Ultimate Guide to Topiary

You can shape topiary into anything from formal geometric shapes to this guy. See more pictures of gardens.
© iStockphoto/Daniel MAR

­Imagine walking through herds of elephants and giraffes, watching a fox hunt or navigating a shrubbery maze. While you might think you'd need to be in a zoo, the Victorian countryside or the pages of a Harry Potter novel to do it, thanks to topiary -- the sculpture of plants -- you can see all of these things and more in places as accessible as your backyard.

Earlier cultures may have created topiary, but Pliny­ the Elder, a Roman, was the first to document it. The ornamental trimming of shrubs and trees spread throughout the Roman Empire, where high society considered it a status symbol. During the Dark Ages, people living in monasteries and castles carried on the practice, sometimes shaping plants into the religious symbols you can see in the backgrounds of paintings from that period. Plant sculpture took on a more architectural style after the Dark Ages and began to include geographic shapes, knot gardens and even animals. During the Renaissance, topiary spread through Europe until it reached its height of popularity in the 1600s. Topiary went out of favor in the early 1700s as people opted for wilder, more natural-looking gardens.

­Europeans returned to topiary and other formal gardening practices in the 19th century, which is when North Americans also introduced topiar­y to th­eir gardens. In the mid-1900s, topiarists began creating portable pieces -- the new topiary -- made of creeping plants like ivy trained over frames.

Today, topiary reflects the needs and lifestyles of modern gardeners. While professionals still create large projects in world-class gardens, hobbyists use topiary to make the most of small backyard gardens, foyers and even tabletops while expressing themselves through this time-honored practice.

Read on to discover how, with just a little imagination, you can liven up your own garden or desktop with the endless possibilities topiary has to offer.


Types of Topiary

Life-sided topiary figures of the Beatles adorn the traffic island at Liverpool's South Parkway rail station on March 26, 2008, in Liverpool, England.
Life-sided topiary figures of the Beatles adorn the traffic island at Liverpool's South Parkway rail station on March 26, 2008, in Liverpool, England.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

­Today, there are three main types of topiary -- traditional, sphagnum and trained ivy. Traditional topiary is the ornamental shaping of freestanding trees and shrubs. These plants can be large, permanent structures in expans­ive spaces or can lend formal elegance to even small, urban gardens. While traditional topiary can stand on its own as the main focus of your garden, you can also use it to highlight other features, like fountains, stonework or other plants.

Those with patience and a green thumb can create traditional topiary in a number of ways. While some gardeners opt for freehand clipping, using only their eye as a guide, others use frames to determine the shapes of their plants. Traditional topiarists sometimes shape stems in addition to leaves and branches by wrapping young tree stems around supportive staffs and training them into shapes like coils. And while some topiarists train young, growing plants into desired shapes over many years, others save time by purchasing mature plants and pruning them into the shape they want.

Sphagnum topiary, in which topiarists prune plants growing out of sphagnum moss-filled frames into desired shapes, is another way of sculpting plants. Using creeping plant­s, a gardener can complete a sphagnum topiary project in just a few months. Topiarists adapt this method for use outdoors -- as large freestanding structures -- and indoors -- as small tabletop decorations.

People with space and time limitations may find trained ivy topiary the most accessible. Topiarists using this method train trailing plants like ivy to grow around two- and three-dimensional wire frames to bring life to very small spaces like desktops. Hobbyists can create many shapes, from geometric forms to animal figures and even corporate logos, with this form of topiary.

On the next few pages, we'll look at how to make each of these topiary types, starting with traditional topiary.

How to Make Traditional Topiary

An employee makes adjustments on a topiary in the backstage greenhouse area at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., April 10, 2008.
An employee makes adjustments on a topiary in the backstage greenhouse area at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., April 10, 2008.
JIM WATSON/AFP/­Getty Images

­To begin your own traditional topiary project, figure out where you want to plant your topiary, and choose the type of plant you'd like to shape. Dense evergreen plants that can withstand shearing and grow easily are best for topiary. Topiarists most commonly use boxwood and yew for traditional shrub topiary, but other plants and even herbs such as rosemary also work well. Take the climate, soil and shade in your garden into account, and consider using multiple plants if you want to create and support very large or complex projects like elephants or archways.

Next, choose a design. Some plants' growth may suggest a design, or you may want to train your plant to best fit the setting in which it will grow. Consider other features and plants in your garden as well as the style of your home and maintenance. Remember that while your plant may start small, it will continue to grow over the years. Some shapes may require more upkeep than others to remain visually appealing.

