Topiary Forms In Winter

Yesterday’s dawn was wet and foggy.  Beautiful weather like this is rare here in late December.  That fog was making the visual most of Rob’s light rings.  Formally drawn and constructed geometric shapes are so compelling in the landscape.  A circle has no beginning or end; it is complete.  It is a very stable shape; it completely encloses a space, or a view.  A working circle is a wheel, whose invention revolutionized how people live.  This lighted circle is working in a different way.    

It illuminates a space, and frames a view.  It is a topiary form of light.  The light is focused-a far cry from the diffuse light that comes from the sky.  We see very little in the way of sunlight this time of year.  A lighted garden is never so welcome as it is in the winter.  Expressions of topiary in the landscape has a long history.  Fruit trees trained into a two-dimensional shape are called espaliers, after the French monk who invented this method of pruning. The Chicago Botanic Garden has an extensive display of espaliered trees, and landscape sculpture created from living plant material.  Any plant grown and trained into a shape is a topiary.  This would include bonsai, the boxwood at Dunbarton Oaks pruned into continuous cloud shapes, the topiary guard house at Fluery-en-Biere, the topiary pyramids at Mormaire, the spectacular thuja pergola at Chateau de Hautefort.  A good part of their majesty is their age, and the faithful care they demand and recieve. 

A rigid topiary form is useful for training plants into a geometric shape.  Arborvitae planted in proximity to an iron arbor can be pruned into that arbor shape, given enough time.  Young fruit trees trained over an iron arbor will eventually mature into that tunnel shape, and no longer require support.  A row of trees pruned into triple cordons will eventually make a living fence that is free standing.  Vines can be trained onto a topiary form as well; we have had beautiful triple ball ivy topiary sculptures on occasion.  The rigid form is a guide that insures that the shape is pleasingly and regularly geometric.

Vines permitted to scramble over a topiary form is a different, but just as pleasing look.  Old trees can provide a very sculptural support for an old Baltic ivy vine, or a climbing hydrangea. A rock pile, or a gate post can give form and support to a clematis.  Willow or bamboo tripods are good for growing beans, tomatoes, or morning glories.  Topiary forms whose primary job is to provide support for a lax growing plant are called plant climbers, or tuteurs.  

For a number of years Monrovia sold juniper ring topiaries. They were surprisingly attractive, easy to keep trimmed, and they were amenable to being grown year round in pots.  Should you have to have a juniper, this is a pretty way to own one.  I have seen angel vine, myrtle, miniature ivy varieties, boxwood and pyracantha trained on a topiary ring.  Once that ring form is rotated in space, you have a spherical form.  The same aforementioned plants can be just as easily trained on these forms.  Vining plants can be wound on the ribs of the sphere, or allowed to scramble over and cover the form.    

A topiary form is the fastest way to grow a topiary. A 6′ diameter boxwood sphere takes a long time to grow into its finished shape.  The boxwood spheres at the corners of the boxwood rectangle in front of the shop are 13 years old; they came to me 30″ by 30″.  As they have no rigid form inside, they have to be hand pruned by eye into a sphere.  I leave this job to Mindy; my handpruned spheres invariably have flat spots.

A topiary form may also be the fastest and most striking way to create a light sculpture.  The only requirement-a sturdy form, and holiday light strings with brown cords. The light they cast this foggy morning convinced me a topiary form can mean as much to a winter landscape as it does to a summer one.  The pot on your front porch with a topiary form that provided a home to a mandevillea over the summer can light the winter landscape all winter long.  

Other people have had the same idea about Rob’s light rings.  He tells me this morning we have sold 58 of them this season.  They are so beautiful hanging from our trees on the driveway.

They do an incredible job of softly illuminating a wide area, and vividly illuminating an intimate place.  I am just now thinking we need some in the front windows of the shop.  I may be late getting to this idea, but the winter will be long. 

If your topiary forms that spend the winter in the shed, you might want to rethink that.  They could bring some light and warmth to your winter landscape. 

On this the darkest day of our year, what would I do without this light?


