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.
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:
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:
Just as there are several kinds of indoor topiaries, there are several techniques for creating outdoor topiaries:
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.
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:
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:
First, you should consider your timing. Some experts recommend starting your topiary project in early summer for a few reasons:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
You’ll place the frame over your plant and make your cuts just outside it.
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:
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?