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What's Up Magazine

Bringing New creatures to Your Garden

Jan 16, 2018 04:32PM ● By Lauren VanSickle

Photography by Helen Norman

By Janice F. Booth

Would you like to add a new interest to your garden? Nothing so grand as a bronze sculpture or so kitschy as a plaster gnome, of course. It’s a gray, winter’s day, so let your imagination run free, and consider a spring project— topiary in your garden.

Molding plants into exotic or familiar shapes has been a gardening feature for centuries. Clipped and shaped plants and trees were found in Persian gardens (550–330 B.C.) In China and Japan, topiary reflected the art and aesthetics of Asian design. If you recall the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, amazing topiary displays enlivened the venues and the Olympic Village. 

In Europe, Roman gardeners, or topiarius, supervised the creation and maintenance of the topia in Rome and its protectorates (64–1453 A.D.) After the fall of the Empire, monks maintained the topiary gardens, some of which were trained to depict Biblical allegories. During the Renaissance, French King Louis XIV put designer Andre le Norte to work on the gardens of Versailles, installing huge geometrically-designed hedges, parterres, mazes, and labyrinths. 

One of the oldest British topiary gardens still in existence is Levens Hall, in the Lake District. Designed by M. Beaumont in the late 17th century, the topiary reflects both the French hedges and Dutch animal designs—the two pillars of topiary, architecture, and sculpture. English
cottage gardens embraced the whimsy of sculptural topiary.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American taste for all things English included an adoption of topiary garden features—Italianate, as found among the Longwood Gardens of Pennsylvania and Oriental, as interpreted by Winterthur’s Gardens. And perhaps, most dramatically, in the Ladew Topiary Gardens, which encompasses 22 acres near Monkton, Maryland. The former estate of Harvey S. Ladew includes over 100 larger-than-life topiary figures. There are hunt scenes with galloping steads, tracking hounds, and fleet foxes. There are “garden rooms,” including the rose, white, and yellow gardens, as well as the Garden of Eden—not to be missed, of course. All the creations were designed and developed by Ladew himself—with the help of dozens of gardeners, no doubt. If you’d like to see all this splendor for yourself, Lawdew’s website has all the information you might need, plus some amazing photos of the topiary designs.


Whether you’re planning for acres or square feet, there are ways topiary plants and hedges can add interest to your vistas—both in summer and winter. Imagine a boxwood bunny or two hopping along the edge of a distant flowerbed. Or, privet hedges forming a border and arch between your herb garden and cut-flower beds. Or, your favorite breed of dog in shaggy ivy, or a fuzzy moss cat. 

Now, I know you may be thinking, “How in the world am I going to find the time to manicure my hedges and plants into shapes that look like anything? Sounds like too much work to me!”  

But, wait! Topiary can actually be the beauty mark that camouflages the wart. Do you want to divert attention from that gangly oak that’s too young to be impressive? Add a whimsical olive tree trained into ascending balls; you could even weave lights into the center. Or, do you need something in that “dead zone” of your garden where nothing seems to thrive? A flirty fairy or frisky kitten composed of ivy or jasmine will transform that flaw into a garden delight.

And, now that I’ve captured your imagination: never fear, you can do most of your topiary design work at your computer. Garden sites offer topiary trees and plants—shaped, potted, and ready for placement. You can choose your design and the type of plant—And, if your green thumb has been failing you, there are plastic topiary that will never falter, even in the shadiest niche of your garden. Try sure-fire solutions such as plastic or silk moss, boxwood matting, and “Namgrass,” a brand of artificial turf similar to what’s used on football fields.


Ready to tackle the real thing, you say? Then moss is the most carefree live plant. It’s easy to maintain: clip the stray growth with your shears; mist once a week during growing season, and, if all that TLC fails, spray paint the poor thing—good as new!

More ambitious? You can purchase topiary, wire frames, and begin training your own topiary plant designs for a spring unveiling. Attach your plant material to the wire frame and amaze your friends and fellow gardeners with your garden’s new dramatic or whimsical surprise.

For the purists among us, here are a few handy bits of information on topiary. You’re looking for plants that grow densely with small, tight leaves. Traditionally, European topiary are grown from privet, yew, holly, ivy, boxwood, moss, jasmine, and some herbs. These are hardy plants that accept vigorous pruning and grow slowly. You may find it easiest to keep your topiary in pots that provide excellent drainage. If you decide to put the topiary in the ground, good drainage is essential. You’ll have to keep an eye on the color of your plant’s leaves and provide fertilizer as needed. Twice a month you’ll want to trim away any excessive new growth to maintain the shape of your topiary, even as it grows larger overall. 

Gardeners who enjoy the challenges of topiary plantings remind us not to be wedded to a particular shape if you’re working with live plants. Consider the plant’s predilections: If you’re trying for a bunny, but the plant keeps growing into a turtle—go for it! Turtles are cute too. Whatever your outcomes, topiary gardening adds another engaging element to your gardening expertise. Enjoy—and send pictures!