If you want to shear dwarf trees, shrubs, or herbs into animal forms or into geometrical shapes in three-dimensional space (globes, cubes, etc.), then it's essential to find the best topiary plants and learn how to work with them. You'll often want to use evergreens (including the broadleaf type) for the job so that you can admire your creation year-round. But there are exceptions: Not all privet shrubs are evergreen, yet they're among the most popular bushes for topiary.
The best topiary plants among trees, shrubs, and herbs bear small leaves, like to be sheared, grow quickly, and have a dense branching pattern. But, as always with plant selection, stay realistic yet open-minded: You may decide to give up one of these features to grow a plant that has another quality you admire, such as being scented or easy to grow.
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Conifers renowned for being tough landscape plants suited to a variety of conditions (including shade), Taxus bushes are needled evergreen shrubs with two potential drawbacks:
- They're poisonous: Avoid growing them if children will be playing outdoors or if you let your dogs loose in the yard.
- They grow slowly.
But if you don't have kids or pets in the yard and do have some patience, yews (zones 4 to 7) make excellent topiary plants. T. baccata 'Repandens' is a great pick for a long-and-low topiary shape: It's 2 to 4 feet high and 12 to 15 feet wide.
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Thuja occidentalis is also a needled evergreen, but its leaves come in flat, scaly sprays. It can take on different sizes and plant forms; which you choose depends on the topiary shape you're seeking.
'North Pole' (zones 3 through 7, full to partial sun) is a good cultivar if you need a topiary that's taller than it is wide (10 to 15 feet tall x 5 feet wide) but that isn't too tall.
'Golden Globe' (zones 4 to 8, partial to full sun, 4 feet tall and wide) is suited to an entirely different type of topiary. It offers a different color (golden foliage) to boot.
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Dwarf Alberta Spruce Trees
Picea glauca 'Conica' (zones 3 to 8, full sun, 10 to 12 feet tall and 7 to 10 feet wide) is another slow grower, but it makes up for it with dense and fragrant foliage. This dwarf tree is also great if you need a topiary with a pyramidal or conical shape.
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Topiary is just one use for Buxus. Boxwoods have been used in formal landscape designs for ages because it's so easy to create crisp, even lines with these broadleaf evergreen shrubs. B. sempervirens 'Suffruticosa' (3 feet x 3 feet, zones 6 to 8, full sun to partial shade), a dwarf, is best suited for small topiaries.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Japanese Holly Shrubs
Ilex crenata 'Hetzii' (3 to 6 feet tall and wide) has a rounded form, so it works well for many animal and geometrical shapes. But if your topiary will be tall and slender (such as the "triple ball" topiaries), I. crenata 'Sky Pencil' (6 feet tall, 14 inches wide) is a better choice. Growing conditions for both are zones 5 to 8, full sun to partial shade.
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Cherry Laurel Shrubs
Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) has nothing to do with mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), although its leaves resemble it. But it is, in fact, a type of cherry, as its genus name (Prunus) reveals.
Grow the 'Otto Luyken' cultivar (zones 6 to 8, full sun to partial shade) for a small topiary: It stays smaller than the species plant. It may eventually get bigger than its listed size (3 to 4 feet tall by 6 to 8 feet wide), but only after many years (prune to keep it from exceeding these limits if you'd like).
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Some of the best topiary plants are also among the best hedge plants, since desirable qualities for the former are desirable for the latter, too. The broadleaf shrub, privet (Ligustrum) is one example. L. vulgare is 4 to 15 feet tall, with a spread of 4 to 8 feet. This European native is hardy (zones 5 to 8) but not evergreen.
L. japonicum is indigenous to Japan. It's evergreen, but it's suited only to zones 7 to 10. The bush becomes 6 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 6 to 8 feet. Both are invasive in parts of the U.S.
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Lavandula angustifolia (zones 5 to 8, full sun, 2 to 3 feet tall, spread varies by cultivar) can be grown as a small topiary plant. This herb is especially favored by those seeking a pleasing aroma. As you trim your topiary, use the cuttings in potpourri.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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If you're ready to progress past basic landscaping, Teucrium fruticans (zones 8 to 10, full sun, 4 to 6 feet tall and wide) is a fun plant to play with. Not only is this evergreen (a tender relative of T. chamaedrys) one of the best plants for topiary, but it's also a great edging plant.
Those with an artistic bent can take the edging-plant idea a step further and build a knot garden, which is an intricately designed garden with plants arranged to create an interlacing pattern, sometimes with fanciful topiary and carefully tended paths.
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Rosmarinus officinalis (zones 8 to 10) is another herb that's a classic topiary plant. It's in the Lamiaceae family, making it a relative of such plants as Lamium maculatum. The species plant grows 2 to 6 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide in warm climates, such as its native Mediterranean. Give this culinary favorite full sun; take it indoors for the winter if you garden in the North.
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A Twist to the Topiary Concept
A different type of "topiary" makes use of a fast-growing vine plant such as English ivy (Hedera helix) and a metal frame in the shape of whatever you want your creation to look like. You attach the vine to the frame and let it grow to fill in the shape, at which point you simply remove the stray growth.
Outdoors, English ivy (zones 4 to 9, partial to full shade) can put out vines 50 feet long. Where English ivy is invasive in North America, you can grow it as a houseplant; give it lots of indirect lighting and keep the temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
How to Make a Kissing Ball
Another horticultural art form is the kissing ball. Except, in this case, you shape your creation not with living plants but with the branches cut from living plants. Kissing balls are especially popular for Christmas, but they can be made for other times of the year, too.