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Topiary plants are those which have been grown and pruned into a shape which is unnatural for that particular type of plant – globes, spirals, cones, and abstract shapes.
The most common varieties of plants used to create topiary are Box, Yew, Bay and Privet. Please keep in mind that, although these plants look ‘unnatural’, they are not artificial – they are living plants and need the same care and attention you would give any other plant.
Some points to consider when buying topiary:
- Whether the plant will stay in a pot or be planted in the ground.
- Where you intend to position the plant: exposed site, partial shade or full sun?
- How cold and/or windy the site is.
- The size of the plant in proportion to walls, doors or objects it is positioned near.
- How much clipping you are prepared to do.
- Site conditions, if planting.
Topiary plant species are all hardy (to varying degrees) in the british climate. Some varieties, such as Box and Bay, can be susceptible to frost damage and, if in pots, should be moved to a more sheltered position during particularly wet, cold or frost-prone periods. Italian Cypress is not always reliably hardy, especially if planted in very exposed sites.
How well specimens cope with their position depends on the plant variety. The hardier plants such as Privet (Ligustrum) are fine in colder aspects (north or east facing) but Box, Yew, Bay and the conifers ideally need a sunnier position protected from cold, drying winds.They should not be placed too close to a wall or building as this may result in the back of the plant dying from lack of light or poor air circulation around the head.
It is not advisable to keep topiary in a conservatory as it is often too hot for them and they are more prone to pest attacks in close conditions where the ventilation is poor. Topiary can be planted straight into the ground or kept in pots for adorning patios, decks, doorways, etc.
Planting and Aftercare
Prepare the site thoroughly, adding good quality compost and grit, or a grit and sand mix if necessary to lighten heavy soil and aid drainage.
In the first year keep the plants uniformly moist but never waterlogged. Remember that most topiary is evergreen and may need watering throughout the year, including winter and summer, and especially if the specimen is being kept in a pot or container.
Conifers prefer to be kept slightly on the dry side. Feeding with a slow-release plant food such as Osmocote during the growing season is recommended.
If you are intending on keeping your topiary in a pot, transfer the plant to a pot that is 1.5 to 2 times larger than its root ball and fill with good-quality, free-draining compost. Elevate pots to ensure that excess water drains away completely.
Plants will probably need re-potting every 2 to 3 years. If not, the the compost will run out of nutrients and the plant will suffer. Keep the area around the base weed-free and feed fortnightly with a general purpose plant food during the growing season. Clip during the growing season to maintain the desired shape.
You will normally have to start clipping your topiary in May or June, when the plant begins to grow again after their winter rest. If you don’t mind them looking a little shaggy it may be best to leave the first prune until a little later, just to be sure of eliminating any likelihood of a late frost. Clipped branches exposed to extremes of cold can be damaged, especially in the case of the more tender plants such as Box. The foliage will need pruning several times during the growing season to keep a compact shape.
Single-handed topiary sheers are perfect for conifers and small-leaved varieties. A pair of sharp secateurs is more useful for large-leaved varieties like Photinia and Bay which often look mutilated if trimmed by shears. If the plants are pruned to maintain their shape they won’t grow any taller but the girth will increase.
Pests or Diseases
Topiary does not tend to suffer from more pest and disease problems than any other plant forms. They do need good drainage if planted in the garden, and waterlogged conditions can make them more prone to fungal diseases such as die-back and phytophthora. They can also suffer from attacks by sap-feeding insects such as aphids, red spider mite and scale insects.
As with any other type of plant, keeping them healthy and weed-free will increase their resistance to attacks by pests and diseases. If kept in pots or containers topiary plants can become prone to additional problems if they are stressed, either by under or over watering and lack of nutrients etc.
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