Topiary takes horticulture into the land of indulgence. Once limited to a privileged few, today topiary forms are available to anyone with a sense of fantasy and an interest in unusual garden shapes.
The term “topiary” dates from the Renaissance, but the practice of shaping and sculpting trees and shrubs is considerably more venerable. Ancient Egyptians, Persians and Greeks clipped and shaped plants in their gardens. A friend of Julius Caesar introduced sculpted shrubbery to Rome and, as the Empire expanded westward, topiary followed and evolved. During the Middle Ages, topiary exploded as an art form. Italian artists created every type of form imaginable, from traditional architectural forms, to whimsical animal shapes, to representations of everyday objects. During the 1500s, topiary gained popularity in France, Germany, Denmark, Russia, and England as topiary hedges, globes, spirals, cones, and fantasy shapes appeared in their gardens. As styles waxed and waned, it was the Victorians who next took up the shear. Topiary, once limited to the wealthy and powerful, became a common feature in the rose gardens and perennial borders of English cottage gardens.
Shaping a Topiary
Being a topiary craftsman requires patience and a keen eye. Topiary craftsmen prefer small-leaved, woody evergreens with dense foliage such as Juniper, (Juniperus), Privet, (Ligustrum), Boxwood, (Buxus), Myrtle, (Myrtus), Holly, (Ilex), Rosemary, (Rosmarinus), and Brush Cherry, (Eugenia). These plants are started from cuttings and allowed to grow for several years before serious pruning begins. Training depends on shape. Spirals, for example, are typically sculpted Junipers or Spruce. Once the plant reaches four feet tall, the topiary artist cuts the initial spiral pattern into the plant. At Monrovia, sculpting begins at the base and takes three turns upward to the right – never to the left – for a more consistent look. Sculpting topiary is a slow process, with plants trimmed often, but only a bit at a time. A Monrovia spiral Juniper takes at least six years to reach the smallest saleable size, with larger specimens requiring eight years or more.
Caring for Your Topiary
Once you get your topiary home, decide whether to plant it in the ground or in a container. Plant, water, and fertilize topiary as you would the same plants grown in their natural form. Potted topiary do fine in most types of containers, though unglazed terra cotta will dry out more quickly and require more water than glazed ceramic or plastic containers. Topiary is fleeting and, if left unpruned, forms return to their natural shapes. Owning one is accepting the responsibility to keep it trimmed. Clip often, at least every few weeks during the growing season, removing only a little at a time. Your tool of choice depends on the plant and how often you prune … some people prefer scissors, others sharp shears. Topiary is three dimensional, so as you trim, view from all sides. And while you examine your topiary, consider the long and rich horticultural history it represents and that you are now a part of this tradition.