Posted: July 24, 2012 in SOFTLANDSCAPING

Topiary is the horticultural practice of training live perennial plants by clipping the foliage and twigs of trees, shrubs and sub shrubs to develop and maintain clearly defined shapes, perhaps geometric or fanciful; the term also refers to plants which have been shaped in this way. As an art form it is a type of living sculpture. The word derives from the Latin word for an ornamental landscape gardener, topiarius, a creator of topia or “places”.

What plant to use for topiary?

The plants used in topiary are evergreen, mostly woody, have small leaves or needles, produce dense foliage, and have compact and/or columnar (e.g., fastigiate) growth habits. The other issues to contend with are leaf size and plant growth. In the case of leaf size the size of the cage is the determining factor the smaller the cage the smaller the leaf size needed in order to maintain the shape of the display. In plant selection you have trade offs. For example your box woods, are typically slower growing which means they require less maintenance, but take longer to grow out a cage. Common species chosen for topiary include cultivars of European box (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja species), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex species), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species).

Small leafed ivy ( Ivy is perfect for shade and for forms that are open such as hearts .English ivy is a common choice for a vining plant topiary, though any plant that vines can be used, such as vinca minor or Boston ivy. English ivy is generally chosen due to the fact that is grows quickly, is tolerant of many conditions and looks lovely) or ficus (creeping fig) are excellent if you are using a moss lined form and planting cuttings into the form.

If you are trimming shrubs into a specific shape, I would suggest choosing a small leafed shrub that tolerates being clipped. Small-leaved boxwood is also good if you’re not in a hurry and your form is not too large, but I am sure there are lots of other shrubs. An evergreen shrub would be preferred to a deciduous shrub.

One can try yew – it’s wonderful. Scented geraniums might work – especially for standards. Meserve hollies as well if your form is not too small.

Lonicera nitida, or Japanese box honeysuckle (which actually comes from China) has very small leaves and twiggy growth. Grows quickly and is very hardy. This shrub takes kindly to constant clipping and is easy to grow from cuttings.

Buxus ‘Winter Gem’ and ‘Green Beauty’ are very hardy and work well up to 3 and 4′. Pyracantha is fast if you don’t mind thorns.

Another plant that might work for you is an upright fuchsia and also a dwarf species called “hummingbird” for small topiary frames. Try a Hardy fuchsia, and train the tender new growth around the wires, and pin the stems if necessary until the stems have become woody and will stay on their own.

Geometric forms.

Animal forms.


 Wire cages

Frames are not essential but if you are new to topiary, you will want to put topiary forms over the shrubs you choose to sculpt. As the plant grows, the frame will help guide you on your pruning decisions. Shaped wire cages are employed in modern topiary to guide untutored shears, but traditional topiary depends on rather patience and a steady hand; small-leaved ivy can be used to cover a cage and give the look of topiary in a few months. Topiary cages are mostly used for vining plants that crawl up the form and cover the shape. If you are an experienced topiary artist, you can attempt to create topiary without topiary forms. Be aware that even experience topiary artists will use frames to make things easier. If you have a larger shrub, you may need to build the frame around the topiary. The hedge is a simple form of topiary used to create boundaries, walls or screens.



Filling for the forms

Sphagnum moss, coco peat or soil can be used as filling. Filling the topiary forms may not be essential but it will help your topiary take on a fuller look much faster. Make sure all areas are evenly packed and very firm. The moss will shrink slightly when it begins to dry. Packing tight helps to hold in moisture.


Whether is a potted topiary or an outdoor topiary in the ground, plant the vine around the form so that it can grow up the form. If you are using a large form or if you simply want to cover the form faster, you can use several plants around the form. For potted forms fit the root balls of ivy in the opening of the frame. Insert the roots into the pocket reserved in the moss. Cover the roots with moss and be sure it is firmly packed and covered with moss. All roots must be covered. It is okay to plant ivy deep into the moss as the stem parts inside the moss will send out additional roots. Fern pins are used to anchor the ivy to the moss. The entire length of the ivy stem should be pressed against the moss so that the ivy can root in. The ivy will send out roots and they grow down into the moss and hold everything together. Trim off any extremely large leaves and excess ivy. This helps to bring the topiary into scale and gives a finished over-all appearance. When first planted, many of the leaves are turned with the underside up. Since ivy is photo-sensitive, within 48 hours all the leaves will turn toward the light and be right side up. The topiary will look 20% more covered once this happens.


 Train and prune appropriately – As the plants grow, train them to the form by helping them wrap around the form. Also, prune or pinch back any shoots that cannot be easily trained to the topiary forms. Envision how you want your final topiary to look and trim off no more than 3 inches in working towards that shape. If you are working on growing a small shrub, prune 1 inch off in areas where you need to fill in. Pruning will encourage additional, bushier growth. If you are working on shaping a large shrub, take no more than 3 inches off in areas where you wish to cut back. Anymore than this will only kill off parts of the shrub and will ruin the process. The time it will take to have a fully covered topiary varies depending on how many plants you use and the size of the topiary, but we can guarantee that when it is all filled in, you will be thrilled with the results. Train and prune the shrub a little more about every 3 months during active growth.

For ivy as the topiary begins to grow, pin down runners until it is completely covered or covered to your desire. (For your design, you may want some of the moss showing.) After it is covered, trim off excess ivy.

By continuous pinching of the newest tips of the plant it will become bushy and beautiful. By pinching out tips you will encourage branching which results in a bushy fuller plant. Pinch any buds that may be starting undesired growth. While you are encouraging new growth, make sure to trim off the areas that won’t fit into the shape and also developing flowers because they rob valuable nutrients away from foliage.


When moss-filled topiary is first planted it is a good idea to keep them in a shady location and spray over them with water several times each day. After three or four days your topiary should be acclimated and spraying over can be reduced to one or two times daily. Eventually, the ivy will be well anchored and misting is not necessary. However, if you live in a hot dry climate, misting is always helpful. There are two ways to kill your ivy topiary. 1) overwatering 2) under watering. Watering is critical with moss-filled topiary. If it is not dry do not water. Remember, if you overwater the roots become saturated to the point that there is no air and this will damage or kill the plant. At the same time, if the moss becomes too dry it will act as a sponge and rob water from the plant. When it is time to water, make sure water is penetrating the moss and soaking into the roots.

  1. Carlota says:

    your blog looks good. have a nice day. the blog was absolutely fantastic!

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