The Pot Spot
A topiary is a plant trained to behave itself according to the gardener’s imagination and will. Whether your whim is a fanciful lollipop, heart, corkscrew, fantasy animal or strange geometric shape, there’s an herb that will give it to you, if you treat it right.
A container often is the best place for an herb destined for topiary. The rough-and-tumble outdoor environment may not be ideal for the amount of coddling a topiary demands, and unless your herb garden is a formal one, such a plant might not suit its garden style. After all, style is what the art of topiary is all about.
A standard is a type of topiary made from a woody herb with a single bare stem that grows straight up and balloons into a lollipop at the top. As the plant matures, the stem gets taller, and so does the ball at the top. A handsome plant with an elegant simplicity, a standard is a conversation piece, a fine sentry on the front porch or centerpiece on a table — and a great starting point for the would-be topiary sculptor.
Step By Step
Start young (a young plant, that is — old gardeners love topiary, too). Whether you sprout it and root it yourself or go shopping for it at your corner garden center, choose a healthy, well-rooted young plant with a single straight stem and not a lot of side shoots.
On Page 10 is a list of herbs that are appropriate for standards and other topiary. Choose carefully, as topiary is an art form in which you can invest quite a bit of time and affection; don’t start with a substandard plant or a variety you haven’t had success with in the past. If you plan for this container to live outdoors, perhaps on the front porch, be sure it is suited to your climate.
Pot the plant in a small container appropriate to its size, perhaps 3 to 4 inches. All the basic rules of container gardening apply: Use a pot with adequate drainage holes; a good, fast-draining potting mix; and a good-sized saucer beneath it to catch the overflow if the plant will be growing indoors. Water it well.
Insert a stake into the soil near the stem. A 10-inch wooden bamboo skewer, a kitchen staple for shish kebab lovers, works nicely at this stage. Attach the plant’s stem to the stake by loosely tying it with a piece of string, yarn, cloth or raffia. Or if your little plant’s stem isn’t very sturdy, rather than staking it in the traditional way, cut open a plastic drinking straw and carefully position it around the stem to hold it straight up until it can stand on its own.
Now position the newly potted plant in a sunny window or someplace where it gets plenty of sunlight. Go about your business, but keep your eye on it to ensure that its cultural needs are met. Give it a name if you want.
As your pet topiary grows, tie it loosely again to the stake if it needs to be straightened. Before you know it, the stem will be as tall as the stake and ready for graduation to a bigger pot. Undo the ties, remove the stake and transplant the topiary-to-be into a slightly larger container, maybe 5 to 6 inches. Insert a longer wooden or metal stake, perhaps 2 to 3 feet long or whatever height you envision the trunk of the mature plant. You’re in charge here, so you decide. Tie the plant loosely to the stake in a couple of spots to give it the support it needs.
Now it’s time to start training your pet. Remove the lower leaves and any side shoots that have sprouted off the main stem, leaving the greenery at the top. This pruning is what gives the topiary its clean lines and directs the plant’s energy to the topmost growth. Stand back and let it grow under your watchful eye and nurturing care. Don’t forget to feed it occasionally. Talk to it, if that’s your style.
As the leader, or main stem, grows, continue to remove lower leaves and support the trunk by staking. When the leader reaches the height you want the mature plant to be, clip its tip and that of the topmost side branches. This will eventually make the plant bush out and fill in, in a satisfying way. Over the next few months when it’s growing well, gradually shape it into a ball, pruning at the growing points.
When you notice roots trying to grow out of the drainage holes, transplant the topiary and its stake to a larger pot, until it reaches its final pot. In my climate in the arid West, I like to have all my container plants eventually in pots no smaller than 12 inches, or watering becomes a nonstop chore. After it’s in a pot as big as you’re willing to give it, you’ll still need to occasionally take it out of the pot, prune the outer roots and add fresh potting soil.
Your living sculpture, this pet topiary, owes its success to your diligent attention, patient pruning, a snip at a time, and your artistic eye. For a stately standard, beauty lies in symmetry, stature and balance. In a 12-inch pot, the ball at the top of a 3-foot stem should be maintained at about 12 to 14 inches, or whatever your eye tells you is a graceful shape, not top-heavy or too small for its trunk. Depending on the plant choice and your taste, the ball can be tightly shaped for formal geometry or loose and airy at the top of the stem for a freer, more casual shape. Whatever you do, be sure to do it gradually. Topiary should not be horticultural torture.
Herbs commonly used for topiary standards (because they are so good at it) include some culinary favorites, such as bay laurel and rosemary — and how convenient to be able to use a steady supply of trimmings in the soup pot. Others are such fragrant gems as scented pelargoniums, lemon verbena and some lavenders. Some lesser-known herbs that have the woody-stemmed architecture for fine topiary include santolina, myrtle and germander.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, grows potted herbs in Las Vegas, where she is a freelance writer and editor.