Jul 29, 2014

Garden Clippings: Cut It Out!

How to Get a Handle on Topiary.

Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out! Garden Clippings: Cut It Out!

Move over Tim Burton, we’ve found some gardeners throughout town to rival (well at least, they’re trying) Edward Scissorhands as they get out the shears and try their hand at creating topiary.

This ancient art of shaping live perennial plants, trees, and shrubs into designs both geometric and whimsical dates back to the formal hedges and cone-shaped evergreens in French and English parterres and olive tree spheres and symmetrically-planted cypress in Italian Renaissance gardens.

Topiary was beginning to enjoy a comeback a decade ago, but just as quickly fell out of favor to the eco-friendly movement of more naturalistic, native landscapes.

But it’s trending again. And environmentalists can embrace topiary since it’s green and living, plus you don’t really need gas-powered tools to indulge any pent-up artistic expression.

Think of it as tattoos for the garden. Front lawn poodles anyone? Maybe a cup of tea is your cup of tea. Homeowners have shorn everything from pigs to pyramids using mass plantings of boxwood, arborvitae, rosemary, ivy. laurel, yew, privet, catmint and santolina.

Last year in a wink and a nod to Burton, LACMA added a reindeer topiary outside its exhibition of the director’s artwork.

At the 2012 Chelsea Flower Show in England this spring, several display gardens featured topiary design including 8-foot-high formal pedestal-and-ball yews surrounded by loose delicate flowers in whites, yellows and lime greens and a cloud garden featuring the Japanese method of training trees and shrubs into shapes resembling clouds.

Who in the Valley hasn’t seen the tall, narrow swirls of Italian cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens) cutting a swath of exclamation points against our blue skies? In a new twist, artist Lara Bank’s exhibition this year explored human topiary using “subjects” who walked around a museum in hard hats filled with plants and armbands loaded with succulents. She herself has been an experimental chia pet.

Topiaries make striking focal points standing senntry outside a front entry in tall planters or as ornamentals in urns with moss around the base. They can be the embellishments around a fountain, fire pit, or benches. For a less formal look, topiary forms in the shape of bunnies, dogs and butterflies can be purchased at nurseries or online and placed together on a front porch for a fairytale cottage look.

Just remember, topiary is not that cut and dry. It can be as basic as what most Valley gardening crews are expert at—giving your boxwood hedges a crew cut—and as complicated as sculpture.

How far you go is up to you.


Hand clippers work best. Have a sturdy ladder nearby!

Boxwood, Indian hawthorn pink (Raphiolepis indica), weeping fig, Ficus benjamina, even bougainvillea can be the raw materials for topiary design.

Your structure can be as simple as your own concoction using chicken-wire frame or you can go to the experts and buy pre-made topiary garden forms that range in price from $15 to $75.00  (try Sheridan Gardens Nursery in Burbank or Viva Terra online.). They look good even when they’ve yet to fill out.

For cloud shapes, cut only into top layers of the bush. It is easier to do this on a hedge that has already been established for a couple of years.

For a modern take on topiary, do irregular plantings of flowers whose colors contrast against the dark foliage (such as purple pansies) and whose shapes complement the topiary design; for example, if you have decidied to cut spheres out of your evergreens, look to globe-like flower counterparts such as allium, thimble flower, and thistles.


Try a succulent topiary. Any enclosed wire frame that will hold tightly packed peat will work. Take cuttings that have hardened at the end and insert into soaked peat (no soil). Use a skewer or toothpicks and make your stem holes one inch apart.

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