DIY Topiary: Take Your Pruning to the Next Level

Lead Image
What You'll Need
Pruning shears
Chicken wire
Wire cutters
Sphagnum moss
Fishing line
Floral tape
Dental floss

Topiary is a form of pruning wherein a shrub or small tree is trimmed and trained into an interesting, elegant, or whimsical shape. Topiary shapes can range from a classic spiral or ball-on-stem to a simple pyramid to something as complex as a giraffe. Buying a pre-made topiary from a nursery can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000. But, you'd be surprised at how simple it is to make your own topiary just like the experts do.

There are two different topiary-making methods. The first involves training a climbing vine to grow over a topiary frame. The second requires you to prune a small to medium-sized shrub into a shape of your choosing. Both methods take time. But, in as little as one growing season, you can have a spectacular piece of living art.

Vine Topiary

Growing a vine topiary is a fun and simple way to train your plant into an attractive shape. And, by starting from scratch, you get to watch your vine take off and slowly turn into, say, a teddy bear or an elephant.

DIY Topiary, Take Your Pruning to the Next Level, elephant

Step 1 - Choose Your Vine

When considering what type of vine to purchase, think first about where you want to keep the topiary. If you want something small for indoors, climbing jasmine, stephanotis, angel vine, or hoya make excellent houseplants in bright indirect light. Outside, perennial vines such as clematis and perennial sweet pea have stunning blooms and thrive in full sun. English ivy has a classic and elegant aesthetic and can take either sun or shade.

Step 2 - Make Your Frame

More shapes and sizes of topiary frames exist for sale than one could possibly imagine. However, making a simple frame yourself is an easy task. First, decide what kind of shape you want. An uncomplicated hoop can be used as either a living wreath, candle ring, or table decoration. A globe, square, oval, or cone are all good beginner topiary shapes. More complex shapes, such as animals, may require a professional frame in order to look realistic.

To create your own 3D topiary frame you will need light gauge chicken wire, wire cutters, an object that is your desired shape and size, sphagnum moss, a roll of fishing line, and floral tape.

Essentially, you will be making a mold of a particular object, whose shape you wish to mimic. For a round topiary you can use a globe or inflated balloon. For a square topiary use a package from the mail. For a hoop, a small wreath or even your car's steering wheel will do. You can freehand a frame, if you like, and create something totally new. For animal shapes, stuffed animals, small statues, and toys work great for a mold. First, use your wire cutters to cut a piece of chicken wire that you think will comfortably wrap your object. Cover the object in the chicken wire, pressing firmly so that the malleable metal will hold the shape. Clip off any excess chicken wire with your wire cutters, then very carefully remove the object and seam the chicken wire together with floral tape.You can also use small zip ties or twist ties. Leave one gap in the seam about 4-5 inches long. This is where you will plant your vine.

Step 3 - Stuff Your Frame and Plant

Next, wet your sphagnum moss in the sink or a bucket of water. When saturated, wring handfuls of the moss out until it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Now, begin stuffing the moist moss into your frame, starting with the corners or extremities and working your way in, As you stuff, pause incrementally and wrap each stuffed portion with the fishing line so that moss cannot fall out.

After the mold is 1/3 of the way full of moss, take your vine out of it's pot and gently break up the roots, trying not to lose too much soil. Gently work the rootball into the open section of your seam, arranging the roots inside the 3D frame. Seal up the rest of the seam around the rootball using the floral tape or other fasteners. Once the plant is roughly positioned, stuff the rest of the moss into the frame around the rootball. Pack the moss in tightly, as it will shrink when it dries. Wrap the rest of the frame in the fishing wire and secure the end of the wire to the frame with floral tape. Then, splay the vines along the surface of the frame, attaching them with loose dental floss or twist ties. You may break some tendrils, but don't worry, new growth will soon emerge.

While planting the vine inside the topiary frame is a neat touch, it is not necessary. As an alternative you can hot glue a wooden stake or a sod clip onto the bottom of the topiary form and stake it into a potted vine, training the tendrils upwards onto the frame. The vine will still root into the frame as it grows, eventually covering the whole thing. Along these lines, you can also stake a larger moss-filled frame into or next to a perennial vine planting in your yard and train the vine that way, still attaching the vines onto the frame as needed.

