Building a Topiary Garden Building a Topiary Garden

It's time to start thinking seriously about your garden, whether it's a rooftop terrace, a small urban patio, or a formal flowerbed that's the envy of the neighborhood. And no matter where you live, it's never too early to start designing and putting together a topiary garden.

Topiary has a long and esteemed history; you probably know it as the trees and shrubs which are assiduously trimmed into geometric or animal shapes. The elegant mansions of Rhode Island are known for their topiary, as are many gardens in England. City parks and medians around the world often do a little bit of topiary work, usually by trimming trees into the traditional, simple "lollipop" shape.

But you don't have to be living on an estate or working as a city horticultural planner in order to start a topiary of your own. In fact, you don't even have to have a tree.

Instead of working with an existing shrub or tree and shaping the branches by cutting back until you get the shape you want, you can create a topiary figure by starting with a frame, over which you will then grow a plant, giving the effect of true topiary without the necessity for ladders, saws, and professional-grade trimmers.

Start by making a wire frame, using wire that is heavy enough to stand up but flexible enough so that you can bend it. Try starting simple, with maybe just a geometric shape, such as a triangle or circle. You'll be making a frame that's three dimensional, leaving a cavity that is big enough so that you can later put a plant in there. The cavity can be at any spot in the structure that makes sense in terms of the design.

As you work, you can reinforce the shape by using chicken wire - the regular old chicken wire you find at a hardware or farm supply store. You can bend the wire into the shape you want, then reinforce it with the chicken wire, until it takes the shape you want it to have.

Okay, so now you have a wire shape. The next thing you'll need is called "sheet moss" - make sure the clerk at the nursery doesn't misunderstand and give you "peat moss" instead. Sheet moss is just that - a springy, light-green moss that is packaged in big sheets, so that you can unroll it, cut off as much as you need, and then wrap it around the frame.

As you place the sheet moss against the wire frame, attach it with thin wire, stitching the moss onto the frame with a traditional basting stitch. Make sure you don't cover the cavity that you've left open; in fact, this would be a good time to settle a small flower pot in there, which you'll later plant with ivy. You can use a 50 lb fishing line in a dark green to finish the stitching, or to work on trickier parts of the frame.

When you're done with this step, you'll have a shape covered in green sheet moss; it should look a little more now like something that belongs in a garden. Next, you'll ensconce a plant in that cavity that you left open. Any ivy will work particularly well. Don't be intimidated by the fact that you're planting the ivy in a topiary; just plant it as you would in a planter, with a layer of gardening soil, and then water it. Take the individual stems of the ivy, and pin them to the moss - you can use hairpins for this.

Over time, the ivy will take root in the moss, and will continue to grow, so you''ll need to continue pinning the ivy to the moss as it grows, and maybe cut it back if it starts to take over. Over the next few months, the ivy should grow so that soon the entire shape is covered in ivy.

Maintain your topiary by both watering the roots of the ivy, just as you would if it were in a pot, and by spritzing the whole thing with water regularly; remember that you need to keep the whole sculpture moist, so you can't just water the roots of the ivy.

After you've gotten the knack of making a simply topiary shape, you can try more elaborate shapes, such as animals and giant birds. Make sure you put stones in the feet of the animals, so they'll stand the way you want them to. You can use glass eyes from a hobby shop to add a realistic touch.

When winter comes, you can keep the topiary either by moving it inside, if room permits, or by taking out the ivy and leaving the moss-covered frame outdoors, misting it occasionally. A perfect over-wintering spot for the frames and moss is a barn or garage, because it will stay cool but will also be dry enough so that freezing won't be a problem.

And in the meantime, even if your garden is the size of a parking space, you can have a little of the elegance of an old English manor.
Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Interior Design.

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