Growing Topiary Plants

topiary evergreens
I had so many calls, emails and comments about the topiary nursery in my previous post- wow!  I could thank you for that attention, but it wasn’t me who grew those plants.  It is a very special person with an extraordinary and singular vision.  People with vision-there is always something worthwhile to take from their efforts.  His palette of plants is quite spare.  His patience with the process I call growing is unlimited.  And his ability to prune is superb.  These boxwoods of his in 3 gallon pots are plants that have been given a very good start.  Any gardener could take this pot home, and resolve to grow that boxwood on.       

Another grower we buy from makes a point growing this particular form.  These boxwood with tufted top knots are charming and distinctive.  Anyone willing to take one on, and commit to growing and pruning would in just a few years have a boxwood topiary worth talking about.  To get to this stage, the nursery spends 10 years.  They are happy to hand what they grow off to you.  Are you game?

Most of my boxwoods are 21 years old.  7 years old at purchase, and 14 years in the ground.  I water and feed them.  But I would not dream of touching them with a pair of shears.  I am a serviceable pruner-not an inspired one. I am fortunate to have someone in my community who makes a specialty of pruning.  Mindy and her group of 7 takes an entire day to prune my evergreens.  The day they come-the best day of my gardening year.     

boxwood topiary

Gorgeous topiary trees and shrubs are first and foremost about the years, and the good care.  The years devoted to growing them on.  Transplanting large topiary material comes with no end of peril.  Transplant shock is routine.  They are very expensive, given how long it has taken to grow them to a subtantial maturity.   Once the plant is in place, the work begins.

It was many many years ago that I planted this topiary garden.  The first year was no cause to throw a party.  But a client with vision was determined to take relatively small plants, and grow them into plants of note.  She saw to the water, the feeding, and the pruning.  In my zone, in a good year,  boxwood flushes on an average of 6 inches.  Six inches seems like not much, but 6 inches times 10 years-a big flush.  Years later, her plants are gorgeous-gorgeous enough to make any gardener blush. 

Mindy prunes with a forest of stout stakes, and a network of level lines.  Her group clips with hand shears.  I cannot imagine how many times in the course of a day those shears open and close.  The sound of that work-I cannot describe in words how beautiful this is.  They take the time it takes to do the work properly.    

pruning boxwood

To the last, her crew is entirely modest about their skills.  They focus on the plants.  Any gardener could make it their business to learn how to do this.  Though in my heart I believe she is gifted, I would try to replicate her care, if I needed to.  Great topiary plants are about the relationship between the stalwart start of a plant, and a gardener.  Buy a plant.  Resolve to train it-just how you envision it.       

pruning carpinus

I was young, when I planted this tree.  It bore no resemblance to this, the day it went in the ground.  It is as grand and gorgeous a topiary carpinus that has ever been my pleasure to see. It is as beautiful as any topiary tree anyone might see anywhere.  The form of this tree was many years in the making.  The pruning is amazingly precise.  The company who prunes this not only has skilled people, it has big equipment.  What an extraordinary job they do of the pruning.

Mindy looks after this property.  Every hedge is perfectly pruned.  The topiary evergreens not shown in this pictuire are in excess of 20 feet tall.  Did we move plants in to this landscape, full grown?  No.  Beautifully grown, hefty specimens got planted.  Every year she works on establishing the forms.  Every year, they are bigger, and better.

My yew topiaries in these pots are but 3 years old.  The boxwood surround is but 3 years old.  Given another 10 years, we will have something to talk about.  In the meantime, I see to the day to day. I can safely say that the process of growing enriches my gardening life.  I like the dailies perhaps more than the finish.  

The hedge maples on standard in the back right cewnter side of this landscape-they have been growing on for years.  Every year, that pleached hedge of trees looks better.  One day they will fill in completely from side to side, and front to back.   The land drops from the house to the lake.  The trees nearest the water are much taller than the trees on the near side.  A lvel pleached hedge on sloping ground-years in the making.  The day they fully pass muster-a day to celebrate.  Great gestures in the landscape take time.

