Originally created 08/20/04

Art of topiary requires patience, careful pruning

If all it takes is seeing the angel in the stone to set it free, is seeing the dragon in the holly bush enough to make it so?

Not necessarily.

When it comes to topiary, the practice of making sculpture out of shrubbery, vision is a good thing but it's not enough.

"The art of pruning a plant into a topiary takes some artistic ability, but it also takes time," said Roger Davis, a landscape architect and president of Davis Design Group. "It's not like saying, 'I'm going to go out and make an alligator.'"

But if it's an alligator you want, with so many do-it-yourself frames on the market, an alligator you can get.

"There are all kinds of topiaries that can be done," Mr. Davis said. "There are spirals, cones, spheres, animals - anything you can make a wire frame out of, you can make a topiary from. You just follow the frame (with the plant). And the beauty is that if it's in a pot, you can move it."

Of course, topiary can't be done on a whim.

"You have to know your plants," said Ron Kelly, the owner of Creative Landscapes, a landscape design company.

"You have to know which ones are limber enough to be wrapped around a form or which ones have the stalk or stem to be tree form."

Limber plants, those that can withstand being bent, are best for using with the wire or metal frames that come in assorted shapes and sizes and are available at garden supply stores.

With topiary frames, plants are usually wrapped or tied snugly against the from and the plant is allowed to continue to grow in that shape, Mr. Kelly said.

"If it breaks, it wouldn't be tragic. Don't panic," he said. "It'll grow back, especially if you keep it fertilized."

Those plants that have harder stems or more treelike qualities are suited for pruning and cutting into desired designs.

Limbs are usually clipped off, leaving only a few sprigs in strategic places.

Whether form-framed or clipped into shape, evergreens are best for topiary, Mr. Kelly said, because they look good year-round.

Other plants, such as roses, camellias and boxwoods, also are good for bringing out the inner Edward Scissorhands.

"A lot of it is just experimenting," said Scott Smith, an instructor of environmental horticulture at Augusta Technical College. "You can do it as the plant grows or you can shortcut and just chop a poor plant into the shape you want it."

Of course, landscape artists don't really suggest that a plant be thoughtlessly cut in to or wrapped into shape.

"We call that instant topiary," Mr. Kelly said. "You want to be able to say that this is a 4-inch plant I started out with and watched it grow."

Fertilizing and watering the plant often should ensure that the plant prospers, Mr. Davis said.

"The real secret is keeping them watered," he said. "They dry out really easily."

After the plant is growing is when the real work of topiary begins.

"If you don't like trimming, topiary is not something you should do," Mr. Kelly said with a laugh. "It's all about trimming. You have to keep its form."

That means pulling out the shears and carefully eying the design to keep the plant symmetrical.

It also means clipping limbs at 45-degree angles right after the joints, if possible.

"You don't want to cut it straight, otherwise water will settle in it and cause a fungus," Mr. Kelly said.

"And remember you can always trim more but not less. It's just like getting a haircut. You want to do it little by little."

Maintained correctly, a topiary can last for years providing both ongoing beauty and a reason to garden.

"Topiaries take a little more care to take care of, you've got the continual pruning," Mr. Davis said.

"But they also add accents to your home. They can be really attractive."

Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or kamille.bostick@augustachronicle.com.

DO it yourself
Want to create a topiary from a store-bought form? Try these steps:

  • Place plant in an appropriate size pot. Dig the hole no deeper than the depth of the container it was in.

  • Insert the form into the center of the pot, being careful not to damage the plant.

  • Starting at the bottom, wrap the stems closely to the frame. Cover as much of the frame as possible, depending on the length of the stems.

  • Water the plant well after wrapping.

  • Fertilize the plant regularly.Pruning a plant?

  • Always cut a little at a time, using sharp gardening shears.

  • Begin on the side and then move to the next cut.

  • Make cuts at 45-degree angles.

  • Cut just before or just after a new leaf at the joint.

  • If you make a mistake, stop. It could be corrected easily with a few more cuts, or it might be better to let the plant grow back in.Source: Ron Kelly, owner Creative Landscapes

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