How to Make a Topiary
Shaping Shrubs and Hedges
At some point while strolling through your neighborhood, you might feel the urge to make your landscaping look even more impressive. Your existing shrubs and bushes? They’re fine, but they could be so much more.
It makes sense that you would feel that way. Well-maintained landscaping can increase a home's resale value by 5-12%.
What you’re feeling is a call to an art that dates back to the Roman empire: topiary.
You don’t have to be a landscaping professional to practice this art. All you need are some shrubs, some good tools (such as a hedge trimmer), and a commitment to maintaining your plants’ shapes for the long run.
The result can be satisfying and fun.
What Is a Topiary?
Topiary is the art of trimming shrubs and hedges into carefully planned decorative shapes.
Have you ever seen a shrub trimmed into a ball shape? What about a hedge sculpted in the shape of an animal? As different as they are, they’re both topiaries.
Indoor topiaries use small perennials and fall into three categories:
- Pruned topiary: plants are clipped and trimmed to fit a shape
- Hollow topiary: vines and stems are trained to grow around a hollow frame
- Stuffed topiary: similar to a hollow topiary, except the frame is filled with a growing medium like sphagnum moss to create a free-standing display that doesn’t require a pot
Outdoor topiaries can be made with plants growing in pots and other containers as well as with bushes and shrubs planted directly in the ground. The best plants to use for outdoor topiaries are plants that keep their leaves for a year or more, which are known as evergreens:
- Boxwood (a common choice due to their hardiness; Japanese boxwood is a slow-growing species that requires less frequent trimming)
- Holly (some species of holly are not evergreen)
Just as there are several kinds of indoor topiaries, there are several techniques for creating outdoor topiaries:
- Espalier: trees (often fruit trees) are trained to grow with their branches flat against a wall
- Pleached hedges: branches of plants are interwoven to create a corridor along a walkway
- Living fence: plants growing close together along a property’s edge are cut to the same height to create a natural boundary
- Standards: plants with a single main stem or a trunk are trimmed in a decorative shape
Of these types of outdoor topiary, living fences and standards are the kinds that are easiest for homeowners in the United States to create.
They’re also the kinds for which a hedge trimmer (or a string trimmer with a hedge trimmer attachment) comes in handy.
Tools of the Topiary Trade
Many of the tools for shaping shrubs are tools that you would use for your regular yard chores.
You might not think that precise, detailed hedge-shaping would require a powered hedge trimmer. However, a hedge trimmer is useful for cutting away the bulk of a bush at the start of a project and for trimming new growth on large bushes. In fact, renowned topiary artist Pearl Fryar got his start using a gas-powered hedge trimmer!
Besides a hedge trimmer or a pair of long-bladed hedge shears for the big cuts, you’ll need other trimming tools for the cuts that require more finesse:
- Handheld pruning shears: essential for fine, closeup work and greater control
- Lopping shears: like pruning shears with long handles; good for cutting hard-to-reach branches
- Pruning saws: for specific cuts on thick, woody growth
When purchasing pruning shears and lopping shears, look for scissor-style blades that provide a clean cut. Flat, anvil-style blades will crush your stems and branches, making cuts that take longer to heal.
In addition to your trimming tools, you’ll also need safety gear:
- Thick gloves to protect your hands from cuts and scratches
- Safety glasses to shield your eyes from debris
- Hearing protection if you’re using a powered trimmer
- A hard hat if you’ll be working on tall plants and making overhead cuts
How to Make a Topiary
First, you should consider your timing. Some experts recommend starting your topiary project in early summer for a few reasons:
- You’ll avoid cold-weather frosts that could damage newly cut branches
- You won’t interrupt your plants’ spring growth
- You’ll be less likely to cut growth that has begun hardening off and turning woody
Pruning late in the day or on a cloudy day is also recommended, as sunlight can scorch freshly cut growth.
After you’ve made any rough cuts with a hedge trimmer or hedge shears, you can begin working toward the shape you have in mind, including some of the most common shapes:
- Sphere or ball
Tips for Creating a Cone-Shaped Topiary
The cone is an excellent choice for a first hedge-shaping project. It works well even for plants with lots of irregular branching stems.
To create your cone, start with your shears or trimmer at the top of the plant and make an angled cut downward so that the base will be wider than the top.
If your plant is taller, you can give yourself guidelines to follow by leaning poles or broomsticks against it. Nestle each pole within the branches until it leans at the angle you want.
From time to time, step back and look around the plant to keep the angle similar along all sides.
Tips for Creating a Ball-Shaped Topiary
Although a spherical shape is also good for plants with lots of branches, the “ball-on-top” shape is best for trees with a trunk or plants with a single stem that’s easy to find.
If choosing the ball-on-top shape, prune all the branches away from the bottom of the trunk, leaving several inches of green growth at the top (the exact amount depends on the total height of your plant and the aesthetic you prefer).
If shaping a multi-stemmed bush into a ball, no preliminary pruning is needed.
Start at the top of your plant with your hand shears or trimmer and cut at a downward, outward angle toward the middle of the plant's height. The angle should be more gradual than it would be for a cone topiary.
Aim to remove about one inch of growth to start. You can always remove more later.
Trim around the middle of the plant's height by holding your shears or trimmer vertically. Then, trim the bottom of the sphere by making downward, inward cuts toward the base of the plant.
Don’t forget to even out the top of the ball.
A hoop made of wire that circles the center of the bush like a belt can give you a target to aim for with your shears or trimmer.
Tips for Creating a Spiral Topiary
Plants with one easy-to-find single stem or a trunk are also good fits for a spiral shape. A naturally tall cone-shaped plant works best. You can also use the technique mentioned above to shape your shrub into a cone first.
Starting at the top of your plant, wrap string or masking tape around the plant in a spiral, stopping just before the bottom to leave your plant a ring of green growth at the base. Experts recommend three to five turns for plants used in home landscaping.
Adjust the string’s position to create even spacing between the arms of its spirals.
To make your first cuts, start in the middle of your tree’s height and work toward either the top or bottom.
Use your hand shears to make shallow cuts along the length of your string. This will start to create the open space in your spiral.
Once you’ve cut along the entire length of string, remove the string and make further cuts into the groove to open the space. You can cut all the way back to the trunk, or you can keep your cuts shallow, depending on your preferred look.
After you’ve created the open spaces in your spiral, give the green, growing parts a rounded appearance by cutting at an angle along the top and bottom edges.
Frames for Creating Topiary Shapes
For more difficult shapes, or for help creating the standards above, consider purchasing or making a wire frame to guide you.
You can make your own frames for basic shapes by shaping wire around other objects:
- Shipping boxes for a cube frame
- Exercise balls or beach balls for a spherical frame
- Safety cones for a conical frame
You’ll place the frame over your plant and make your cuts just outside it.
Taking Care of Your Topiary
Shaped shrubs don’t always look impressive right away. Often, they need seasons to grow into their forms. Be patient, and remember to look after your topiary:
- Water it right after you create your shape
- Continue to water it frequently, since topiaries dry out easily due to the large number of cuts, but don’t flood it
- Fertilize it the same way you would any other shrub on your lawn
- Prune it twice a year: once around late May to mid-June, and again in early autumn
- If you can’t wait until late spring for the first pruning, prune just before the growing season starts (for many, late March)
Also, don’t forget to clean your tools with isopropyl alcohol before putting them away. Clean them and wipe them dry between plants as well. This helps prevent the spread of plant diseases.
Topiary requires care and time. However, once you’ve finished, you can stand back and admire your work, knowing not only that you worked hard on your landscaping but also that you created something striking and distinct.
If that isn’t the mark of an artist, what is?