This beech arbor is but a few years along.  It will take another 5 years for it to fill out.  My advice to you?  Buy two small beech.  Plant them opposite each other, far enough apart,  where they will be perfect, 15 years from now.  Today is the best day to start to grow a topiary.  Planting small plants does not mean your vision is small.  Planting small plants with an eye to the future-a big vision.

Level with the horizon-is this not beautiful?  It took more than a few years to get here.  I can attest to that, as this is my yard.  Visit your local nursery.  Scrutinize what trees and shrubs might grow into something extraordinary, given your care and some time.  Take the time to source a great pruning company-or make it your business to learn how to prune.  For my clients-I source the best plant material that I can find.  I have no trouble placing those extraordinary plants.  At the same time, I buy those smaller plants that I imagine, given a few years and a lot of care, will prove to be garden makers.  I hold and grow those small plants-waiting for the right and so sparkly client to come along.  Those extraordinary large and full grown plants moved to a new home, I love this process.  Placing those smaller plants- with such a great future ahead of them-even better.

Monday’s Strictly Opinion: Angie’s Theory

Bear with me, as I am about to post for the umpteenth time about proper watering.  I have just cause-most problematic issues I am dealing with now regarding the landscape have to do with water.  A scheme for watering the plants has been the hottest topic of our season, given the high heat, and the utter lack of rain.  I mean to discuss the water that your plants, garden, and landscape require.  Thoughtful and dispassionately informed watering makes a difficult season more manageable.  I hope by association to address the problems that arise from too much water.  My clients who have not watered, or who have overwatered-we have a discussion pending,   

Our August nights have been on the cool side- downright chilly.  I ordinarily dial back the water when the nights cool off.  This makes sense.  Cool temperatures means water evaporates from the soil at a slower rate.  Hot days do not tell the entire story.  The night time story is a story line worth following.   My advice?  Ignore the day temperatures.  Follow the night temperatures.

Overly wet soil under any circumstances, hot or cold,  can result in root rot.  Rotted feeder roots means that no matter how much water is available to absorb, the mechanism for that absorption has been destroyed.  A plant with root rot cannot absorb any water from the soil.  Your worried watering may be killing your plants. Why am I blathering on about the importance of proper watering?  A misguided hose, watering can, or sprinkler system kills more plants than any other factor.  Too much water kills more plants than drought, insects, or disease.  Too much water can sicken and endanger an entire landscape. 

Those gardeners that never water anything are not really gardeners.  Those gardeners that water over and over again given a tough summer season are fearful gardeners.  I understand that fear-I reacted to the steamy heat and dry with my hose, open full blast.  But I see now that my off the top of my head reaction was harmful.  Thoughtful watering makes for a great landscape and garden.  As Buck says, be cool, and assess the situation.  Being cool, and properly assessing the situation-a good thing.   This is my theory.  Cool off.  Observe before you make a move.  Water only when there is a call for water. Do not water solely thinking you will help plants suffering in the heat.  Plants have an extraordinary will to live.  A drink now and then will help them to survive.  An ocean of water -they may drown.   

Consider these simple examples.  Japanese iris love wet ground-during their growing season, that is.  Flooded fall and winter ground will kill them.  Lavender can endure heavy clay-meaning astonishly water retentive soil-over the summer, but winter wet will kill them.  Yews are a snap to grow, unless an overactive irrigation system drags them down, and eventually drowns them.  Established landscape plants rarely need supplemental  irrigation, unless there is a drought.  Overwatered trees and shrubs will go yellow in leaf.  Hydrangeas appreciate a regular source of water-it takes a lot for them to produce prodigious blooms of great size.  Water them regularly.  Smart watering makes the difference between a passable landscape-and a stellar landscape.  Think through the wet and the dry-make a plan to endorse and follow that happy medium. 

