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Everything's Snip-Shape

Be a Garden Sculptor and Create Your Own Topiary. They're Not That Difficult to Tame. Besides, How Else Will You Get the Chance to Raise Bears and Dolphins in Your Own Yard?


Maybe it's because they often look like cartoon characters or because they make a garden look organized. Whatever their magic, topiaries are popular and have been for some time.

Plants shaped to look like objects spark the imagination of kids and adults, said Malee Hsu, owner of Upland Nursery in Orange.

"They add an interesting accent and fit into just about any landscape," she said.

Not only can topiaries serve as a focal point in the middle of a yard, they also work well along front walkways or in small spaces between buildings. They grow just as well in containers as in the ground.

"They give a sense of order to the garden," said Janelle Wiley, color specialist at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar. "I encourage people to incorporate topiary into their landscape. It's a delightful form of garden art that can last for years."

Wiley will be giving a class today on Creative Topiary at the Fullerton Arboretum. She will instruct participants on how to create topiary, including using natural frame materials such as yard clippings.

Egyptians and Romans created topiaries, which were an important part of ancient gardens.

Today, topiaries come in a wide variety of styles. There are animals, such as elephants, teddy bears, peacocks, dolphins and swans, and formal subjects, such as three-tiered balls, hearts, spirals and cones.

The sizes vary greatly, from 2-foot-tall rabbits to life-size reindeer and horses.

The subject of the topiary often reflects the personality of the owner, said Jewel Vidovich, who runs N&J Creations of Anaheim with her husband, Nick. The couple creates frames to grow topiaries.

"I've created topiaries [shaped like a] giant apple, a 3-foot-tall cowboy hat, airplanes, dragons, lighthouses, golfers, fishermen, butterflies, hummingbirds," Vidovich said. "And I'm working on a helicopter."

You can find pre-made frames at the nursery or make topiary frames using 18-gauge chicken wire with 1-inch circles, wire cutters, pliers for shaping and protective gloves.

Making frames takes practice and time, Vidovich said. "It's sculpturing wire," she said. "I usually sketch out what I want to do and then shape the wire until I'm happy with it."

You can also create topiary using garden cuttings and other natural materials, Wiley said. Shape newly cut branches that are pliable such as from plum or peach trees, pussy willow or grape vine. Use aluminum wire to secure the vines and branches once you have them in the shape you desire.

Once you have a frame, it's time to plant.

Keep the following tips in mind for growing and maintaining topiary.

* Plant selection. Some experts suggest using ivy and creeping fig for topiary, but others recommend against them because they tend to get large, requiring a great deal of pruning, and the topiary can lose its shape.

Some good plant choices include various boxwood (Buxus species), cotoneaster, dwarf myrtle (Myrtus compacta), baby's tears, rosemary, lavender, eugenia such as E. compacta, E. 'Monterey Bay' and E. 'Tiny Genie.'

For big-scale topiaries, use various pyracantha; junipers such as Blue Point, Spartan and Hollywood; English yew (Taxus baccata) and some privet (Ligustrum species).

* Ground planting. Topiaries require rich, well-draining soil. To create these conditions, mix in bagged or homemade compost or mulch at a rate of 45% with existing soil. If your drainage is questionable, incorporate pumice by up to 30% and gypsum, according to package directions.

Although you can plant any size topiary in the ground, larger pieces look best. Smaller pieces look better in pots.

* Container planting. Use high-quality potting soil and mix with up to 35% cactus soil mix, which will give you well-aerated, yet rich soil. For additional drainage, mix in pumice or perlite. You want to avoid the compaction that often comes when potting soil sits in a container over time.

It's important to choose a container that is large enough to support the plant, but not too large. The plant should look well-proportioned to the container and have sufficient root room. In general, a 2-foot topiary, such as a bear or bunny, will require a 15-gallon container.

* Planting. Plant first, then wrap the plant with garden tape or ribbon. This offers protection to the plant when you put the topiary over it.

Carefully place the topiary over the wrapped plant and if using a pot, secure the topiary to the pot with wire. Then carefully reach inside the frame with scissors and cut and remove the garden tape or ribbon. Create a hook out of wire and reach in and pull the plant out toward the wire frame.

* Filling in. How long until your topiary fills in will vary. In general, it takes six months to a year. If you plant in early spring, you should have a recognizable topiary by the end of summer. Keep in mind that filling in takes more time for certain topiary parts, such as long elephant trunks and floppy bunny ears.

For quickest results, try choosing plants that are close in size to the topiary you are planting.

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