Clipping tools used to create and maintain traditional topiary range from hand tools like secateurs (pruners) and shears to electric- and gas-powered clippers. Choose your clipping tools based on the amount of work your project requires. While hand-powered tools are best for small projects and give you more control, you may want gas- or electric-powered clippers for trimming down very large shrubs or trees. When shopping for either type of tool, make sure they are comfortable in your hands and are not too heavy for use over prolonged periods of time.

It is important to remember safety when working with these sharp tools. Wear gloves to protect your hands, and­ consider eye and ear protection, especially if you're using motorized clippers. When using electric clippers, know where the cord is at all times in order to avoid accidentally cutting through it, which can lead to electrocution.

When working with traditional topiary, you may want to buy wooden canes or metal frames, which you can use to shape your plant or train its stems. To make cleanup easier, you can also lay tarps under your plants while you trim.

Naturally, different designs require different steps. Here's how you'd create a basic, cone-shaped traditional topiary from boxwood:

  1. Start with one young boxwood, or plant several small boxwoods together so they will grow close enough to look like one shape. Plant the boxwood in the ground or a soil-filled pot.
  2. Place a cone-shaped frame, which you can purchase or construct using poles or wire, over the plants. Anchor the frame into the soil.
  3. Feed and water your plant. As your creation grows, use pruning shears to cut any branches that grow past the frame.
  4. The plant will fill the frame over time. Allow the plant to grow just past the frame in order to hide it.

How to Make Sphagnum Topiary

A topiary bunny made of trailing plants and sphagnum moss.
A topiary bunny made of trailing plants and sphagnum moss.
© iStockphoto/Liza McCorkle

You can use sphagnum topiary out­doors or indoors, so the first step in planning a sphag­num topiary project is to decide where you want to put your creation. Sphagnum topiary frames are available in a variety of sizes and are appropriate for use in yards, gardens and even end tables.

Next, consider the type of design and plants you want to use for your sphagnum topiary and how much work you want to put into the project. Many animal-shaped frames are available, and if you can't find the design you're looking for, you can bend and twist galvanized or stainless steel wire into the shape you want. You can buy empty frames as well as frames stuffed with moss or pre-filled with both moss and plants. If you're planting your sphagnum topiary in a container, choose one that complements the topiary design as well as the space where it will be displayed.

Finally, choose your plants -- fast-growing creeping plants, succulents and grasses work well with this type of topiary. In addition to your plants, frame and moss, you'll need potting soil, florist's wire, scissors and a stick or other pointy tool to make holes in your moss. Here's what to do:

  1. Soak your moss in water to prepare it to go into your frame.
  2. Secure your frame into the ground or a pot. Begin tightly stuffing it with the wet moss. Fill the center of the piece with potting soil.
  3. Wrap the frame with fishing line or florist's wire to hold the moss in place. Trim stray pieces of moss that are hanging through the wire.
  4. Poke holes in the moss and insert your plants into the holes. These plants will spread out as they grow, so don't worry about entirely covering your structure.
  5. If necessary, use florist's wire to hold plants in the moss.

How to Grow Trained Ivy Topiary

A trained ivy heart
A trained ivy heart
Michele Constantini/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

­If you're planning to create a trained ivy topiary masterpiece for your home, first determine where you will put it. The amount of space you have will help determine the size of your creation, and the style of the area should help you pick a design. You can create various effects and make topiary mobile with containers. When choosing a container, pick one that is the right size for your plant and will allow your plant to drain, but not so much that it can't retain the water it needs. It's also a good idea to pick a sturdy container with feet or wheels, which encourages air circulation throughout the pot.

Creeping houseplants with small or medium-sized leaves like Hendra helix (English ivy) are bes­t suited for this type of topiary. Select plants with bendable stems so you can train them to grow on frames. Creating this type of topiary with multiple plants cuts the time it takes for the plant to cover the frame. Plus, if one of the plants dies, you can easily cover it up with the others.

Hobbyists can create a small, tabletop trained ivy topiary in less than an hour. You will need long, trailing plants, a pot, soil, and florist's wire or twist ties. You'll also need your frame. You can buy one to save time, but if you'd like to save the expense and expand your options, make your own frame out of flexible, rust-re­sistant wire. Tape, spooling or florist's wire and plastic-coated wire twist ties may be used if you want to strengthen your frame. Wooden stakes, chicken wire and a hot glue gun could also be useful to make more complex frames. The only tools you'll need are wire cutters and pliers and, since the ends can be sharp, gloves to protect your hands.

