Shaping Up

Taming nature with cooper wire, sharp sheers and patience is at the heart of the art of topiary. Whether the designs are elegant or fanciful, these living sculptures make a big impression and add interest to any landscape.

Topiary is the ancient art of clipping evergreen plant material into geometric patterns and shapes such as a classic spiral, ball-on-stem or something as complex as a hippopotamus or fierce dragon.

“It’s very expressive; it’s a lighthearted way to create something unique, whimsical, and personal,” said Amy Graham, director of horticulture at Longue Vue House and Garden.

Longue Vue has large topiary spheres on its east lawn, some Japanese yew pyramids and a bamboo tunnel in its Discovery Garden, and more than 2,000 Japanese boxwood shaped into parterres on its Portico Terrace and Spanish Court gardens.

There are two different topiary-making methods. The first involves training a climbing vine to grow over a topiary frame. The second requires you to prune a small to medium-sized shrub into a shape of your choosing.

You don’t need a full-time gardener to create topiaries and there are numerous videos online that will walk you easily through the process. Graham suggests the best plants to use are evergreen broadleaf shrubs such as yew, privet and boxwood.

“Boxwoods work really well for topiary,” says Chase Mullin, president of Mullin Landscape Associates. “Their deep green, glossy leaves provide plenty of interest despite the fact that their flowers are insignificant. Although they’re commonly seen as hedges in New Orleans, boxwoods can be shaped into nearly anything.”

Lana Conrad’s River Ridge yard is full of beautiful examples of topiaries and espalier —the art of growing vines in patterns such as diamonds or swags on walls. For these projects, Conrad recommends using confederate jasmine, as it’s woodier.

Throughout the years, she’s worked with Brian Sublette of Daly-Sublette Landscape Architects to create her designs. She finds this kind of gardening satisfying and utterly relaxing.

“This is my stress reliever,” she says. “I’m in my yard every week. I like the look and I think it’s much easier than doing colorful annuals every year.”

Sublette believes topiary works best with classic architecture, “It can flank an entrance and it can add structural rhythm to a landscape. But it works with more contemporary houses, too.”

Experts suggest when choosing a plant to clip into topiary, look for healthy foliage and dense growth. Also, look for a strong leading stem in the center. If you are making a cone, look at the plant and locate the central stem, which will form the top of the cone. Then, with shears trim around the stem to create the outline. Continually move around the plant, regularly taking a step back to look at your creation. When you are nearly finished, look down at the central stem again to check that the outline of the cone is straight and even.
An established topiary should be pruned once or twice a year in midsummer and early autumn. Creating topiary shapes is much easier if you have the right tools and it helps to keep all blades sharp and clean. Though you can use regular garden shears to trim cones and simple shapes, long-handled shears are a better choice.

“I really like topiary shears, which come in different sizes and are similar in function to a pair of scissors,” says Mullin. “I prefer these in lieu of mechanically pruning, as they offer a lot more control and allow for a greater level of detail.”  

Finally, make sure to plant in good soil, water regularly, watch for signs of pest and treat them promptly. Remember, sunlight is essential for the even growth of your chosen topiary plant.

While labor intensive at times, topiary requires no special skill besides your creativity and passion. Graham offers this final advice: “Listen to your plants, follow the natural form and be patient.”



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