Angie supervises one of my crews.  She is of the opinion that containers and plants should be watered first thing in the morning.  This gives them the entire day to soak up, to make use of,  that morning water.  Once dusk comes, the warmth of the day has already absorbed the the day’s watering.  The excess-so much steam.  This is a theory, remember.  This is a garden story that might make no sense scientifically, but could make emotional sense.  Dryer, overnight, given cooler temperatures-a good thing.  Good water during the day feeds the plants.  Dryer at night ensures their survival. I like my summer container plantings to go on into the fall.  Watching the water really carefully now will make a difference in their longevity.

 I usually water my containers after work-this is when I have time.  I load up the corgis at 6:15 most mornings-to go to work.  They fuss if I am late serving breakfast-they really fuss if we do not leave on time.  Given those dogs, I am not a morning waterer.  Tonight I find that all of my containers have just enough moisture to survive until morning.  If I water them tonight, they will be soaking wet in overnight chilly weather.  I make a call – no water tonight.  Tomorrow morning I will water-the corgis loaded up in the Suburban.  I will load them in the car, and water what really needs water.  

I read somewhere long ago that plants do most of their growing in the wee hours of the morning-meaning 4 until 6am.  It makes sense that their roots need to be able to breathe then.  My containers are the most water sensitive of any plants I grow.  As I am interested that they grow on into the fall, I am interested in testing Angie’s theory.  Water in the morning.  Make the daytime evaporation rate work in the interest of enabling  dryer and happier plants overnight-before morning. 

Every gardener needs to carefully observe how their plants react to their care.  Good observation makes for a really good garden.  Great gardens are unquestionably more about care than design.  Make every effort to get the water right.               






Growing Begonias

growing begonias

Growing begonias-why do so many of my clients feel that no matter how much they love the gorgeous blooms and foliage, prove unwilling to plant them?  Who knows where the idea came from that large flowered begonias like shade, and lots of water.  Herein lies the difficulty.  Popular direction can be anything but accurate. Begonias actually like some light.  A fairly decent amount of light.  And they like a watering regimen that runs on the dry side. 

yellow begonias

The needs of most plants are quite simple.  Plants that thrive in your zone, that is.  Unless you are trying to grow meconopsis, which only thrives in the Himalayans or England- in Michigan-  or if you are trying to grow rhododendrons in the impossibly clay and alkaline soil of the midwest, when what they want is an acidic and instantly draining forest floor type eastern US compost.  Plants happy to live in our midwestern yard to begin with have simple needs.  Are you hoping to make your gardening life more simple?  Learn what those appropriate plants that you so love need, and give.  Plants that do not like your conditions-let someone else grow them.   

apple blossom begonia

Plants not suited to the zone in which you garden will always struggle.  Be prepared to fight a battle you cannot win.  You may take the lead early on, but what plants want will win in the end.   Beginning gardeners place a plant where they want it.  It takes experience and acute observation to realize that plants have a specific environment they like.  Should they not get what makes them prosper, they will pout, then languish, and finally die. Beginning gardeners either understand this and grow, or they give up gardening.      


The journey which could best be described as my gardening education is littered with dead plants.  Dead yews, dead clematis, dead rhododendron, dead begonias-the list is long.  I would be embarrassed to have to own up to the plants I have killed.  It could be that I should be sent to that jail especially reserved for people who have committed horticultural transgressions.  There have been times when I deserved to have my license to plant, grow, and garden- revoked.  But I have made it my business to learn from those dead plants.   As for begonias, they have very large, juicy, and succulent stems.  This I observe – over water them today, those stems will rot off tomorrow.

The tropical plants we treat as annuals only need one season of thoughtful care.  No doubt begonias are not native to my zone.  That said and acknowledged, I so love begonias-all of them.  I like the leaves.  I more than like the flowers.  In late August, our nights can be cool.  Water evaporates more slowly when the temperatures cool off.  I am even more careful to keep my begonias on the dry side now.