Pop-Up Structures


A pergola is a big heavy structural object-not a good candidate for moving around the yard on a whim.  But tuteurs, vine supports, vine towers, and plant climbers can pop up in a garden wherever and whenever you have a mind to use them.  My big complaint with plant climbers-they are invariably too short for the plants I’d like to grow on them.  My climbers have always been homemade-from bamboo.  I can make them as tall as I want. I had a mind some years ago to move on from this.  The size of commercially manufactured tuteurs are dictated by UPS regulation.  They will not ship an object over a certain size.  Motor freighting a plant climber-not one bit cost effective. I hate paying more for shipping than what the object of my affection costs to buy.  Everyone thinks twice before motor freighting.  So I removed the ship issue from my design.  I designed a whole series of plant climbers aimed at my local market.  Should you have access to a pick-up, or are fine with strapping the hatch down on your car, we have big and tall plant climbers.  This particular steel climber-available in regular and giant size.       

The four ribs of this giant size tuteur leaves lots of space in the middle for  display.  At the holidays, these towers get strung with lights, and outline a topiary of magnolia branches.  Pop-up plant climbers are just as useful in the winter, as they are in the summer.  Simple plant climbers pop up easily, regularly. 

This steel garlic form, finished in our virtually rust free finish, has a graceful shape that holds its own visually-climbing plants or no.  We make them in 3 sizes.  Gardeners pop them into their containers; I like giving them a choice about the size.   

This giant garlic planter never did have a vine planted beneath it.  A yellow dahlia occupies the interior space with a raft of annual phlox. Trailing-lobelia and black Moses in the Cradle.  This spring planting carried on throught the season.  The garlic tuteur is a sculptural element-always in view.  It organizes the plant airspace in a beautiful way.  Imagine this container planting without the tuteur.  Robust yes.  But not nearly as striking as this.   

This form was designed by Rob-loosely based on an elongated flower bud. The first year we produced this form, I was too chicken to make the 9′ version.  What was my problem? 

Once a giant form gets outside, and has the sky backing it up, giant seems merely just right. This 9 foot form is larger than its galvanized container-but it works.  Growing grapes in pots?  Were someone to ask me to describe Rob, I would say he lives to grow grapes.  Grapes on pergolas.  Grapes in pots and containers.  This container, designed and planted by him, says it all.  The overscaled bud tuteur makes his idea of a gorgeous container planting a gorgeous reality.

I designed this plant climber wholly based on Rob’s bamboo climbers from the early days.  He would sink 4 very tall bamboo stakes into a container at an outward angle.  He would then wrap galvanized wires in circular little, big, and giant swoops around the bamboo.  Small at the bottom-big at the top.  Most plant climbers I see pay no mind to the habit of a climbing or indeterminate plants.  Plants grow out, up, and out.  This form pays some mind to that.   The top of the plant, spilling over-as in a bower-a plant climber that scoops that up plenty of shoots-well designed.  Plant stakes-they could poke your eye out if you aren’t watching.  None of our climbers have sharp edges.  Every vertical stopper is either curled over ostrich fern style,  or capped in a mini-sphere. 

This steel version of Rob’s classic climber-not visible in late summer.  It is the structure making this container planting suitable for company.  The long flower stalks of the nicotiana alata lime are tied up to it.  The vining mandevillea has otherwise engulfed it.  Not all structure needs to be seen.  But all structures need to be strong, and scaled to handle the job. 

Plant stakes-what is so incredibly unnatural about them?  I understand why gardeners use stout twigs and branches to support their plants.  A natural branch is slight at the bottom, and fans out at the top.  This natural support is great for peonies, and delphiniums.  My 12 peony stems coming out of the ground may be 10 inches in diameter. That same peony plant may be 4′ across at the top.  No straight stake does not do them justice.  My steel stakes come straight out of the ground, and then curve out.  The double prongs at the bottom keep them from moving off course.  

The individual stakes in these containers are much loved by the mandevillea vines climbing them.  The overall shape of these containers- natural and pretty.  The stakes-they might be used with the asparagus next year, or grouped, unplanted, in a perennial bed next year.  Who knows where they might pop up next. 

So many years I staked every climber with bamboo.  These 12′ stakes with their twig ball finials have been in use since 2005.  As much as bamboo stakes are part of my gardening vocabulary, I am pleased to have turned that page. 

Some of our steel tuteurs-they top off a planting in a structural and sculptural way.  Not in a help out a plant climber way. Portable structures can pop up in lots of ways, in lots of gardens.      

