How to Make a Topiary in your Garden

Have you ever made your own topiary? This is a simple and rewarding process if you have the patience for it! In this article, gardening expert Jill Drago details the steps to create a beautiful topiary right in your garden.

View of a large topiary garden in the backyard of a large mansion. Topiaries are made from boxwood bushes. They are cut in the shape of two rounded tiers with graceful hat shapes on top, reminiscent of snowmen in hats. In the backyard there are various trees, hydrangea bushes are blooming and the roof is lightly overgrown with moss.

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Topiaries have a very important role when it comes to formal gardens. These neatly trimmed shrubs offer structure and elegance. As our gardens have taken on a more casual role, filled with whimsical flowers and plants that are easy to care for, it seems that topiaries have become less popular. I believe that there is a place for a topiary in every garden, however. 

Do not be overly intimidated by this garden design. It only takes the right kind of plant and a few basic tools that you most likely have on hand. 

If your garden needs a strong plant,  or you have a walkway or container that could benefit from some tidy plants, then a topiary could be exactly what you are seeking. In this article, we will go over steps to get you started on forming and caring for a new topiary. This art form can be tricky to master, but if you stick to simple shapes, you will have great success with just a bit of patience. Let’s dig in!

What is a Topiary?

Close-up of Juniperus topiary in the garden. Juniperus topiary refers to various species of juniper that are pruned and trained into decorative shapes. These evergreen shrubs feature dense foliage with small, scale-like leaves that are dark green in color. The foliage is arranged in tight clusters along the branches, giving the topiary a sculpted and manicured appearance.
The topiary method sculpts plants into various shapes, with historical popularity fluctuations.

What we call topiary is an art form that involves the clipping and trimming of plants into a variety of shapes. This can be as simple as a ball or a cone. However, there are more complicated shapes, such as spirals and even animal shapes, for those who are very patient and good with their gardening snips.

The history of topiary is a long one. According to Cornell University, there are mentions of topiary art forms dating back to 23-79 A.D. This art form regained popularity during the Roman Empire and again during the medieval period and the Victorian era. After those periods, the outdoor use of topiaries has dwindled, while houseplants as topiaries have gained popularity. 

Step 1: Select Your Plants

Close-up of a young topiary boxwood of round shape in a flowerbed. The Boxwood is a meticulously pruned shrub with dense, glossy foliage and a perfectly spherical form. Its small, oval-shaped leaves are vibrant green and tightly packed.
Choose from various plants for topiary, considering shape and maintenance.

Often the first plants that come to mind when you think of a topiary are evergreen shrubs, such as boxwoods. These plants work wonderfully, but there are many other options for you to choose from.

Topiary ideas:

When you are shopping for your plant, look for a plant that is close to the shape you wish to trim it to. Naturally round plants will lend themselves nicely to globe-shaped topiary. Take a step back and examine the plant. The less you need to trim, the less stress your plant will be under after you have finished with your trimming. 

Each of these plants comes with its own care needs, as well as methods for trimming and training them into your desired shape. When you are choosing your plants, choose a plant you love, but also select a plant that you can maintain and achieve a successful shape. 

Step 2: Gather Your Tools

Close-up of pruning evergreen boxwood, using hedge shears. Hedge shears are hand tools designed for trimming and shaping hedges and shrubs. They consist of two long, straight blades with serrated edges that are operated by handles at the opposite end, connected by a pivot point.
Prepare for topiary work with tools, frame guides, and clean-up aids.

Before you begin any sort of trimming, planning and getting prepared is very important when it comes to creating a gorgeous topiary. Below I have listed all of the tools you may or may not need. Different plants and different shapes require tools that others may not. 