My advice is simple.  Give them morning light.  If you need to grow them on the north side, as I do, grow them very dry.  Those thick juicy stems are loaded with water.  They have a water reserve they can draw on, should you be late getting to them with the hose.  Too much water can be deadly.

These silver leaved begonias-I have no idea of their name or origin.  I chose to grow them for their leaf color.  Like any other begonia I grow, I made it my business to check the water in the soil with my finger.  Too much water when it is very hot is an invitation for fungus to move in.

cultivating begonias

I am always putting my finger in the dirt  .  This means I put a finger to the rootball of a yew, a dogwood, a begonia – barely moist soil makes most plants happy.  Should your finger in the soil result in sticky soil-don’t water.  Wait.  If you put your finger down deep in the soil only to have that soil slide off your finger-water.  Hoping to grow great begonias? Learn what they like.  Pass by those plants that you will not be able to make happy under any circumstances.  Most of all, monitor the water. 


Too Much Water

My garden is beginning to get that weary look.  Late August, there are usually subtle signs of the garden winding down.  Evergreens in my zone routinely slow down and eventually quit growing in August.  They take a long time, preparing for the dormant winter season.  This year, the extreme heat and drought have taken a special toll.  The landscape has taken on a yellow cast. 

Lindens lacking water-yellow interior leaves are a sure sign.  Many trees will shed leaves in an effort to reduce the individual leaf demand for water when water is at a premium.  But lots of the late summer yellow am seeing now is from overwater.  No amount of water mitigates the effects of heat.  The plants that thrive in my zone would not necessarily be so happy in Georgia-but Georgia summer weather is what we have had.  My dogwoods resent the heat.  The curled and droopy leaves say so.  My plants can tolerate a lot, but extended and high heat exhausts them.  More water does not help.  Too much water can make for too much trouble.

People cool off under the hose, in the fountain, or in the pool.  Not so the plants.  Yesterday I saw a landscape that was so overwatered during our heat that I fear for the lives of the plants.  The roots of the trees and shrubs are gasping for air.  Too much water rots roots.  Once roots rot, a plant cannot take up the nutrients and water it needs.  The road is washed out. The trees in this landscape-I could shake them; they rocked back and forth.  The trunk of a tree that is firmly rooted will not move, if you shake it.  If the trunk of a tree moves when you push on it, the roots may be compromised.

I will say again that water does not change the fact of very high heat.  I do understand what it is to agonize over a situation, and be determined to intervene.  Some intervention works.  Other intervention compounds the misery.  The fact of the matter is that plants are highly adaptable.  They have built in mechanisms to deal with terrible conditions.  Sometimes the best thing to do is sit on the sidelines, and wring your hands.  There are those times when doing nothing is the best thing you could do.

I have seen some gardens that had too little water when they needed it, and now too much water.  Belated compensation only adds insult to injury.  We pulled out a pair of crispy leaved shrubs yesterday whose roots had rotted and completely decomposed from an onslaught of over water, after the damage from the drought had already been done.  The smell of these rooted roots-strong.  The impulse to be better late than never applies to birthdays, wedding gifts, vacations, thank you notes, revelations, mammograms, contributions and electric bills, but not so much to water.  This planting has been overwatered, but we caught it in time. 

 The ability to water properly is a skill.    Those gardeners who have irrigation systems should know that a mechanical system is nothing more than that-a system.  The irrigation box is a mechanism fueled by electricity.  A gardener is a person who knows when and how much to water.  A gardener who handwaters as needed-a great gardener.  A gardener flips the switch when the switch needs to be flipped-an equally great gardener who has figured out how to reduce their maintenance.  This landscape-right next door to the shop-has not, to my knowledge, been watered for the past 3 or 4 years.  What it would cost to turn on the irrigation system is but a fraction of what it will cost to replace the entire landscape. 

Proper watering.  It can help you cover a lot of ground.