What Is a Shrub Topiary?

Gardening Raised to an Art Form

Topiary of a baby unicorn.
Topiary of a baby unicorn. David Beaulieu

Found in the classic shapes in a European garden to the magical creatures in Disney World, shrub topiary is the practice of training plants to grow in a specific way by training the growth pattern and clipping the foliage to form a shape.

What Is a Shrub Topiary?

Shrub topiary is the art of pruning (shearing) live shrubs into decorative shapes to make a garden more appealing. The topiaries can be created from container plants or shrubs planted in the ground. Many hotels, golf courses, and residential homes have shrub topiaries.

What Tools Are Needed to Create a Shrub Topiary?

The gardener's work can be simplified by a structure called a "topiary frame." This frame is installed in such a way that, as the shrub grows, it fills in the topiary frame. Branches that breech this framework and stick out through the openings are simply pruned off. Guided by the topiary frame, the shearing work to achieve the shape that you want is pretty straightforward. There is little artistic license as the shape is already determined. However, if you enjoy the challenge of creating unusual shapes you can "eyeball" the shaping and have the freedom to create topiaries that are not typically seen.

You will need either a pair of shears if you prefer to do your trimming manually or a power hedger if you are the type that likes to put technology to use to create a shrub topiary. Many gardeners opt for manual tools to avoid having to listen to the roar of power equipment, but if you have a lot of work to do or the topiary is quite tall, there is no doubt that power equipment helps the job go more smoothly. Professionals who maintain large topiary gardens generally make use of power equipment. The unicorn in the picture was created by the professionals at the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Newport, Rhode Island.

If you wish to create a topiary using a container plant, a frame is usually placed in the container to help train the plants. Most container topiaries do not use a woody shrub but a vine or soft-stemmed plant. Even orchids can be trained to follow a wire shape. The interior of the frame is filled with sphagnam moss. These figures dry out quickly and must be watered frequently.

Plants Commonly Used for Topiary

English boxwood is often used to make certain kinds of shrub topiaries due to its small leaves, amenability to pruning, its evergreen foliage, and its rounded growth habit. Boxwoods (Buxus) are ideal for creating these shapes. But other kinds of plants are used, as well.

For example, Hetz's Japanese holly (Ilex crenata 'Hetzii') is not far behind boxwood as a natural choice for making topiaries with its small leaves. Hetz's Japanese holly is often mistaken for a boxwood, since it is difficult to tell the two apart from a distance.

Another good choice for fashioning a topiary is the privet shrub (Ligustrum), which is perhaps better known as an outstanding hedge plant.

Topiary Arrangements

But for a full definition of the word, topiary, we must go further, because boxwood shrubs are also often used in another kind of topiary.

For instance, at Christmas, "boxwood Christmas trees" are popular -- that is, topiary arrangements in the shape of Christmas trees that are made with sprigs of boxwood. For preservation, these arrangements must be misted often to prevent them from drying out.

Fun Fact

Topiary arrangements most often used as indoor decorations are not live shrubs, but cut branches, moss, vines, or succulents. The greenery is inserted into styrofoam forms or in florist's foam and arranged according to the shape one desires.

Topiary arrangements can also be made from fruit or artificial greenery.

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  1. Danish Garden Center Trends. Michigan State University Extension