, along with neatly clipped hedges and regularly mown lawns, bring a needed element of structure and order to free-form plantings. They add human touch to informal landscapes, affirming that the plantings are not simply meadows or wild spaces, but well-cared-for gardens.

Front Yards

When looking for landscaping ideasespecially front yard landscaping ideasthink topiary! Topiary adds distinction to the landscape, along with instant curb appeal.These small evergreen trees fit into any garden, no matter the size, and they may easily be maintained so that they never outgrow their allotted space. All year long, they can be the perfect focal points in your garden, looking sharp even in winterespecially when topped with a frosting of snow.

Where in your landscape topiary will work best depends on your particular site. In general, though, these sculptural trees are well-suited to the areas closest to your house, especially in the front yard landscape, where visitors get their first impression of your home. A matching pair of topiaries on either side of a door, walkway, or gate makes a balanced and pleasing picture, although a single specimen can also hold its own in an island bed or foundation planting.

Backyards

In the backyard, topiaries at the corners of the patio or on either side of a sitting area are logical choices. Or, you may want to take a page out of the landscape architects’ handbook and place a topiary at the far end of an axis in your garden. From a favored vantage point, you would look out across the yard and see a topiary focal point at the other end of your line of sight. Frame that view with a couple of shade trees, and you’re on your way to become a professional landscape designer!

Green Animals, and Where to Find Them

Some of the most remarkable topiary forms are those that depict people and animals. These living sculptures take many years to create, but they are quite impressive once they take shape. Several public topiary gardens in the U.S. feature “green animals” and other characters carved out of topiary plants like boxwood, yew, and privet.

The Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland is home to a fox hunt scene clipped out of topiary plants. Riders on horses follow in hot pursuit of a fox sprinting across the lawn.

Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania has a topiary garden on its grounds with yews sheared into bold geometric shapes and an open-mouthed dog that often appears to be “chomping” on somebody’s head.

The Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island is a fun destination for kids and the young at heart. It features over 80 works of topiary art, including elephants, giraffes, camels, and bears.

In Columbus, Ohio, the ambitious Topiary Park reproduces the famous George Seurat painting, “A Sunday Afternoon,” on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in plants.

Finally, in Bishopville, South Carolina, the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden is a magical place where topiary artist Pearl Fryer has shaped trees and shrubs (many of them originally damaged nursery cast-offs) into fantastic, whimsical forms.

Isn’t Topiary Difficult to Maintain?

Topiary Trees are difficult to CREATE. Knowing where to make each cut to create a perfectly symmetrical poodle, pompom, spiral, or double spiral topiary takes a great deal of expertise. (Try it sometimeit’s really hard!) Our talented growers begin with young plants, pruning them carefully over a period of years to fulfill the vision conceived for them at the start. So, topiary trees are difficult to create, but they aren’t difficult to maintain. The hard part is already done for you.

You can do this.

The main thing to remember when maintaining topiary is to keep up with the pruningdon’t fall behind. Your trees will push out new growth in spring and may also produce some new foliage later in the growing season; at least a couple of times a year, you’ll want to shear that new growth off.

First, put down a tarp if you want to make cleanup easier. Then, using manual pruning shears, trim off the new growth, starting at the bottom and working your way around the plant and up to the top. Don’t cut into the old, woody growth. Stay within the outer couple of inches of young, green growth. Most evergreens aren’t very forgiving of deep cuts and won’t re-sprout on old wood. Small gaps will eventually be hidden by the surrounding foliage, however.

Don’t rush it.

Take your time. Step back several times and look at the plant from different angles, making sure you are staying true to the original form, nice and symmetrical. You can always snip a little more, but you can’t undo a hastily made cut. After a few tries, you just may find that this kind of pruning isn’t a chore, but a pleasure. You get into a rhythm and it can be quite meditative.

We’re here to help!

We hope you consider the curb appeal that topiary trees can bring, as well as the big impact they can make to all types of gardens, despite their compact size. Most of all, we hope you don’t feel unnecessarily intimidated by the maintenance needs of these special beauties.

Know that we are standing by to help and we are happy to walk you through the process of caring for your new topiary, should you need some more guidance. In fact, you can reach us at plantwhisperers@bowerandbranch.com to discuss how to care for any of the trees in our collectionFrom topiary to pollination to mycorrhizae, our experts will answer any tree questions you have!