Step 4 - Finishing Touches

Now, comb through the vines and position them, attaching them to the frame where necessary with dental floss or loose twist ties. It may look bare and patchy now, but your vine will fill in rapidly. Take your new topiary to the sink and give it a gentle soak. Place outdoor topiary in a shady spot to recoup for a few days before moving it into the sun. Place indoor topiary in a spot with bright indirect light.

Step 5 - Care

For the next two weeks, keep a careful eye on your 3D topiary. As your vine roots into the new potting medium, it will drink heavily so water it thoroughly whenever dry - at least twice a week. For vines that thrive in full sun, move the topiary to a sunny location gradually so that you avoid shocking it. Remember that the more sun it has now, the more water it will need. But also, the more sun it gets the faster it will grow to fill your frame.

The topiary will require minimal maintenance after the second week of care. Water thoroughly once a week, making sure to soak the moss to saturation. You may need to water more than once a week if the topiary is in a hot dry spot. Giving the topiary a good mist with a spray bottle once a week in addition to watering is a good way to prevent the moss from drying too much. As the topiary grows, guide the new tendrils to fill in bare spots by attaching them to the frame with dental floss or loose twist ties. After the second week, start fertilizing the topiary once a month by mixing a balanced 20-20-20 fertilizer with distilled water and watering deeply. Depending on the size of the frame and the size of the plant it can take anywhere from 4 to 9 months for your vine to completely fill in. When your topiary is nice and thick, trim off unruly new growth monthly with sharp scissors to maintain a neat shape.

Even if you use a perennial vine for your topiary, be sure and provide winter protection if the vine's roots are exposed to below freezing temperatures. Place the topiary on a covered porch or patio away from any ice or cold wind. If your garage has a window, you can even overwinter it there. Just don't forget to water!

Planting inside of a 3D topiary is a unique way for a beginner to learn about the art of shaping topiary. It is a fun project for all ages, and is as simple as it is rewarding.

Shrub Topiary

Creating a shrub topiary involves pruning a small or medium upright shrub over the course of a few months (or years depending on your desired size and shape) so that it resembles an interesting shape. Unlike the previous method, the shrub will not grow to fit the form. Instead, you have to prune the shrub to fit the form. While this method tends to take longer, the shrub you use will be a permanent fixture in your landscape and as such it is a very gratifying project.

DIY Topiary, Take Your Pruning to the Next Level

Step 1 - Choose Your Shrub

The best shrubs for topiary are evergreens with dense growth that will cover any frames, wires, or bare patches. The most popular choices include boxwood, holly, and juniper for large, medium, or small topiary, and rosemary for small to medium topiary. All grow well in full to partial sun. It is easiest to start with a small shrub and mold it slowly as it grows. However, this process can take years. Choosing a large shrub instead can be much more work initially, but will have almost instant aesthetic appeal. When choosing a shrub, look for one that already seems to be in the shape you want. For a ball-on-stem, pyramid, or spiral topiary, look for a taller shrub that has a straight central trunk and a pointed top. For a globe topiary, pick a shrub with a rounded shape. For an upright animal choose an upright shrub and for a wide animal, choose one with a rectangular shape.

Step 2 - Finding Your Frame

Simple topiary shapes, such as the ball-on-stem, pyramid, spiral, and globe are easy topiary to prune by hand without the use of a topiary frame. Instructions on freehand pruning are outlined below in "Shaping your Topiary." However, more complicated shapes such as, well, pretty much anything besides what I just listed, benefit greatly from the use of a topiary frame. I'm not saying that you couldn't shape a topiary swan by hand. Just that it may end up looking like an oblong pumpkin. Or a witch's hat.

Topiary frames for smaller topiary are easy to make yourself with chicken wire, using the exact method that was discussed in the "Make Your Frame" section of Vine Topiary. However, when wrapping your guide object, do not cover the bottom of the object in chicken wire. Instead only mold the sides and top, the bottom of the frame should be completely open. Using a hot glue gun attach three stakes or sod pins on the bottom edge of the chicken wire. Instead of stuffing the form with moss, use the pins to secure the form over your small shrub, either in the ground or a large pot.

