How to Create a Topiary

Ready-made topiaries are much admired but fairly expensive. Luckily it is not too difficult to create your own topiary at home.

Evergreen shrubs like eugenias, buxus, Searsia crenata (dune crow-berry), myrtles, Duranta ‘Sheena’s Gold’, Australian rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) and even trees like Buddleja saligna (false olive) are suitable to prune into all kinds of topiary shapes.

Easy shapes

If you are a beginner in the art of topiary it is best to start with a simple shape such as a cone, pyramid, square or ball. You can buy ready-made steel topiary frames from a garden centre or use chicken wire and wooden stakes to fashion a frame that is placed over the plant. As it grows, use pruning shears to cut off all the shoots that grow through the mesh. In time the plant will take on the dense shape that you want.

Lollipops or standards

lollipop topiary
  • Choose a tall, bushy plant with a strong main stem as your topiary subject.
  • Before you begin shaping, stake the plant properly to help it to grow upright with a strong main stem that will in time form the backbone of your living sculpture.
  • Clear the main stem of all side branches up to the desired height where you want to allow a head (ball) to form. Cut very close to the main stem by turning your secateurs around to remove unsightly stubs of stems.
  • Start shaping the head by cutting back all stems to about 2 – 3 nodes.
  • As soon as new strong growth has sprouted on the head you will have to keep on shaving off the tips. This repeated cutting back will encourage dense new growth every time, creating a round sphere.

The poodle-cut style topiary

poodle-cut topiary

It is possible to create more than one head on an upright topiary by shaping a sphere at the base of the plant, followed by a section of cleared stem followed by another sphere of pruned side-growth, and repeating the shaping to create a topiary with three or more heads.

The art of this sort of topiary making is about visualising where you want dense leaf growth to form the heads and where you want the main stem to show. The poodle-cut or multi-headed style of topiary is often used on mature plants that have many leggy side branches but have lost condition.

Shaping them drastically can give them a new lease on life and this is a way of creating an interesting and dramatic focal point in the garden.

Spiral Topiary

spiral topiary

Spirals are more of a challenge. A slim conifer with a pencil shape like Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’ is perfect for creating a lovely topiary spiral. Plant a young specimen and drive stout stakes into the ground on each side of it, about 15cm apart. Bend the main shoot around one of the stakes and tie it firmly in place. As it grows continue to twist it around each stake in turn to form a spiral.

Regularly shave the side growth with sharp scissors to keep the shape. If you can lay your hands on a fairly mature pencil conifer, you can cut it into a spiral by tying a long piece of string to its growth point at the top and spiralling the string loosely around the plant to its base, then staking it to the soil with a nail.

Use your sheers to cut all along the string line into the centre and main stem of the plant. This will give you a basic upright spiral form that you can start refining.

Growing your topiary

  • You can use sharp sheep shears in preference to hand shears, which makes clipping and shaping easier.
  • Topiary specimens should be perfectly maintained by light, regular pruning while the shrub is taking shape. You can cut back at least half of the shoots of the sprouts to ensure bushy and dense new growth.
  • Feed topiaries every 6 – 8 weeks with a slow-release fertiliser and mulch regularly with fresh compost. Keep them well watered.

Things to remember

Many evergreen shrubs can be masterfully directed to grow into any direction and any shape by the imaginative gardener wielding a cutting tool. Although the art of topiary making requires patience, it is a great stress release to spend time tending to a prized plant growing into a shape not intended by nature…

The Gardener