SOPHIE THOMSON’S TOPIARY TIPS
You either love it or hate it, but for centuries plants have been trained to create a variety of shapes, a practice called topiary. It was first recorded in Roman times and since then it has often been a symbol of wealth and tradition. Many people love the look of topiary plants and, while you can buy them already shaped they are rather expensive, whereas with a bit of time and patience, you can actually make your own.
A topiary can be something simple and classic like a standard (lollipop shape), a ball, a cone or a pyramid shape, or something slightly more complicated such as a spiral.
Recently cloud topiaries have been very popular, with their asymmetric multiple trunks topped with balls of different sizes and heights, which appear as floating clouds. You can also create topiary in any shape you choose, from animals to abstract forms.
Topiary plants create year round interest in a garden, add structure and formality, and can also add a sense of fun if desired. If you like the look of plants trained to various shapes, there are a number of things to consider.
The plant you choose will obviously make a big difference and affect the look and work involved in making and maintaining your topiary. A plant with big leaves like a bay tree (Lauris nobilis) or laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) will create a chunky effect while a plant with small leaves like box (Buxus species) will give you a finer look.
It is also worthwhile considering the plant’s leaf density when choosing a plant to topiary as denser foliage will make it easier to shape.
Another thing to consider when choosing the plant you want to train into a topiary is the internode length. This is the distance along the stem between where the leaves arise. A shorter internode distance gives you more buds and a more dense final effect, whereas a longer internode length causes the plant to be less dense and more sparse.
Long lived varieties which are popular around the world for topiary are box or Buxus species and in South Australia, the Japanese Box is a reliable choice.
For taller topiary many people choose conifers or lilly pillies however you can also use orange jessamine (Murraya) as long as you understand that regular pruning to maintain your shape will mean that you lose its scented flowers.
For cloud topiary many people use olives as they are quick growing, respond well to pruning and have smallish foliage when regularly pruned. You can also use plants such as lavender and rosemary for topiary however, they are not as likely to be long lived and do not respond as well to continual pruning. Topiary shapes can be made from native plants like native rosemary (Westringia species) and native fuchsia (Correa species) however, they will not be as long lived as natives like lilly pilly.
If you are starting a topiary shape from scratch you need to be patient as it can take several years to become the shape you want. Many people start by cutting into a plant free hand until they get the shape they are happy with. Once it is in the right shape, you then maintain it by hand or with a guiding frame which sits over your plant for pruning only, acting as a guide for where you prune up to. Other topiaries are created by growing a plant through a frame and guides you as to where to prune. You can then use a shrub or even a small-leaved climber like a small-leaved ivy, star jasmine or wire netting plant (Muehlenbeckia) to create your shape.
Faster growing plant varieties will need to be pruned more often than slower growing varieties however, and they will also get up to the desired size quicker. If you have let a hedge or topiary get out of hand it may require you to cut it back hard and then take some time to get it back into shape.
Plants which are being pruned frequently have higher needs for nutrition and water as they are constantly being stimulated to put on new growth. If grown in a pot they definitely need to be nurtured as they tend to dry out more rapidly. The extra demand that the topiary training puts on the plant can also mean that pest and disease problems are increased due to the stress, so keep your eye out for problems such as scale and mealy bug.
To find out where I am giving garden talks, visit sophiespatch.com.au or follow me on Instagram @sophiespatch or Facebook Sophie Thomson (public figure)