BirmPots (16)Topiary is the art of pruning, and training a plant to grow in whatever shape you might fancy. Plenty of plant species lend themselves to this kind of treatment.  The above pictured lantana is seven years old.  It began as a small plant, whose side branches were removed until the primary trunk was about four feet tall.  A devoted grower then pinched back the main leader-the first step in the formation of the top.  As I like slightly flattened spherical shapes in topiary, we keep the top pruned, and grow the side shoots wide. Lantana flowers profusely in hot weather, it makes a strikingly statuesque topiary plant. In the fall, I cut the head of the plant back by two-thirds,, strip all the remaining leaves off, and stash it in the greenhouse.  I strip the leaves off, as lantana is a magnet for whitefly-and they multiply like lightening in a green house environment.  What they require is plenty of trouble, but it is glorious in form and flower.  

DGW  22Well grown large topiary plants are expensive. It takes a lot of time to grow them on-sometimes years go by before a plant can be sold.  This dwarf variegated euonymus with a batch of leaves atop a stem tells the story.  In ten years, this plant will not be much taller-just much stockier, with a full head of leafy branches.  As euonymus is a hardy shrub, they like to be wintered in a cool light place. 

2008 Ford SUMMER 6-11-08 (5)Bay Laurel is not hardy here, unfortunately-so a greenhouse is a necessity in the winter.  This plant is 14 years old.  This single ball topiary suckered at the base so persistently, I finally just let it grow.  The formal shape is easy to keep up; you can see it needs a little haircut right now.  There are many kinds of topiary shears available-I like short bladed snips, so I can cut branches without slicing into the leaves.  Any leaf that is cut will show that telltale browing on that cut edge within days. �

Coleus makes a great topiary, but the growing process is different.  As it is a short lived annual plant, they need to be grown fast.  Coleus, irisine, geraniums and the like are given a push with a growth hormone.  The specific hormone causes the cells of the plant to elongate; the stem develops fast.  One crop of 50 tree geraniums I grew 20 years ago got treated five times before they reached their four foot finished height. Topiaries grown from non-woody plants need careful staking of the stem-that stem will never be as strong as a branch. I usually stake with a pair of bamboo stakes, for extra insurance. A beautiful topiary-its head snapped off in a wind- this is enough to make you fall to the ground and weep.

Some woody plants have such a tight habit of growth that you might suspect they were topiaries from the beginning.  Dwarf Alberta Spruce is one such tree that lends itself to the pruning process with ease.  An Alberta Spruce of this gorgeous shape and size is expensive; many many years has gone into the growing and shaping process.  As they are hardy, they can make a big statement as a centerpiece in a formal garden. 

Sept 30a 008
Gardenmeister fuchsias are vigorous growers and bloomers; they make an ideal subject for an informally shaped topiary.  They are easy to winter over, and bloom continuously from spring to fall.  This topiary is supported on the interior by a column of heavy grade wire fencing.  Once the multiple stems and flowering shoots grow in, that support fades from view.  Big fuchsias make good subjects for topiary in general-but I like the vigor of this particular variety. 

Aug 28d 361Ivy can be readily be trained over a wire form.  This makes it an ideal subject for fast growing.  The vines are tied to the form to provide completely coverage, and the vines are clipped as needed. Hedera algeriensis ” Gloire de Marengo”, or variegated Algerian ivy, has large glossy leaves, and a prominent white variegation; old topiaries grown from this plant are striking.  A bonus-it is possible to winter ivy topiaries over in the house. 

DSC_0054The coleus topiary I let go after two seasons-they seem to loose vigor.  The minute you decide to grow a plant in any form which is not its natural form, there will be maintenance problems down the road.   Plants tolerate being fooled with by people-they rarely love it.  Plants that naturally lend themselves to this treatment are easier to look after.

For all their trouble, a well grown topiary plant can instantly provide large scale to a new planting. Handsome, this.  Should you be the patient sort, try growing one of your own.  Lacking patience, the nursery industry offers many different species of  trained to shape plants.  I admire any pair of hands that can make them grow.


  1. What a gorgeous presentation! My topiary runs to boxwoods pruned into meatballs — once I let my grandson prune 3 into chickens, what fun. They grow back quickly.

    Box are often pruned here into pompom shapes. So far I’ve not been able to bring myself to make a poodle-style shrub from an overgrown boxwood. It’s hard just keeping up with the regular pruning.

  2. Beautiful topiary inspirations and great tips too! I may have to try the coleus topiary, I like that idea. The lantana is striking. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Your tip about growth hormones explains why my attempt to standardize a coleus (in a short Toronto growing season) met with abject failure. It looked so easy in the pruning manual! I’ve also tried with fuchsias, though lacking a cool conservatory environment, mine were very unhappy over-wintering. Perhaps I’ll try again one day with Gartenmeister, one of my favourites for containers.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Helen, gibberellic acid is a naturally occurring hormone extracted from plants-it is used to promote tall growth in gernaiums and fuchsias. No spot in my house successfuly reproduces a greenhouse environment-so I get all my annual topiary standards grown. If you ever come Detroit way, Judy at Telly’s Greenhouse is an expert in growing and overwintering tender plants at home. She alone would be worth your visit. Deborah

    • how can i get my coleus to grow more height b4 pushing bloom buds and or after topping them out….have 3 attempts and varieties but none tall enuf b4 flowering to create a standard …hellllp !!!!

      • Deborah Silver says

        Dear Di, it is really difficult to grow a coleus topiary on your own. Most of them are treated with a growth hormone which makes them elongate. If you want to grow your own, pick a very vigorous variety, like Wasabi, or Kingwood Red or Arizona sunset, and pinch off the side growth from the start. Thanks, Deborah

  4. Love your planted pots.

    Love more, they are fabulous EMPTY.

    Oh, should mention how you’ve sited them. Perfection.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. You are very talented. Your topiaries are all beautiful. Do you have any recommendations for (evergreen) spiral topiaries (and other shapes) that would grow well in year round hot weather in the Caribbean?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Patty, I know nothing of the plants in your zone. A topiary is not any specific plant-it is a plant which is pruned into a shape. Find an evergreen you like, that responds well to pruning and try it. Good luck! Deborah

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