  • Frame guides. You can purchase guides, or you can make your own at home. Creating your own is best because you can fit it perfectly to your plant’s size and desired shape.
    • String
    • Wire
    • Cardboard
  • Clips and ties. Depending on how you are forming your shape, some orchid clips, twine, and garden velcro may come in handy. These items can help you to secure your plant to a frame either temporarily or for long-term growth. 
  • Heavy-duty container. If you are planting your topiary in a pot, as opposed to leaving it to grow in your beds, your container should have some weight to it. Ceramic or any heavy material other than plastic will do. This will help to support the odd shape that your plant will be growing in. Many topiaries are top-heavy and can topple if there is not a good counterweight. 
  • Clean-up aids! I am a big fan of cleaning up garden messes as I go. Trimming topiaries can cause quite a mess. Keeping any of these nearby will help you take care of your clippings in a flash.
    • Tarp
    • Bucket
    • Wheelbarrow

Step 3: Choose Your Desired Shape

There are a variety of different shapes you can choose from when it comes to forming your topiary. Some shapes are easier and better for beginners, while others take time, practice, and a bit of finesse.

Common Topiary Shapes

Below is a list and brief description of some of the most popular topiary shapes.

Globe or multiple globes

Close-up of Globe boxwood topiaries in the front yard. Globe boxwood topiaries are meticulously pruned shrubs that feature dense, spherical foliage arrangements atop slender stems. Their small, glossy leaves are tightly packed, forming a smooth and perfectly rounded shape reminiscent of a miniature globe.
Start with a globe-shaped topiary for beginners.

Globes are a great place to start if this is your first try at topiary forming. Globes can be singular, or you can shape your shrubs into a multiple globe tree. This would be a bit trickier than the standard globe. 

Cube

Close-up of Cube boxwood topiary in a sunny garden. It is a meticulously pruned shrub characterized by its precisely trimmed, dense foliage arranged in a compact, cube-shaped form. Its small, glossy leaves are tightly packed, creating a smooth and uniform surface reminiscent of a geometric sculpture.
Shape cube topiaries easily by hand or with a frame.

If you can trim a perfect hedge, you can easily shape a cube topiary. Cube topiaries are also simple to shape. This can be done by hand or by using a topiary frame which will assist in keeping your cube perfectly shaped with crisp corners and lines

Cone

Close-up of cone arborvitae topiary in a flowering garden. The cone arborvitae topiary is an ornamental shrub meticulously pruned and shaped into a conical form, resembling a miniature evergreen tree. Its dense foliage consists of scale-like leaves that are vibrant green, creating a lush and compact appearance.
Shape cone topiaries methodically for evenness.

Topiary cones are another classic topiary shape that is great for first-timers. Start by identifying the high point of the shrub and work your way down. This shape is best achieved by using taut twine. Continue moving around the shrub, trimming until all of the sides are as even as possible.

The most important thing when shaping a cone is the evenness of the shape. If there are holes or gaps, do not worry. These will fill in overtime. 

Spiral

Close-up of Spiral arborvitae topiary in a sunny garden. The Spiral arborvitae topiary is a meticulously pruned shrub with a distinctive spiral shape, resembling a helix or corkscrew. Its dense foliage consists of small, scale-like leaves that are typically dark green, creating a lush and vibrant appearance.
Create elegant spiral topiaries by methodically trimming plants with central stems.

Spiral topiaries are elegant and a bit trickier than some of the other shapes. Spirals are best achieved with plants that have one central stem. Loosely cut it into a cone shape before you start the fine-tuning. This will give you a great starting point. Tie a piece of twine to the top of the plant winding it down and around to give you your spiral guide.

Begin by trimming away foliage on either side of the twine to give you your spiral shape. I urge you to take your time with this. Spirals can take a while to perfect, depending on the plant you are growing and how full it is. 

Standard 

Close-up of a rose topiary in a sunny garden. The rose tree is a stunning ornamental plant characterized by its single trunk and lush canopy of blooming roses. Its slender trunk supports a graceful, rounded crown of vibrant flowers of delicate pink color.
Train upright plants into standard topiaries for container beauty and elegance.

You may know standard topiaries from roses or hydrangeas. This is a great shape to train some of your upright annuals as well. You will need a plant with one main stem. This involves removing all of the lower stems and foliage to reveal the single stem, or trunk, of the plant.

From there, you can shape the remaining foliage into a ball, or you can leave it more free form if that suits your garden. Standard plants are really beautiful in containers.

Other Fun Shapes

Close-up of a Boxwood topiary in the shape of a large crocodile in the garden. Boxwood is a dense, evergreen shrub with small, oval-shaped dark green leaves that are densely packed along the stems, creating a lush and uniform foliage.
Create fun shapes with metal forms, orchid clips, and moss filling.

