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HOME DESIGN : Shrub Shrine : Art of Molding Plants Into Figures Has Long Blossomed at Disneyland

September 23, 1989|ROBERT KNIGHT

It will be about five years before Roger Rabbit makes the scene.

Mary Poppins should be ready to take root in about three years.

It all depends on how much greenery they muster, and whether they have any bald spots.

Roger, Mary and about 50 other characters and animals are the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time topiary figures in Disneyland's landscaping area, out of the public view.

Budding figures in the back lot include Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, a full-grown Bambi, a skunk, a mountain lion and a tiger. They will pop up around the park in the next few years, as soon as a rich growth of leaves has covered any trace of their metal frames.

Topiary, the shaping of shrubs, trees and vines into ornamental figures, has been a part of Disneyland since the early '60s, when Walt Disney envisioned his characters as living, growing art objects.

"Walt had been to Europe and had seen some topiary," recalls Bill Evans, 79, a consulting landscaper who has been with Disney 35 years and has worked with Sunset magazine.

"There is still an ample supply of century-old topiary in Europe, some probably 200 years old. Walt said to me, 'Why don't we do something like this?'

"I told him, 'Walt, the stuff you see will probably take us 20 years.' "

Disney gave the OK, and Evans was able to present some simple topiary within two years. "It wasn't perfect, but it was presentable," he recalled.

To get results so quickly, he eschewed the age-old method of growing plants within metal frames and took full-grown plants, carefully bending them to fit the shapes.

"We started off with a crocodile and the hippos from 'Fantasia,' " Evans said. "We used a six-foot-long blueprint and used warped reinforcing steel to match the skeleton of the figure. Then we used wire to get the third dimension and fleshed it out with other plants.

"Sometimes we used two different plant materials. For the rhino, the horn is part of a plant that comes up the foreleg."

Today, topiary dots the park, with a leafy Dumbo holding court in Fantasyland and the largest collection of beasts situated in front of the It's a Small World ride. Most of the plants took seven to 10 years to mature, said Ken Inouye, landscape superintendent.

Some of the animals are crafted from eugenia, a shrub well-suited to Orange County's climate.

"That's what I would recommend for homeowners," Inouye said. "It's fast-growing, with small leaves and favorable color." The shrub is resistant to pests, except for the eugenia psyllid, an insect that lays eggs on the bottoms of the leaves. Once hatched, the insects eat the leaves--usually tender new foliage--causing blisters. Inouye said that, like aphids, they can be controlled by washing them off with a water spray or pelting them with pesticides.

Disneyland is proud of its topiary because of its variety, but also because some of the creatures are fashioned from trees not normally used in the craft, such as olive trees, potocarpus and juniper, none of which are fast growers.

"Euguenia takes half the time," Inouye said.

One way to speed the process is to begin with the plant in the ground, where they grow faster than potted varieties with confined roots.

Inouye said the temperature of the soil changes more drastically in the ground, promoting more vigorous growth.

Disney's collection is nurtured in large redwood boxes made by Disney carpenters. The boxes are rotated 90 degrees every two or three months to ensure even growth.

All of the shrubs and trees take full sun. A very light, sandy loam is used to ensure good drainage. Fertilizing is done as often as with any other container plant, Inouye said, which is more often than with a grounded plant.

When a topiary figure reaches maturity, it is placed in the ground, box and all. Inouye said the Disney landscapers try to avoid replanting because of the stress on the plants. He would not place a dollar figure on the finished works, other than to say that they take so much care and time that "there is no way to value them." Suffice to say, Disney takes the finished works very seriously.

"In 25 to 30 years of topiary," Inouye said with pride, "we have never lost one or had to take it out."

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