What Shrubs and Bushes are Best for Shaping?

large outdoor shrub shaped to resemble an elephant

Have you ever wanted to shape hedges, shrubs, or try your hand at topiary? Shaping shrubs is a fun way to get out in the garden and try your hand at an art that has been around since ancient times. Whether you prefer a formal shape or something more informal, there is an evergreen or flowering plant that is suited for your yard.

Before you buy a plant, consider a few things:

  • In what shape does the plant naturally grow (conical, round, tall, or low-growing)?
  • What size will the plant be at maturity?
  • What is the plant’s USDA hardiness zone?

Shrubs and bushes that are best for shaping and topiary

The evergreen shrub species below do well as formal hedges, shaped shrubs, or topiaries (wired or hand-shaped). Caveat: There are many varieties of each species, so pick a variety that will work well for your landscaping goals.

1. Dwarf Alberta spruce (picea glauca ‘Conica’) 

Dwarf Alberta spruce is a popular evergreen tree. It has a natural conical shape and works well as-is or as a topiary. DIY homeowners can easily turn one of these perennials into a lovely spiral shape that works well alongside an entryway or as a focal point elsewhere in the lawn. 

This tree can grow up to 12 feet but is a very slow grower. This plant works best in zones 3-6 and prefers well-drained soil. It likes full to partial sun and is often used as a container topiary in the home landscape.

2. Arborvitae (thuja

cone-shaped Arborvitae tree
F. D. Richards | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Arborvitae are ornamental trees that come in sizes and shapes varied enough to suit almost any landscape. They come in tall, pyramidal forms and more compact globe shapes. For a low-maintenance evergreen, you can opt to let the plant grow into its natural shape with little pruning. If you want a more formal look, you can shear them with powered or manual hedge trimmers.

Since Thuja is a varied genus, check the plant tag to make sure that plant will work well in your space, and give it enough room to grow to its mature size without crowding other plants. Other growing conditions are cultivar-dependent, so read up on soil pH, soil texture, and light requirements before you buy.

3. Boxwood (buxus

variety of small spherically-shaped boxwood shrubs in different sized pots
cocoparisienne | Pixabay

Boxwoods are among the best plants for smaller shaping work. As such, they are among the best topiary species for a home gardener because anyone can put them in a pot or the ground and try their hand at shaping shrubs. Most boxwoods have attractive dense foliage, which lends itself to a variety of topiary shapes: round ball shapes, geometric shapes, or you can take a more formal approach and plant them in straight lines and use them as a hedge plant.

As a whole, boxwoods grow in USDA hardiness zones 5-9. If you live in a colder climate, consider a hybrid boxwood, as some varieties will withstand temps down to USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F). They can take full sun or partial shade and tolerate a variety of soil textures and pH levels. 

Do your research to select one that will work well for your specific needs. Height, pest resistance, cold hardiness, and growth rate vary depending on the variety.

4. Japanese holly (ilex crenata

close-up of the branches on a Japanese holly
Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Another homeowner favorite, Japanese hollies are often used for tall hedges or topiaries in home lawns. This shrub has a dense growth habit and is a slow grower. It thrives in USDA hardiness zones 5-8 but may struggle in zones with high heat and humidity. It is tolerant of clay, loam, and sandy soils and can handle an acidic or neutral soil pH (not alkaline, though).

Japanese hollies come in many varieties to suit a wide range of landscape design plans. “Sky Pencil” is an unusual variety in that it takes on a tall, columnar shape. In contrast, “Golden Gem” only grows to 2 feet tall and has a spreading habit. If you prefer more of a pyramidal shape, “Sky Pointer” may fit your vision. 

5. Yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria

close-up of the red berries and green leaves of Yaupon holly
edbo23 | Pixabay

Are you concerned that your deeply shaded lawn won’t allow for a hedge or topiary to grow? Yaupon holly does well in deep shade, partial shade, or full sun. It also will develop into a small tree and can be left in more of a natural shape if you have a more naturalized area in your lawn.

Yaupon holly produces white flowers in spring that give way to red fruits on the fertilized female plants in the fall. It tolerates drought and some flooding and withstands heavy shaping. This shrub forms suckers at the base, so prune these back unless you want them to form a thicket.

6. Yew (taxus

Yews have been used as hedges in Europe for thousands of years and are called the “King of Hedges.” As you may guess from that nickname, they can grow quite tall, although there are plenty of cultivars that have shorter growing habits. Like the yaupon holly, female yew plants will produce red berries (technically an aril, or outer covering) if they are fertilized by a nearby male plant.

Do you want to invite more wildlife into your lawn? Yews are prized by many bird species, who eat its fruits and build nests in its branches. So, before you prune, check to see if any birds have taken residence in your hedge. 

A final caution: Yew species are poisonous if ingested, so be careful if you have kids or pets, but handling them won’t cause any harm.

Shrubs, bushes, and plants that you can tree-form

Another popular way to shape a plant is to turn it into a tree-form (also called a standard in the horticultural world). This technique is popular with flowering shrubs, as it creates a beautiful, floral focal point in your landscape, but non-flowering shrubs and herbs work well, too. 

According to the University of Georgia, many bushes and shrubs can be tree-formed. Look for a plant that is young and has a straight stem that’s somewhat flexible. (Most tree-forms need to be staked to give the remaining stem time to grow wider and stronger.) 

To train a plant into a tree-form, cut off all but one (or a few) lower branches so that the plant will leaf out and bloom along the top of that branch(es). Many formal standards use one stem, but other plants like crepe myrtles are often tree-formed using several stems.

Here are a few shrubs and plants that homeowners like to tree-form in their landscape:

✓ Azaleas
✓ Camellia
✓ Coleus
✓ Copperleaf
✓ Crape myrtle
✓ Gardenia
✓ Hydrangea
✓ Knock Out roses
✓ Lantana
✓ Lavender
✓ Hibiscus
✓ Rhododendron
✓ Rosemary
✓ Variegated myrtle
✓ Hibiscus

Pro Tip: Some plant varieties work better for tree-forming than others, so do your research before you buy.

If you prefer to leave the pruning and shaping to someone who already owns an arsenal of pruning tools, contact one of our local lawn care professionals. They’ll buy, plant, and train your shrubs and bushes to create more beauty and function in your landscape.

Main Photo Credit: PxHere

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.