Forms for larger outdoor topiary can be difficult to make by yourself. Firstly, not many people have a 7-foot giraffe statue around to make a mold of. Second, depending on the size, you would need an abundance of chicken wire. And, fitting a large form down over an unpruned landscaping shrub can be a struggle to say the least, especially if your form has four hooves, or some such quirk. Pre-made large topiary forms can run anywhere from $25-$100 and many of the nicer models come with all kinds of convenient features. Most of them are built with detachable sections. This means that instead of having a huge wire form taking up your whole landscape as your shrub grows to fit it, you can gradually add on new pieces to the form at the same rate as your shrub grows. And, professional frames also commonly have jointed sides that open up, like doors, so that they can fit easily over larger shrubs.

However you decide to go, affix your frame over your shrub, making sure it is stable.

Step 3 - Shaping Your Topiary

If you are using a frame, and your shrub is large enough that it already fills out sections of that frame, use hand-held shears to prune the shrub, using the frame as a guide. If your frame is larger than your shrub, all you need do now is bide time until the shrub exceeds the frame and can be pruned. Depending on the type of shrub, how much sun it gets, how large it is, and how large your frame is, it can take anywhere from 5 months to a few years (in extreme cases) for your shrub to grow and fill it's frame. During this period, prune your shrub, using the frame as a guide, once every three months. Sharp pruning shears work best for quick and accurate work. Prune off 3 inches at a time at most! Between first and last frost, do not prune at all.

If you choose not to use a frame, spend plenty of time looking at your shrub before making any freehand cuts! Once you start to prune there is no going back, and lopping off an extra limb can mean months of an unsightly bald patch before the shrub can fill back in. Use masking tape as a quick and easy cutting guide. For example, on a spiral topiary, wind masking tape from the top of the tree to the base with 3 or 5 turns. Take ten steps back and walk around the tree a few times to make sure your spiral is proportional and even. Then, using long handled shears, clip away the branches in between the masking tape, cutting them all the way back to the trunk. The masking tape spiral on your tree will emerge as a prominent green spiral working it's way down the shrub's trunk. Work slowly and take plenty of breaks to observe your work. Once you have cleared out all the major branches, switch to sharp hand shears for a finishing touch. Clip away all uneven bits and smooth the surface of your cut as you go. Do not be concerned about bare or thin patches, they will fill out over time.

For ball-on-stem topiary, use a similar method, first clearing out all branches along the trunk with long handled shears, leaving 6 inches of greenery at the very top. Then, go over your work with hand shears, leaving a clean straight trunk exposed. Instead of masking tape as a guide, use a circular piece of wire to help you cut the top poof in an exact sphere. Most evergreens will not have enough leafy material on the top for a big ball. Wait for them to grow and shape every three months.

DIY Topiary, Take Your Pruning to the Next Level

Step 4 - Maintenance

While you wait for your shrub to grow, make sure to keep up on regular plant maintenance as well. For newly planted shrubs, water deeply at least once a week and fertilize once a month with organic matter such as compost. Established shrubs will need less initial care, but keep in mind that with adequate water and fertilization comes rapid growth, which is ideal for you. Prune your topiary, following your guide or your previous cuts, once every three months (taking off no more than 3 inches of material at a time). Bald or thin patches can happen. As counterintuitive as it sounds, pruning these thin sections back about an inch will actually encourage bushier growth. If your topiary is planted in a pot, take some extra precautions to guard it during the winter, such as moving the pot onto a covered porch or next to the house in a protected spot.

During my years of experience in the nursery industry, it never ceased to shock me at how much money customers were willing to pay for nice looking topiary. Everyone who has a garden understands that all plants will grow and that buying a smaller plant initially can be a wise and thrifty practice. Why not shape your own custom topiary? While labor intensive at times, it requires no special skill besides creativity and passion. Not only is this artistry practical for your wallet, its also a unique project that will result in a one of a kind living statue for your landscape.

Looking for more pruning tips? Check out "Hands on With Pruning."