Various Topiary
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Totally Topiary

From Sarah's garden to yours

Topiary is the art of pruning a plant to form a defined shape, as simple as a spherical ball or as complex as a peacock. Topiary is often found gracing the grounds of formal gardens but can look just as stylish in a pot beside the front door.

The common shapes created with topiary are cones, spirals, or balls – as a single, double, or even triple arrangement up a sturdy stem. For the more ambitious, animal shapes emerge from the greenery or even a free form that compliments the way the plant is trying to grow. It may seem difficult to achieve but you can easily create a topiary from an ordinary garden centre shrub.


Timing and Plant Types

The best time to start a topiary is in spring after the first frost, although selecting a plant in the autumn can allow it to settle into your environment before the pruning begins.

The best plants to work with for topiary are evergreens with small leaves and full and bushy foliage. Aside from the most common topiary plant Buxus Box, you can also try Coprosma, Corokia, Junipers, Lilly Pilly, and Westringia to name but a few. Many confers are also suitable to be clipped into shape. It is a good idea to investigate a plant’s suitability for topiary before you start.

When selecting plants, look for specimens that would be ideal candidates. Firstly, make sure the plant is strong and healthy looking. Then look closer for a strong straight central stem. Assess the shape of the plant – is it short and dumpy to make a good ball shape, or tall and slender that would suit a spiral. Bear in mind some plants will grow faster than others, so may require more frequent attention to keep them in shape.

Woman trimming topiary spiral tree

Topiary Trimming

Start with clean, sharp secateurs or shears designed with topiary in mind. Slowly and carefully begin shaping the plant to your chosen shape. You may need to make what seem like drastic cuts at first to achieve the look you are going for, but take your time and make slow and considered cuts. Stop often and stand back to review. Check that the plant is being evenly cut, and look from all angles to make sure it isn’t becoming lopsided. It may not look quite like what you are going for after the first cut, but the plant will eventually fill in and take shape.

If you don’t feel confident trimming your topiary freehand you can use a guide or a frame. This can be as simple as string lines, or a bamboo cane teepee positioned over a cone-shaped plant. You could place a cage-like structure over the plant to guide your cuts and remove it once the task is complete. Or you could opt for a more permanent structure that eventually becomes hidden within the clipped foliage.

Always clean up once you have finished. Clear away all the clippings and clean your tools to keep them in good condition for when you need to use them again.

Depending on how fast the plant grows you may need to trim regularly throughout the growing season if it begins to look a little fluffy. A regular trim can keep it looking sharp and tight and encourage new growth to fill in the plant. At the very least, a topiary should be trimmed once or twice during the growing season. All trimming should stop two months before the first frost in autumn to avoid encouraging new young growth that could be harmed in cold weather.


Thriving Topiary

To care for your topiary between trimmings, make sure it is positioned in a spot that receives good light and isn’t windy, so the plant can grow evenly. It will also need a regular water supply, especially if it is in a container. For container topiary, make sure the pot is big enough to support the plant and also large enough to prevent tall topiaries from toppling over and, of course, use a good quality potting soil.

All topiary plants appreciate the application of a good slow-release fertiliser in the spring. Avoid over fertilising as this can create too much new growth. A good thick layer of mulch will help keep moisture in and the weeds down, while reducing the impact of cold frost weather on the roots. Apply when the soil is wet in the autumn to protect the plant from the worst of the winter weather and top up in the spring if necessary but avoid putting mulch up near the stem.

Check your plants over often to check for pests or disease. Treat as soon as you see anything untoward to keep the plant healthy so that all your efforts aren’t destroyed by unwanted problems.

It can take several years before you see the final perfect, crisp, and full topiary shape emerge, however that is the nature of topiary. It is a slow and considered process and a lovely way to slow down from a busy life beyond the garden.

Spiraled Topiary