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Topiaries: What Are They, How to Care For and Style Them in Gardens

Published on September 10th 2021

Boxtree in a beautiful garden

by altmodern. All rights reserved

A close up of a flower garden with a box topiary and bunch of yellow rudbeckia

Firstly, what is topiary?

Topiary is a form of art where living plants, typically , are manipulated by humans into intricate shapes and structures. In the garden, you can use topiaries for decoration and adding a pop of colour to your display. Depending on where you decide to position your topiary, you can create an illusion of space and depth or hide unwanted features; the possibilities are endless.
The practice of topiary dates back thousands of years. It is thought that the art form originated from the Egyptians before being adopted by the Romans. However, there is some deliberation whether Far Eastern topiary, such as cloud pruning, emerged first. Over the centuries, topiary art has diverged into many styles. From gigantic animals, realistic, human-shaped sculptures to the tall-standing spirals seen in prestigious formal gardens, topiaries can take many forms.

Topiaries and Standard Plants

Photo credit: @angelairving25

What is the difference between topiary and a Bonsai tree?

While both involve manipulating the growth of plants, they each require different training, expertise and tools to carry out.
Topiaries are used in gardens as stand-out, ornate features. In contrast, Bonsai trees are typically small and grown purposefully miniature through the process of carefully clipping the roots and stems., Bonsai plants retain a small size whilst developing the characteristics of fully-grown specimens.
Thousands of years ago, topiaries were typically grown and sculpted in areas where the price of stone was too high. They’re most commonly used to decorate entrances and doorways or as a focal garden feature to add interest to gardens.
Whereas topiaries are somewhat symbolic of the manipulation of plants for aesthetic purposes, the art of Bonsai shows admiration for the relationship between man and nature. Traditionally, Bonsai are treasured and passed down each generations, often displayed as a stand-alone feature in Japansese gardens.

Are topiary trees poisonous to dogs?

Many plants can differ in toxicity to animals and pets. Before purchasing a topiary or plant, please be sure to check whether it is toxic to cats or dogs.
Plants poisonous to dogs

10 Common Plants Poisonous to Dogs


How to care for Topiaries?

Choosing your plant
These are some of the plants commonly used as topiaries:

How to grow a topiary from scratch

Choosing a shape
The most straightforward shapes to choose as a beginner are balls, pyramids or cubes. If you feel up for a challenge, try a sculpture of an animal or spiral. Tall and verticle shapes may require a larger stem, whereas large horizontal structures may require multiple.

Starting off your plant
Start plants off individually in small pots. You can either choose to grow from seed or buy young and established plants. Ensure plants are watered and feed little and often to promote steady, equal growth. If your small plant is not being grown beneath gravel, you can choose to mulch in the spring.
Pruning your plant
Each growing season, trim the outer edges of the plant after every 2-3 cm of growth.
If you wish to grow a lollipop-style topiary, choose a shoot as your main stem. Apply small support to the selected node and remove the remaining. Continue to clear new growth that competes with the main shoot, avoiding any leaves and shoots on the top of the plant. Keep doing this until the stem reaches the desired height.
Once growth has become notable, you can start clipping your topiary to shape. You can either do this by eye, or you could purchase a template or frame to help. When established, make sure to trim your plant annually during the growing season, although you may need to prune faster-growing plants biannually.
A bench in front of a brick building
Photo credit: @vintagechicdecor
Where to buy topiary shears?
A large pair of scissors

Pruning and Propagation Essentials

Common problems with topiaries:
  • Young plants can require greater care because they can be affected more severely by pests and disease.
  • Getting smaller plants established can take some work, but the rewards of this skill are endless!
  • A few feeds, watering and pruning may cause leaves to brown. Combat this by feeding and watering little and often, and prune back faded leaves in spring.
  • Topiaries, especially those grown in pots, are susceptible to Root Rot.
  • Box plants can be prone to Box Blight and Box Tree Moth.
Avoid these common problems by regularly checking your plant for tell-tale signs, such as wilting or leaf discolouration. The quicker a problem is detected, the easier it is to eradicate!

5 ways to style topiaries in gardens

1. Decorate doorways and garden entrances
Topiaries look spectacular when paired on either side of a doorway or garden entrance. Not only can topiaries enhance garden features, porches or doors, but they can also be beneficial for improving the kerbside appeal of a property.
2. Add height and texture to borders and beds
You'll often notice how professional garden designers and landscapers grow topiaries throughout borders and beds. Using standard plants and topiaries as part of a layered border is a simple way to add height and structure, perfectly fitting a formal and contemporary garden theme.
A vase of flowers on a brick building
Photo credit: @theonebespoke
3. Create illusions using topiaries
Use topiary plants to distract from unsightly garden features, such as an old wall or a dull concrete floor. Similarly, you can place topiaries around benches, water features and obelisks to catch the eye, showing off your favourite parts of the garden. If your garden or outside space is on the smaller side, topiaries can be placed alongside garden margins and paths, helping to break up the field of vision, tricking the mind into thinking a space is wider or deeper.
A plant in a garden
Photo credit: @pauline330
4. Use your topiary as a statement feature
Whether your outside space is big or small, a topiary adds drama and definition to any garden type. Freshen up your dull patio or balcony corner using a standard plant or topiary in a pretty container to suit your favourite garden style.
5. Add definition to an autumn and winter garden
Whether neatly clipped cubes, large leafy animals or towering spirals, a topiary feature is a great way to add interest to any garden display. For a delightful winter garden, combine shaped sculptures with evergreen plants possessing interesting foliage to create a border brimming with year-round colour and texture.
A close up of a lush green field
Photo credit: @vintagechicdecor

Although a topiary feature requires some patience, they are rewarding and can be great fun to grow and maintain!

Find one for your garden now:

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