This tuteur was Buck’s biggest-fully 14 feet tall.  Small squares and loops at the bottom-giant squares and even bigger loops at the top.  Barbara A bought this pop-up plant tuteur.  What she did with it-I hope someday I will hear.

Tuteuring The Vines

Nov 10 028“Tuteur” is that elegant French word for those structures designed to support and make an orderly presentation of a vining plant. Vines are by nature unruly and out of control.  Their exuberant habit of growth can be as exhausting to deal with as a recalcitrant two year old.    Most plant climbers I find wanting for three things-good looks, thoughtful design, and proper size.  Having made a succesful foray into steel wire structures via our spheres, it seemed time to design out the poor looks and clumsy design of what was available, and fabricate some good looking tuteurs I thought would work well. 

Nov 10 041It was my intention from the beginning that a tuteur needed to be beautiful to look at once the garden had gone dormant.  They might even be useful in another season. They might be designed with curves friendly to the natural shape of the vines. Those straight sided plant climbers with a curving vine bulging out of them-a bad marriage.  And lastly, they need to be sized according to the eventual size of the vine they are meant to support-not to UPS shipping regulations.  Some tuteurs have been designed to break down into several pieces-for economy of shipping; these never work. 

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 The sculpture of a well designed tuteur elevates a useful object to a level deserving of the word ornament-provided it is is pleasing to look at on its own. Our first round of tuteurs were finished in a clear powdercoat; this finish did not have a long life.  In constant contact with leaves, water and weather, it wasn’t long before the rust took over.  Though there are gardens for whom rusty steel is perfect, I was after a more serious and distinguished look. 

Nov 10 012All of our tuteurs make reference to natural forms.  Some say these look like onions or shallots; others are reminded of garlic cloves. In any event, we make these forms in three sizes; the size dictates the shape.  Not all shapes work scaled up, or scaled down-this I learned from Rob.  Sometimes the proportions have to be changed when the size changes.  The ball finials at the top make the structure look finished and dressy.  They also protect the gardener from a poke in the eye-has not every gardener be stabbed by their plant climbers, stakes and supports at one time or another?

Nov 10 003This pair of English concrete pots are all the better for their top dressing.  The pots could be planted with ivy growing over one side of the tuteur in the summer-or not.  They could be left out all winter empty, and look great.  It is a test of a good garden pot presentation-does it represent as well empty, as it does overflowing with flowers? 

Nov 10 005I did not anticipate how very much a part of the winter season these sculptures would prove to be.  They look great with greens, berries and other materials from the garden at their base.  They make something showy of our off season. 

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I don’t know how many times I have tried to support my plants when they grew large enough to hide my supports. This is a classic case of way too little, too late. A grown plant takes poorly to being corseted-they always have that look about them, no matter how skillfully you try to achieve a natural look. If a tuteur looks good even when it isn’t working, I have good reason to get them out well in advance.

Nov 10 018The shapes work in both contemporary and traditional gardens-what a relief to be able to offer a client with  contemporary taste, a tuteur that looks like it belongs to them. 

Nov 10 020Decorating for the holidays outdoors is a form of gardening, and those strings of lights common to the season are a type of vine. Some tuteurs we design fulfills this purpose.  They are very simple in shape, and overscaled such that the lit forms read as topiary at night.  It will not be long before it starts getting dark at 4 in the afternoon here-any gesture defiant of the dark, I like.

Nov 10 032This is my favorite climber, designed after Rob’s hand wrapped galvanized wire tomato cages.  The tuteur is much larger at the top than the bottom.  My sweet autumn clematis may have 6 stout stems coming out of the ground, but once it gets to 14 feet tall, it is billowing out in every direction; this tuteur handles that.  The fern curl detail at the top is a simple reference to the look of an ostrich fern breaking dormancy in the spring; this is a form I never tire of.   We make these in a range of sizes. Our individual plant stakes of this design come straight out of the ground or pot, and then gracefully curve out to catch whatever happens to be growing that way.  We make them as half rounds that can be snugged up against a wall. In short, we are gardeners, designing for gardeners. In this application, they provide wire perches for a collection of holiday birds.

Nov 10 036
 Simply functional, and simply beautiful, this  is what I am after.