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Garden-Variety Creations : Landscaping: Sculpted trees and shrubs have made a comeback. Popular shapes include deers, dolphins and horses.

June 29, 1991|VALERIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Blame it on "Edward Scissorhands." Ever since the release of that movie last December, Tom Feldner, a landscape contractor and owner of Green West Nursery in Orange, can't seem to keep up with the demand for his topiary animals.

He calls the sculpted and formed shapes he creates "animated trees."

"Of course, I was familiar with all the topiary animals you see around Disneyland. A couple of my friends owned hotels in Anaheim that featured topiary trees and shrubs, so I decided to see if I could sell a few at the nursery.

"I put a couple out and 'Boom!' They sold out. I put some more out, and they were gone in no time. Ever since then, I've been selling almost everything I put out."

There is nothing new about topiary. English gardens have featured these sculpted trees and bushes for hundreds of years. During the Renaissance, ships, dragons and centaurs were created to attract attention and stir the imagination. Vines and bushes were shaped for a variety of purposes: to form archways, provide architectural accents and create a look of order and structure to gardens. Columns, labyrinths of hedges and other shapes were also common in formal gardens of the past.

"Basically, topiary is simply putting a formal shape to trees or bushes," Feldner said. "In the English gardens, you see a lot of shrubs shaped like pillars. Here we're a little more whimsical, (creating) animals and such.

"What many people don't appreciate is that you have to have an artistic eye to create these structures. If you don't, they won't look realistic. On top of that, you also need to keep balance in mind so the plant doesn't end up top-heavy and topple over."

Feldner specializes in animal shapes and says his most popular creations are deers and dolphins, although he also makes horses (one with a rider), bears and other creatures around the nursery grounds.

"People like the idea of 'deer' grazing out in their yards," he said. "We'll have them drinking, turning or standing with one leg raised like they're walking. I don't like static, still animals. They need to look active."

Dolphins are popular around pool areas and are often sculptured to look as though they are diving through the water.

Another popular topiary is shaped like Saguaro cactus.

"We've been getting more orders for Saguaro cactus since they've become more difficult to acquire," Feldner said. "For years, Californians have been importing the Saguaro from Arizona, but there are now laws that prohibit them from (being brought) in because we were depleting the supply. However, people still like the look of them so they have us sculpt them."

Topiary creations aren't cheap. A small duck costs about $75, a deer $300 and a horse with a rider can set you back $2,500 or more.

"We also get custom orders," Feldner said. "One woman ordered a golfer (topiary) for her husband. Several horse breeders have ordered horses and colts that they set outside their office areas."

Despite their price, Feldner said many of his sales are impulse buys.

"People see them, they like them and they want them," he said. "Most of my customers are those who are looking for something unusual for their gardens or parents. Children are crazy about the animals, so I sell quite a few teddy bears and elephants to folks who are buying them for their youngsters."

Creating a topiary is not an easy task, although Feldner said their maintenance is not difficult.

Once a shape has been determined, a plant is selected with the properties that are most suitable to the form.

"We use a lot of Eugenia, a shrub that's known to be hardy and can bend easily," Feldner said. "We also use Podocarpus, a tree that grows quickly and has flexible branches. But whatever plant we use, it has to have small leaves so it can be trimmed back easily. It also needs to be hearty and flexible. Otherwise, you'll lose the shape as the plant begins to grow out."

Once the proper plants have been selected, rebar wire--a strong, heavy wire--is used as the base to add strength and weight. The rebar wire also stabilizes the structure. Pencil rod--a lighter wire--is used to support branches and provide "limbs" or "antlers" for the various creations. The plants are placed around these wires. Poultry wire is wrapped around the heavy wire and plants to form the shape. Once the poultry wire is in place, the plant can be trimmed back if necessary.

"Ideally, you shouldn't be able to see any wire once the topiary is fully grown," Feldner said, adding that it takes a year or more to completely cover the wire. "Let the plant extend one or two inches from the wire and then trim. Maintaining the plant is actually very easy. You simply follow the frame."

Topiary owners can alter the original shape of a plant to some extent.

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