Herb Topiaries

Creating Living Sculptures in Pots

| February/March 1993

In recent years, as interest in herb cultivation has ­increased, more gardeners are discovering the decorative possibilities of plants that have been carefully trained and trimmed into ornamental shapes. Container-grown herb topiaries can graciously frame an entryway or ­decorate a table or windowsill, and generally enhance decor, whether indoors or out. The time and effort spent in maintaining one of these green sculptures are ­repaid in the charm and beauty it brings to a room or garden, and sometimes also in the culinary dividend of its trimmings.

Most topiaries are produced from upright-growing woody herbs such as Greek myrtle (Myrtus communis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), fringed lavender (Lavandula dentata), dwarf sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Nana’), and sweet bay (Laurus nobilis). Small-leaved scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) also offer many possibilities.

Topiaries begin their careers as cuttings, except for the ­occasional mature plant discovered to have a central straight stem. Successfully rooting cuttings of woody herbs requires a certain amount of skill and patience. If you’re considering rooting your own cuttings, see “Growing Herbs from Stem Cuttings.” However, the easiest way for a novice gardener to obtain suitable cuttings is to purchase them, already rooted, from a reliable nursery. Look for a plant with a single, very straight stem and no side growth. I’d suggest that you start with one in a 3-inch pot. If you are ordering by mail, mention that you want to make the plant into a topiary.

Training Topiary Standards

Training begins early for rooted cuttings that are destined to become topiaries. The first step is to transplant the young, 3- to 4-inch-tall plants from the rooting medium into 3-inch pots. Choose a potting mixture that drains quickly, such as Pro-Mix, a soilless mix, or equal amounts of aged compost, sand, and peat. To test drainage, fill a pot three-quarters full of potting mix and flood with water; it should pour out the drainage hole. If water stands, the mix is too heavy. You will need to add perlite or more sand to lighten it.

After transplanting the rooted cutting to its new pot, insert a short, slender, 10- or 12-inch bamboo stake, such as a barbecue skewer, about half an inch to an inch away from the plant. Tie the plant loosely to the stake with one or two loops of cotton string. As the plant grows, add successive loops near the top to keep it growing upright. Some growers instead split a plastic drinking straw down its side and position it around the tender stem in this early stage of training.

A few months later, when the plant has reached the height of the stake and begins to outgrow its small pot, transplant it again, this time to a 5- or 6-inch pot. At this time, replace the original stake with a new bamboo garden stake which is as long as the intended height of the mature tree. Push the stake deep into the pot an inch from the plant’s stem and tie the stem loosely to it at frequent intervals with strips of cloth or raffia (string is not strong enough).

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