Create Your Own Topiary Plant - Or Garden
Topiary plants are art forms, living art forms. Topiary is defined as a process of shaping plants, or training them to grow around shaped forms. One can neatly trim a hedge to make it into a very symmetrical square or rectangular box shape, but that really isn't topiary. If you give your hedge or shrub a poodle cut, or are successful at creating a ball or cone shape, that's topiary, at least in two of its more basic forms. As an art form however, the goal is often to create very fanciful forms from living plants. Bears, giraffes, crescent moons, spirals, or hoops are typical examples of topiary art.
Some plants will of course look best when kept in their natural state or simply trimmed occasionally to keep them neat looking or nicely shaped, and not all plants are suitable as topiary subjects. It's safe to say that only a few plants qualify. Most simply won't cooperate, or if pruned excessively will die. There are basically two ways to work with topiary plants. You can take a suitable plant, such as boxwood, and through selective and judicious pruning, work toward the shape you want. It is usually better to start with a young plant and get it going in the right direction. If you take a 20 year old, 7 foot high shrub, and attempt to give it a poodle cut, the result will probably be somewhere between comical and heartbreaking, plus the shrub might not survive. You might be able to take the same shrub and work with it over a couple of seasons to get the desired result, but you'll usually do better letting a plant "grow into" a desired shape.
The other approach is to purchase or construct a wire frame which has the desired shape, and train a vining plant to cover the frame. This is usually the easiest approach and the one used for some of the more fanciful or far out shapes. The frames themselves are usually filled with sphagnum moss, which is kept moist, and as the vines, ivy for example, grow along the wire they will either attach themselves, or can be attached with nursery ribbon or fasteners such as bobby pins. Shoots which decide to take off on their own are simply trimmed back or fastened down. Whether you are using a frame or not, as you plant approaches the desired shape, careful pruning encourages bushy growth which fills the topiary out.
Topiary plants can either be grown indoors or outdoors. Indoors of course means the plants will be in containers. Topiary plants usually demand frequent watering, but when in containers care must be taken not to over water and drown the roots. If not enough water is given to the plant, leaves may turn brown, giving the topiary a splotchy look. A spray bottle is most effective for watering indoor topiary plants, coupled with a less frequent watering at the base. Watering and fertilizing practice really depends upon the kind of plant you have, so there is no general rule covering all topiary plants except that of giving them the care they need.
Since you are going to be doing constant pruning, invest in a quality set of shears or other pruning tools and keep them clean and sharp. You'll always want to be on the lookout for dead or diseased branches to trim away, and if the plant itself is providing its own support, thinning out interior branches, especially weak ones, is a good practice to follow. Most topiary experts recommend trimming from the top down, and, unless your goal is a mushroom-shaped topiary, trim to keep the top less wide than the bottom. For indoor plants, pruning so that the surface is angled or sloping outward will help in keeping from over watering the stem or trunk.
Boxwood and yew are two of the favorite plants for outdoors topiary, with ivy, especially grape ivy, most commonly used when training a plant to grow around a preformed shape. A wide variety of plants are suitable for indoor topiary including philodendron, jasmine, and many species of sedum.
If you're new to the art of topiary, you might want to start with simple shapes using the same plant types used by most. As you progress, you can set your sights on a herd of elephants in your front yard, using beech, boxwood, true ivy, and trailing geraniums as your plants of choice.