Topiary: Sculpting Plants into Ornamental Shapes through Pruning

Whether fantastical, elegant, or even absurd, topiaries have long been associated with the Old World and its formal elegance. They can be found adorning English manor houses, theme parks, and even your neighborhood.

From animal and bird shapes to geometric spirals and even rotund monks, shrubs and trees can be pruned into intricate shapes to delight the imagination. Simply put, a topiary is a plant that has been trimmed or trained into various ornamental shapes and designs. 

While the art of sculpting plants into ornamental shapes can seem daunting, it is accessible to anyone with a pair of pruners, wire, and patience – a flair for the dramatic is optional but recommended.

If Lazlo Cravensworth from What We Do in the Shadows, once a degenerate lord and now a member of the undead, can manipulate shrubbery as a creative outlet, then anyone can. 

The history of the topiary

Topiary | Vego Garden

The practice of hedge sculpting has been traced back to Ancient Rome, where Pliny the Younger, a Roman magistrate, described in letters the greenery that had been clipped into curious shapes at his Tuscan villa.

After the fall of Rome, the art was deemed lost, only to resurrect in Renaissance Italy, and only then in the provenance of the wealthy. Traditional shapes such as balls, cubes, cones, and spirals were popular.

Since then, it has seen various periods of revival and decline. In the modern day, appreciation for the gardens of antiquity has led to topiaries being introduced into public gardens and conservatories. 

Potential ideas and inspirations for topiary shapes

  • Balls / Lollipops
  • Geometric Shapes (pyramid, spiral, cone)
  • Animal Shapes (peacocks, snails, cats)
  • Arches 
  • Fanciful Shapes (hearts, butterflies, humanoid characters) 

How to get started with a topiary

There are specialized topiary shears that are designed for precise pruning. Many gardeners choose to buy wire mesh that they can place over the plant as a framework. 

Recommended tools for pruning

  • Topiary shears / secateurs for smaller plants or hard to reach areas
  • Hori Hori knife for cutting through dead growth and tougher areas
  • Garden gloves
  • Gardening ladder to climb to higher areas 
  • Wireframes molded in desired shape 
  • Canes for support
  • Thread to tie canes together 

Choose the right plant

Yew trees | Vego Garden
Yew trees

Select healthy, young plants that display dense growth. The best topiary plants are low-maintenance shrubs that are receptive to trimming. These include privet, holly, and box. The yew tree, Taxus baccata, has remained a staple for gardeners, both for its practical applications and its folkloric associations – they were consecrated by the Druids, symbolizing both death and resurrection.

However, topiaries need not be restricted to compacted shrubs. Flowering shrubs such as camellias – the classic Southern plant – can be molded into various balls or lollipops for a pretty display. Vines such as star jasmine can be trained to twine through a frame to create a living fence. 

Best plants for topiary

  • Privet
  • Holly 
  • Camellias 
  • Lavender
  • Bush honeysuckle 
  • Vines such as star jasmine 

Train your landscaping skills with simple arches and trellises 

The time to execute and maintain a healthy topiary can be considerable. If you don’t want to expend the energy, there are other forms of architectural landscaping that follow similar principles. Arches and walkways filled with vigorous vines can provide a sense of height and intrigue. With the arched trellis system, you can still achieve a whimsical look reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, but without the intense level of pruning associated with topiaries. 

Combine topiary landscapes with raised garden beds 

Topiary plants can be grouped with raised garden beds to create an enchanting themed garden. The midnight blue of these extra tall L-shaped beds integrates flawlessly with glossy topiary shrubs to achieve a cohesive look. Select a palette of pollinator friendly plants to attract pollinators, or add in dark-hued plants for a gothic, Victorian look. 

Trim your topiary into shape 

Sculpting an amorphous lump of plant into a designated shape is hard work, and the result can look disfigured. To prevent this, some gardeners install topiary wire frames. If the shape is something easy, like a ball, then you can probably do it in one sitting. Using your shears, start by slowly pruning your plant into a curved shape, starting from the middle, then going up and down. For vining plants, you may need to fill the form with sphagnum moss to encourage growth. 

Steps for an animal or a more fanciful shape

  1. Start by trimming the plant into a general vague form – an oval for a cat for example, or a rectangle. 
  2. Add sticks or canes for reference points, such as cat’s ears. Tie sticks together using thread. It can help if you sketch the design out on cardboard. 
  3. As the plant grows, continually prune new growth with shears. 
  4. Try to prune on overcast days. Always make sure to sterilize your blades to prevent transfer of disease.
  5.  The final process can take several years, especially for more elaborate designs, but if you persist, the result adds a big wow factor to the garden. 

Use lights to accent your topiary

Night time, scented with the fragrance of night-blooming plants, is prime time for a quiet stroll in the garden, but the gathering dusk can make it difficult to enjoy your plants. Nowadays, there are many artificial topiary options you can install in your backyard, but they lack the tactile richness of real plants. Twilight is when your topiary comes alive and the imagination takes reign, providing a relief from the waking reality of daylight. If you’re growing your topiaries in conjunction with raised beds, then you can illuminate them with solar lights

Maintain your topiary 

Sanitizing your gardening tools with alcohol solutions can seem overboard, and in most cases, boiling water will suffice. Foliar or a slow-release fertilizer during the growing season can help speed along growth. Topiaries will need to be watered regularly, especially for those planted in pots.

An all-purpose nozzle spray can address a wide range of watering tasks, including soaking and misting, keeping your topiaries lush and healthy for years to come.  

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