Here's how to make a basic hoop frame:

  1. Start with a piece of wire long enough to create the size hoop you want plus double the height of your pot and a few inches for a base.
  2. Shape the wire into a circle, leaving an equal length of wire at each end. You can create a perfect circle by wrapping the wire around a container like a coffee can.
  3. Twist the ends of the wire together to create a straight support that's the same length as the height of the pot you want to use for the plant. The shape of your frame should resemble a lollipop at this point. You can reinforce the stem of your frame with tape or florist's wire if necessary.
  4. Bend the ends of the wire to form a base to support the frame in the pot.

Next, add your plant to finish your project. With your frame in the pot, fill the pot with soil and add your transported trailing plants. It is best to place the plants next to each side of the frame, where you will attach them. Wrap the plants around the circle, attaching them with florist's wire. Attach the wire or ties as loosely as possible, but tight enough to keep the plant wrapped around the wire.

Topiary Maintenance

In addition to typical plant care, topiaries need extra trimming and shaping.
In addition to typical plant care, topiaries need extra trimming and shaping.
© iStockphoto/Anthony Hall

Once you've created your topiary masterpiece, you'll want to keep up with it so it retains its trained or sculpted shape. Each kind of plant has different requirements and vulnerabilities, but clipping, watering and protection from the elements are the main ways to maintain your plant. You'll need to water and fertilize your topiary according to the type of plant you've selected, as well as protect it from extreme temperatures, insects and disease.

To maintain traditional topiary's shape, use the clipping tool that is appropriate for the size of your plant. Many plants used to create traditional topiary require clipping only annually to retain their shape. Generally, don't clip outdoor plants in extremely cold or hot weather. Spring is often a good time to take care of this task.

­If you have a ­frame, use it to guide your pruning. If you are freehand pruning, cut slowly, a little bit at a time, to avoid clipping too much and damaging your plant. Prune from the top of the plant down. You can also maintain the shape of your traditional topiary and encourage new growth by pinching off stray ends of branches. Keep your plant healthy by removing any damaged or dead branches or leaves.

You can preserve the shape of sphagnum topiary by replacing dead or dying leaves and branches with healthy ones. Use florist's wire to hold stubborn pieces in place if necessary. Use your frame to guide trimming in areas where plants have grown too thick, and use healthy growth to cover bald spots.

To water sphagnum moss topiary, soak the structure in water if possible, and mist it as necessary.

Keep creeping plants used in t­rained ivy topiary in check by clipping and pinching off ends as necessary. Rearrange extra vines to cover thin spots in your topiary creation, and use florist's wire to train new growth. Remove dead pieces to keep your plant healthy.

Even if you don't have room in your backyard for a topiary giraffe or a six-foot-tall maze, you can use topiary to add spice and whimsy to your garden. Follow the links on the next page to learn more about garden design and plant care.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Crowder, Christopher, and Michaeljon Ashworth. Topiary Design and Technique. Crowood Press. 2006.
  • Dummies.com (Adapted from Biology for Dummies). "How Plants Get Water and Nutrients." Sept. 2, 2008. http://www.dummies.com/WileyCDA/DummiesArticle/How-Plants-Get-Water-and-Nutrients.id-1205.html
  • Gallup, Barbara and Deborah Reich. The Complete Book of Topiary. Saunders of Toronto, Inc. 1987.
  • Hendy, Jenny. Topiary: An Inspirational Guide to the Art of Clipping, Training and Shaping Plants. Anness Publishing Ltd. 2004.
  • Hendy, Jenny. Quick and Easy Topiary and Green Sculpture. Storey Communications, Inc. 1996.
  • International Association of Topiary Growers and Suppliers. "History of Topiary and Bay Trees." Sept. 2, 2008. http://www.topiary.org.uk/topiaryandbaytreehistory.htm
  • Ladew Topiary Gardens. Sept. 2, 2008. http://www.ladewgardens.com/index2.html
  • Levens Hall and Gardens. Sept. 2, 2008. http://www.levenshall.co.uk/
  • Longstroth, Mark (Michigan State University Extension. "Water and Plant Growth." Sept. 2, 2008. http://www.canr.msu.edu/vanburen/watergrw.htm
  • Old Deaf School Park. "Topiary Park Museum at Old Deaf School Park." Sept. 2, 2008. http://www.topiarygarden.org/park.htm