There are, of course, other fun shapes you can mold your plants to using metal forms. These forms can be placed around your plant. Using orchid clips or twins, you can attach your stems to these forms and allow them to grow into your desired shape. Trim any excess foliage away to define the shape. Adding moss to your topiaries is another way to fill out the form quickly. Just be sure to keep the moss moist so it remains green

Choose the shape that suits your garden best and that you also have the bandwidth to care for. If you have never shaped a topiary before, globes are a great place to start. This is a very forgiving shape that does not require intense maintenance. 

Step 4: Get Trimming

Close-up of a man's hands pruning a boxwood bush using large pruning shears. The boxwood is a versatile evergreen shrub known for its dense, compact growth and small, elliptical leaves. Secateurs have two blades and two long red and black handles.
Begin trimming with taught twine or frame, then fine-tune gradually.

Now that you have everything gathered and prepared, you can begin trimming

  1. No matter what shape you are going with, the first thing you want to do is get your guide in place or set your frame. If your shape requires twine, such as with a spiral or cone, be sure the twine is taught. This is an important first step because once you begin cutting, it is difficult to correct. 
  2. Using loppers or hedge trimmers, begin by removing the largest of limbs. If you do not have thick branches, you can skip this step. This is a quick way to remove the bulk amount of growth. 
  3. Time to fine-tune. Slowly trim away small bits of your plant at a time. Rotate the plant and the frame to ensure an even shape. Cut away small bits, rather than large to make sure that the shape will be full and even. You can always go back and trim more later. 
  4. If you are using a frame, use orchid clips or garden velcro to encourage the stems to grow in the shape of your frame. 
  5. When you have finished your trimming, water your plants. All of the cuts you have just made have exposed a lot of plant tissue. This can cause water to escape the plant quicker than usual. These wounds will heal nicely, but in the meantime, try to keep your plant watered to ensure a healthy and happy plant. 

Step 5: Maintain the Shape

A male gardener trims a spiral topiary in the garden using an electric hedge trimmer. The electric hedge trimmer is a handheld gardening tool featuring a long blade with serrated edges, attached to a motorized handle. The gardener is wearing a white shirt, denim shirt, jeans, red gloves and safety glasses. There is a tall spiral topiary made from arborvitae.
Periodically touch up topiaries with snips for the desired shape.

Once your topiary has been a part of your garden for a while, you may need to do some touch-up prunings. Unless you are using a wire frame, you will need to shape or remove any new growth to maintain your desired shape. 

This is best done using smaller garden snips. You may be able to eyeball your shape and remove any growth that seems to be taking away from the shape. If you want your topiary to grow in size, you may need to live with some wonky growth for a bit until the rest of the plant fills out. 

The rate at which you will need to reshape your topiary will depend on what plant you are growing because every plant has a different growth rate. You will be the best judge of when you should be trimming because how your plant looks is completely up to you. You can keep your topiary nice and tight, or perhaps you like it with a little bit of unruly growth. To keep the shape nice and tight, trim more frequently. 

How to Use Topiaries in Your Garden

Rose-covered Cotswold cottage. This cottage has a romantic appearance with sandy yellow brick trim, white wooden frames on the windows and wooden doors. Soft pink roses climb along the walls. Boxwood topiaries of various shapes grow in a flower bed in front of the house.
Use topiaries creatively in containers, along walkways, or for privacy.

The first rule to using topiaries in your garden is to use them how you want to! That being said, there are some common ways to use these beautifully trimmed plants:

  • Containers by your doorway
  • Grouped or in a row along a walkway
  • As an anchor or specimen in a foundation garden or large perennial garden
  • Taller topiaries can be used as a privacy screen

The uses are truly endless. Grow your topiaries where you want, where the shape will serve your garden well. 

Final Thoughts

Topiaries can offer amazing structural character to your gardens. They do not need to be high maintenance, and oftentimes you can purchase plants that are already shaped from garden centers. This will only require you to maintain the shape as it grows.

If you are preparing to shape your topiary, taking the time to get set up before you begin trimming can make all of the difference.  Be patient with yourself. Be sure to measure twice and cut once!

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