Making a Topiary: How to Shape Shrubs, Bushes, and Vines

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Tall layered topiary with cone-shaped tops

If you’ve ever wanted to be Edward Scissorhands for a day, now’s your chance. Topiary is an ancient art form anyone can do with a little know-how, a few tools, and some elbow grease. 

What is a topiary?

Topiary is the art of shaping or training plants into ornamental shapes or forms. Popular forms include pyramids, spirals, and the ever-present tiered ball shape. If you prefer alternatives to common geometric shapes, there are other decorative shapes, such as more organic forms, that are within the reach of an advanced gardener.

In this article, we’ll focus on three projects that are great for a beginner-level homeowner. We’ll explain how to create a clipped topiary, a stuffed topiary, and a wire frame topiary.

How to create a clipped, spiral topiary

group of tall, spiral topiaries
brewbooks | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Spiral topiaries are a popular addition to a formal entryway or other defined space because they create a focal point in your landscape. 

Grab your tools, buy a boxwood, and let’s create a potted spiral topiary.

Gather tools:

  • Various trimming tools (hedge shears, bypass pruners, kitchen shears, topiary shears)
  • A tarp (for easy cleanup)
  • String
  • Sturdy planting pot

Identify techniques:

  • Cutting and shaping

Choose a plant:

  • Small boxwoods (Buxus) or yews work well as topiary plants. (Buy a sturdy pot if yours is plastic and flimsy.)

Create your topiary: 

Step 1: Mark your shape

Take the string and wind it in a spiral shape from the top of the bush to just above the bottom. Lay down the tarp to collect the clippings.

Step 2: Start clipping

Use kitchen scissors or other small hand shears to clip along the string. This marks the shape you’ll follow.

Step 3: Remove the string and keep clipping

Now that you can see the shape, remove the string. Get out your bypass pruners and continue to clip along the line to create the spiral shape. Round off the corners to create a pleasing shape. (A pair of topiary shears can be helpful for this final shaping.) Roll up the tarp, and enjoy your new topiary for many seasons to come.

Other plants that work for topiary:

  • Arborvitae (Thuja)
  • Japanese holly (Ilex crenata)
  • Privet (Ligustrum) [Warning: Many of these have a very fast growth habit. If you don’t have lots of time to remove new growth during the growing season, consider another plant.]

What about bonsai? You may wonder why we haven’t mentioned the Japanese art of bonsai. Simply put, it’s outside the scope of this article, as it is an advanced form of topiary.

How to create a stuffed topiary

stuffed topiary in the design of beauty and the beast
Brian McGowan | Unsplash

If you’ve ever been in awe at the Disney theme park topiaries, guess what? It’s not outside your reach. All you’ll need is some hardware and a little Imagineering to get started.

Gather tools:

  • Wire topiary frame
  • Ivy
  • Sphagnum moss
  • Potting mix
  • Landscaping fabric pins OR bobby pins
  • Plant saucer

Identify techniques:

  • Stuffing

Choose a plant:

  • For a small, wire topiary form, a small-leaved ivy (duckfoot ivy, for example) works well.

Create your topiary: 

Before you make a life-sized, Disney-like stuffed topiary, let’s start small. Buy a small wire frame at the garden center for this project.

Step 1: Soak the moss

Place the sphagnum moss in a bucket with water. Let it soak for a few minutes until it’s wet.

Step 2: Stuff the wire form with moss

Stuff the wet moss into the form. If necessary, wrap fishing wire around the frame to help the moss stay in. Determine where you want the ivy to go and leave a little extra space there for the potting mix.

Step 3: Add the potting mix and ivy

If you have a small animal form, for example, put some potting mix along the animal’s spine. Add a sprig or two of small ivy in the potting mix. Place extra moss on top of the potting mix. Use small landscaping pins or bobby pins to pin the ivy sprigs along the frame.

Step 4: Maintain

When it’s time to water, place the form in a clay or plastic saucer. Water the saucer one to two times per week, depending on your climate. (Alternatively, sprinkle it with water as needed or dunk it in water if it becomes very dry.) 

Plan to refresh the moss about once per year in warm climates. In areas with heavy snow, the moss may break down more quickly. 

Pro Tip: Make sure your ivy or vines are in proportion to your frame. If you have a very small frame, a duckfoot or other ivy with small leaves works well. For larger frames (like those you see at Disney parks), larger ivies help to maintain a sense of balance.

How to create a wire-framed topiary

topiary in the shape of a bicycle
Peter Corbett | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Do you love plants shaped around a simple wire frame? A wire-framed topiary is an easy way for beginners to dip their toes into the world of topiary.

In this section, we’ll focus on using a wire frame to train the culinary herb rosemary along the shape of the wire.

Gather tools:

  • Herbs (Rosemary works well)
  • Potting soil
  • Wire frame
  • Sturdy pot
  • Orchid clips, tiny hair clips, wire ties
  • Landscaping pins (as needed)

Identify techniques:

  • Training (Guiding a vining-type plant along a form)

Choose a plant:

  • Rosemary or another long-stemmed perennial herb 

Create your topiary:

For the sake of illustration, we’ll assume you’re using a simple, open circle frame. You can buy one or make one with a coat hanger or other sturdy wire.

Step 1: Choose a plant

Select a young plant with several side stems that are at least 9 inches long. The stems should be somewhat pliable and not too woody.

Step 2: Get set up

(Assuming that the original pot is small and impermanent.)

Add rocks to the bottom of the larger pot for drainage. Add potting soil and place the plant in the pot. 

Step 3: Add the frame

Place the frame in your pot. If your frame doesn’t have wire “feet,” use a few landscaping pins to hold the frame in place.

Step 4: Train the plant

Wrap the stems around the wire frame. Secure the ends with orchid clips or small hair clips. Loose wire ties also work well. Don’t wrap the stems or tie the ends so tightly as to restrict growth. Water as needed and continue to train the stems around the frame as they grow. Water just as you would an untrained plant.

Pro Tip: If you love herbs but prefer to shape plants with clippers, follow the steps we used for boxwoods above. Certain varieties of rosemary (upright varieties) and lavender work well for shaping into pyramids, tiered balls, or spirals, to name a few.

If your scissorhands are too busy shaping, stuffing, or clipping to concentrate on your lawn, contact one of our lawn care professionals today. They’ll mow, edge, and blow your lawn, so it looks as trim and trained as your topiary.

Main Photo Credit: ewan traveler | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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