When we hear the word topiary it usually conjures up images of grand old castle gardens or botanical gardens and the such. However topiary has also long been used for the ornamental home garden, albeit with less grandiosity. Topiary plants do have a more severe look about them and are typically more work but they make excellent feature plants and can lend a tone of formality, elegance, beauty, grace and sophistication to the ornamental home garden. How many topiary plants you choose will depend on the style of garden you want, the level of care you are prepared to give (or hire), and your budget. Ready to purchase, mature topiary plants are expensive, and in my area, difficult to buy. Starting off with young plants and training them up your self is far more economical but requires time and patience but the effort is well worth it.
What is topiary?
Topiary is the art of pruning and training plants (usually woody plants) into decorative shapes.
What are the best plants to use for topiary?
Typically slow growing evergreens with small, dense foliage and short internodes, make the best topiary choices. Faster growing trees or shrubs like Privet (Ligustrum) can also be used but they require more frequent pruning.
Yew (Taxus) and Boxwood (Buxus) and Japanese Holly (Ilex)are the easiest to work with as they can take a hard pruning, and do well with frequent pruning. By hard pruning I mean they can be cut back to the bare branches and they (if the plants are healthy) will still put out new growth.
Cedar (Thuja) and Junipers (Juniperus) are popular choices and more affordable. However these two Genera will not tolerate being cut back hard. You must always stay well within the green when pruning them. Spruce (picea) and Cypress (Cupressus) are also used and have the same pruning restrictions. Some species of Pine (Pinus) can also be used and they fall into this same pruning category with the additional limitation that they do not produce dormant buds further back on their branches.
Purple Tower Beech trees (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’), Common Hornbean (Carpinus bettlus), Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica,), are excellent choices for pleaching, for tall narrow hedges and for deciduous topiary.
Other plant material commonly used includes Lavender (Lavandula) for stepover hedges and Ivies (particularily English ivy) which are used with formers, be them hollow or stuffed with moss.
The sky is really the limit but there are several tried and true shapes.
- Cloud tree (Pom-Pom)
- Double spiral
- Poodle tier
- Van Gogh
- Da Vinci
- Tiered plates (Cake stand)
- Tiered cone
- Pyramid (3 sided)
- Two tier pyramid
- Obelisk (4 sided)
- Knot gardens
- Parterre gardens
- Ornamental hedges
- Ball on a pedestal
- Free form
- Fanciful shapes like animals, people, etc.
Cloud Tree Topiary (Pom-Pom)
In cloud pruning the tree or shrub is pruned to resemble clouds. Cloud trees have multiple branches with a cloud (pom-pom) at the end of each branch. The clouds can be round, oval or almost plate like. Another form of cloud pruning is to have many smaller shrubs (usually boxwood) planted so close together that they begin to knit together. They are then pruned as one unit, with the shrubs pruned at different heights and sizes, but allowed to knit together some what. There are a number of trees and shrubs that can be cloud pruned including: boxwood, yew, some pine species, cedar, juniper, privet, Purple Tower Beech trees, cypress, and more.
As you will be able to tell by the number of photos, cloud trees are a popular choice among ornamental gardeners.
Spiral Tree Topiary
Another popular choice among ornament gardeners are cone shape evergreens that are pruned into a spiral shape. Good plant choices for this type of topiary include: pyramid cedars, pyramid junipers, taller boxwood varieties (like ‘Green Mountain’), taller upright varieties of yew (like Hicks), Dwarf Alberta Spruce, and others depending on your hardiness zone.
Poodle Tree Topiary
Also called poodle tier, consist of two or more balls that are tiered on a single upright trunk.
This is by far one of the most common shapes. A globe shape is round like a ball and you will often hear them referred to as such. It does take some practice to get this shape right. The best plant choices are those that naturally grow in a globe shape like many boxwood varieties, globe cedars, some barberry varieties, and others. Other shrubs whose natural growth habit is not round can still be used but they may be more challenging.
Domes are very similar to globes but more flattened. If you were to take a ball and cut it in half placing the flat side down, that is a dome. I tend to include in this group all flattened rounded shapes.
Tree Standards (Lollypops)
Tree standards are are also very popular and can be quite formal and tightly pruned or more informal and loosely pruned. In essence they consist of a single tree trunk on a small ornamental tree or a sturdy branch or cane that is trained up tall, and then a flush of growth is allowed to grow at the top. This flush of growth can be pruned into a ball, umbrella shape, oval, square or cone. Some tree standards are grafted, where by the desirable plant is grafted onto another plants trunk, cane or branch. There are a large variety of trees and shrubs that can be pruned into standards including Dwarf Korean lilacs, Rose of Sharon, Burning bush, some species of Euonymus , Weigela, Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce, Birds Nest Spruce, Roses, some Hydrangea species, dappled willow and more.
Is a 3 dimensional shape that has a flat base and tapers smoothly to a point at the top. The best plant choices for this shape are the one’s that naturally grow that way, like Pyramid Boxwood, Pyramid Yew, Pyramid Cedar, Pyramid Juniper, Pyramid Spruce and others.
While hedges can be either formal or informal typically topiary hedges are more formal in nature and tightly pruned. They include step over hedges, privacy hedges and ornamental hedges. They can be squared off, tapered, have sculpted tops or even be pruned free form.
Photo Credits: all photos by the author.
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