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For some it offers a way to bring whimsy into the landscape with fantastic forms but for others, topiary provides formality and definition in the garden with hedges and groupings of shrubs.
I first became fascinated with topiary after visiting with Pearl Fryar in his Bishopville, SC garden, more than 13 years ago. Historically, boxwood, yew, privet and myrtle (Myrtus communis) have been popular for shearing and training into shapes. For Pearl, a good candidate for topiary is any plant that grows well in his garden, including both deciduous and evergreen types. Armed with electric hedge trimmers and a vivid imagination, he transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. For example, he has Hollywood junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Kaizuka’) that provide an open screen along one side of his property. To me they look like dancers that may spring into action at any moment.
And while it’s rare for me to recommend Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii) because there are so many other choice evergreens for screening, Pearl and his pruners have turned this otherwise pedestrian plant into a living sculpture worthy of any museum. He is fascinated with creating unusual shapes and in some cases, exposing the bark of the tree, too. Depending on what region of the U.S. you live in, there are many plants that are well-suited for topiary. Some plants that Pearl finds easy to train include dwarf selections of aupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ), dwarf compacta hollies ( Ilex crenata ‘Compacta’) and various types of juniper. He has even created topiary out of a live oak (Quercus virginiana).
Pearl trims, clips or shears the plants he is training every four to six weeks. His rule of thumb is that if you have to rake up your clippings after you prune than you have waited too long to prune. His tool of choice is a pair of electric hedge trimmers with reciprocating blades (both blades move and are not stationary). He feels there is less chance of bruising or damaging the plant. A quality pair of hand pruners or shears will also get the job done.
If you want to try your hand at topiary, Pearl suggests creating a spiral. Select a plant with a strong central leader. When you trim, make your cuts towards the direction in which the plant grows, not away from it. Start with small plants growing in a gallon or three gallon size container.
Another type of topiary I like is what Atlanta gardener, Bill Hudgins, creates. He trains boxwoods into formal shapes that provide screens, hedges, edging and focal points in his shade garden, directing your view and providing an evergreen framework for his extensive Japanese maple collection.
Bill prunes his plants just twice a year. However, if you have plants that you are training into formal shapes or a hedge, it is a good idea to use hand pruners to selectively prune a few small openings so that light can reach the inner branches and encourage growth on the inside of the plant. This will result in healthier, bushier plants.
Boxwoods such as the common Buxus sempervirens and its cultivars, including ‘Suffruiticosa,’ plus little leaf boxwoods like the ‘Green Pillow’ (Buxus microphylla ) and ‘Kingsville Dwarf’ are ideal for topiary because they are slow growing, dense in habit and easy to prune. By using a variety of types, you can have many different shades of green in your garden too.
Add some shape to your garden and try your hand at topiary.