Making a Topiary

Making a Topiary

Part of Ep. 206 Gifts from the Garden

Train or prune a plant to get a specific shape.   Sue Steinmann, owner and operator of Sand City Gardens in Arena, provides guidelines for topiary beginners.

Premiere date: Nov 30, 1994

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Topiaries come in many sizes and shapes. Some are permanent fixtures in the outdoor landscapes. Others, like these, are ornamental and for indoor use. We are at Sand City Gardens in Arena, Wisconsin and I am with owner/operator Sue Steinmann and Sue is going to show us how to make a topiary of our own. And, Sue, the first question is how do you define a topiary.

Sue:
Well, "topiary" really refers to any method of either training or pruning a plant to get a specific shape.

Shelley:
Now, they have been around for centuries.

Sue:
Yeah, actually, even in the Renaissance period herbs like these were really popularly used as little topiary forms.

Shelley:
Though, for a beginner, where do we start? How does a beginner do this?

Sue:
Well, probably plant selection is important. And when you are dealing with herbs you want to make sure it is a perennial plant, so it has a long life. It would be great to use like basil and you get a beautiful topiary. Unfortunately, in eight or nine months, it would die and that would be it.

Shelley:
Dead topiary. Okay. So, plant selection. What would you suggest for a beginner to start with?

Sue:
Well, good ones to start with are something like this French Lavender. It smells great. It is very forgiving. If you make mistakes it grows back quickly.

Shelley:
Perfect. And it has got really nice foliage too.

Sue:
Yeah. And beautiful purple flowers in summer.

Shelley:
Okay. What about this one?

Sue:
That's strawberry-scented geranium. It is a nice one to use. However, it needs a lot of sun, so if you don't have a sunny window indoors for winter, I wouldn't recommend that one and then this is one of my favorites. It is purple sage and I love the nice purple color and you can also use it for cooking.

Shelley:
So, it can sit in the kitchen and just look great if you got enough sun there.

Sue:
That's right.

Shelley:
Now, these are trained in the standard shape.

Sue:
Right, the standard form refers to the ball and stem.

Shelley:
Okay. What are you going to show us how to make.

Sue:
Well, I am going to show you how to make a Christmas tree out of Santolina or it is sometimes called Lavender Cotton. And what you want to start with, Shelley, is something very small like this and this is basically a rooted cutting and it doesn't have much side shoot development at all, which is great because you don't have to spend a lot of time taking that off and you start right from the beginning forming it.

Shelley:
So, that is the ideal one for us to look for.

Sue:
Yes. Unfortunately, you are probably going to find something like this in the garden center. Very bushy.

Shelley:
More of a shrub.

Sue:
And you have to use your imagination a little bit, but what you want to do is select a central leader, somewhere in the center here, and you immediately stake it, put in the stake and you loosely tie your leader to the stem

Shelley:
Now you are not using a tight string, you are not cutting into the plant at all with this?

Sue:
No, it is very loose and that is so you don't inhibit any of this side shoot growth.

Shelley:
Okay.

Sue:
And also you want to have a tall leader right here. You don't ever want to cut this off, because you want to encourage the height to develop there.

Shelley:
So pruning this off actually stops the height.

Sue:
That's right. So you keep that going and then the next step is to remove some of these side branches and you want to cut them between one half and a third off but never remove more than a third of all the foliage on a plant otherwise it will slow the growth of the plant.

Shelley:
It actually goes into shock.

Sue:
A little bit.

Shelley:
I think that is the scariest part of doing this is being brave enough to go ahead and cut at it.

Sue:
Yeah. And actually the more you cut, the more often you trim, the better the plant, because it is sturdier and fuller and lusher.

Shelley:
Oh, so it is not going to hurt it.

Sue:
Right. So then, after two or three months your plant is going to look something like this. Now I have trimmed this in between time so you have a basic shape. However, it needs some tender loving care right now and what I do is I kind of fold the leader to the stem and imagine a line coming down here to the rim of the pot and then I just start trimming from that point.

Shelley:
So you are just basically enhancing the Christmas tree shape, then.

Sue:
That's right.

Shelley:
Now how often do you have to do this?

Sue:
About once a month.

Shelley:
Okay. And then the finished product will look much more pruned and in control.

Sue:
Yes. Here's one that we have and this is a little bit better. It is still small but you could certainly use it for a decorative purposes.

Shelley:
Now how old is this?

Sue:
It is about a year

Shelley:
Oh, so it happens fairly quickly. Now that is really nice. That would look great on a table. Well, another plant that I traditionally think of for the old fashioned topiaries are rosemary. But I have heard that that is a harder one to deal with.

Sue:
Well, it is a little bit harder to grow indoors only because it is a little sensitive to over watering and you also need to mist the foliage if you have really dry hot air.

Shelley:
In the winter time.

Sue:
In the winter-- and it is a bit more slowly growing so it probably takes two years to get a nice topiary rather than the one year and this is like a progression of how we do it and you can see here we have staked the central stem. This one still has a leader on it cause I want it to get a little bit taller. I have taken off some of the branches here and we have also pruned back the side shoots that are developing just to keep them kind of in place while it continues to grow up. Then we have just continued that same method with taking more off the bottom. Here you notice, I have cut the central leader and you are starting just now to get some shoot development at the top. Then this is the next step. And then this one is about a year older than this one.

Shelley:
And they are finished. They are both very nice.

Sue:
Right. You could use either of them for decorative purposes.

Shelley:
But, for beginners we might want to start with the other plants.

Sue:
It probably would be a little easier right at first.

Shelley:
Okay. Well, let's look at some of your finished products.

Sue:
Okay. Here, Shelley, we have the original Santolina that we did

Shelley:
Beautiful.

Sue:
And this one is about two years old, and if you just add a little red ribbon it is beautiful for--

Shelley:
Now I meant to ask you about care for this as well. Once we've brought this home, full sun?

Sue:
Yeah. Full sun is recommended. A minimum of a half day.

Shelley:
Okay.

Sue:
And other than that, as far as watering, you will want it to get a little dry in between waterings, then water it thoroughly and maybe fertilize it once or twice a month.

Shelley:
Oh, that would make a beautiful gift. What about this one in front. It is much more delicate looking.

Sue:
Yes. That's lemon thyme which is great. It smells great, you can use it for cooking and it has those beautiful little pink flowers and if you look closely on this you can see it has a twisted stem and we have just allowed two shoots to start from the beginning and have slowly wound them around as the plant developed.

Shelley:
Very ornamental that way.

Sue:
Right. And then this is one of my other favorites, the lemon verbena. It smells great.

Shelley:
Well, it smells like lemon candy.

Sue:
Yes it does.

Shelley:
Beautiful.

Sue:
But you might want to notice with this it is a larger leaf and larger texture and everything so the plant should be taller and larger to look good in proportions.

Shelley:
You need to let it grow bigger then.

Sue:
Right. So it is a good thing to keep in mind if you want something for your window sill. This is not the one to choose. And then if you want to be a little more creative, eventually you can do something like this three tiered rosemary.

Shelley:
That is really nice, too. Okay great. Thanks, Sue.

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