The ‘giving season’ never ends. Every day there is an excuse reason to give something to someone. A birthday? An anniversary? A thank you? And what can be more precious than life but your time and time itself.
A really lovely gift I was given recently turned out to be a POODLECUT TOPIARY tree-in-a-pot. Seems my friend saw this idea last year and has been ‘doing’ it for a year.
Oh wow is all I can say so I did a bit more homework on the subject beyond what I already knew and found lots more to share. I did a quick survey here in SA too and found that as this is a subject that would interest people a lot (got a yes vote of 65%). So besides an introduction to my Poodle-Cut Duranta, I will be doing a string of articles for you to do your own topiaries. I can’t wait to get a line of bunny rabbits in containers 'running' across the side of the balcony; of course ours will be in containers but yours could easily be across your back yard lawn if you have one.
A ready made trimmed cut and presented topiary tree costs lot of money and really does look good especially if you find one in a shape that you like. The main expense comes because you are buying ‘time in a bottle’ in a way as well as maintenance and the gardener’s regular attention. And if you do make your own topiary, you will never again sigh if you see one, fall in love at first sight and pay for it.
What do you need for topiary work? Top of the list is desire and enjoyment of this art. I have met people who eschew it in a second thinking that it, like Bonsai, is NOT natural gardening and so they hate it! You also need the right conditions to grow your tree, the right kind of plant that lends itself to topiary (and there are many), the right/complementary container, some skill that develops as you go; but most of all you need lots of time and patience … though these latter two are relative of course when it comes to gardening.
Where will your topiary go? Will you have two, say at an entrance? Is it for decoration only, as a focus point for your overall container garden affect? Are you mainly after colour? Shape only? Height? Simplicity (single stem) or fancy (plaited or twisted stem?) Fruit tree or herb? Wired shape and or Theme? All of this will impact on the decisions that follow. Caveat! Sometimes too much thought makes your project tiresome and clumsy. Please! Do not let that happen. Just go with your flow – the end result you will get is a topiary tree to suit, you will see.
The right colour, shape, material and decoration are important factors but whatever you do make it a smart one, porcelain is my favourite if heavy; though while it is in training you could use a plastic one. But, just because it is in training does not mean that it can’t be shown in your garden or on your patio. Besides, it can always be transplanted.
* Think about the right colour pot. Have you seen the glorious colours of Talavera pottery and earthenware from Mexico? These might suit a plant like Sheena’s gold where the leaves are one colour, whereas a plain coloured pot would suit Coleus or a bright flowering shrub. My Mom used to call Talavera the Persian carpets of pots and could never choose only one as they were all so beautiful. She used to play a game like say “Okay~ I will take the first one from the right of the third row next to the first one with blue in it.” She only changed her mind once that I recall.
* Think about proportion as usual (1/3 container height to 1/3 stem height to 1/3 leaves). My favourite shape container would be a sort of a flute more narrow at the bottom than the top … here the finished plant looks ‘thrown out’ and it adds to the overall image.
* Think about materials like plastic, clay, rustic, concrete (very heavy) or porcelain.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
* Soil – Should match the plant chosen and your zonal adaptation as usual, but generally be the right PH balance, friable with good drainage and healthy. ErnieEdna earthworms help. Remember to mulch. Remember if planting from scratch your bonemeal and basic fertilisers.
* Position - Placement of your topiary should get the best light possible to suit your chosen plant and be protected against hot dry or freezing icy winds.
* Watering – As always a good sound watering depends on your placement and zones but soils should be moist always and just avoid wet feet, only about 10% of plants like or even tolerate wet feet.
* Tools include all you need plus sharpened secateurs, stakes and suitable garden ties (old stockings or strips of T-shirting work best for me); nail/embroidery/bonsai type scissors; a potting table or stand for eye-level work; sharp hedge cutters.
What choices do you have? Lots and lots I tell you but for the steps in this article just get a Duranta Sheena’s Gold or a Boxwood. A Privet, Bay or Holly tree also do well, shrubs like Plumbago, or Star Jasmine can be trained or common or garden Ivy can do for the other shapes. Bougainvillea does well in the right climates (believe it or not) and as pretty as that would look, perhaps your vision of those massive cascading colourful plants intertwined on huge trees just do not match that of topiary and a neatly clipped ball? Anyway.
STEPS TO PLANTING a topiary
1. Choose the shrub, about 36” – 50” high and stake it not hurting the roots. You may not find one with only one-ish stem unless you go to a specialist topiary stock nursery, so go for the highest you can find then adapt your planning accordingly.
2. The stake will ensure that your stem grows in a straight and upright manner and eventually will be able to be removed from the plant when it is mature enough to stand alone.
3. Plant it in your prepared container (pot shards, soil mix etc.) Put it to bed nicely and snugly adding a natural mulch to the top row of soil.
4. Make up your mind about what shape you are going for. One round Lollipop? A series of balls along the stem (aka a poodle cut?); A flattened ‘Steps to Heaven’ effect? There are so many patterns available, many simple others far more complicated for master gardenders. Essentially this will guide you in your shaping the tree into where you want the leaves in a dense and tight growth and where you will allow the stem to show.
5. Starting from the bottom, leave about two inches of the stem (clean away all the leaf growth), roughly cut a round with the hedge cutter; measure and mark how much more stem to reveal and do so, cut another round of leaves and then again, measure and mark how much stem to clean before the top crowning ball of leaves.
6. Stand back to check your work all the time and make adjustments. This is not a quick job. In fact it becomes a meditation in a way. Do not be afraid to cut quite drastically. If your tree is still young, (and you want it to be) then you may not have enough top growth to make your top ball. No worries, Stake it and wait for it to grow out which it will do. Just make sure you top it. Topping any plant will stop it growing up and instead it will grow outwards. Thus do we make hedges.
CARING AND NURTURING for your topiary
1. Your topiary is a living art form much the same as the rest of your container garden, even though this may seem a fancy name for pot planting … but if you think about it is true. Anyway, you maintain your topiary by regular care as you would any container PLUS regular light clipping – encouraging the shape you have chosen.
2. Keep cutting the new growth with sharp secateurs which will encourage the dense growth and the overall look. Clipping and shaping may be easier with larger garden shears, though because our is in a container, secateurs are usually all we need. It’s for those big formal topiaries you see in established formal gardens of yesteryear that you need ladders and more.
3. Set your feeding regime and feed every 6-8 weeks. Note due dates with moon guides and your own notes regardless. Slow release fertilisers are best though I like liquid ones, much to my nurseryman’s chagrin. Check your soil is moist; add fresh compost every now and again and keep your bark mulch up to scratch.
Anyone can buy a topiary. You buy time. But you just cannot buy that piece of your heart that goes into nurturing your own plant. Thank you so much for what you have given me Nancy – I will continue to look after it and enjoy our friendship through this lovely gift.
What do you want your container garden to do?