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Unusual Topiaries

Martha Stewart Living Television

Nurseryman Ken Selody works with many plants to create original topiaries at Atlock Farm, his nursery in Somerset, New Jersey. The word topiary, derived from the Latin word topiarus, means ornamental gardening. The Romans liked to create topiaries in the form of animals, obelisks, and ships; the English are renowned for their life-size topiaries of people and settings.

Ken prefers to sculpt small-scale topiaries into classic shapes such as standards, which resemble miniature trees and have straight bare trunks topped with a sculpted ball of leaves. He demonstrates how to arrange three standards and shape them into a miniature hedge. He also shows Martha how to create an unusual decorative planter using Alternanthera.

Topiaries usually are made from plants such as ivy, holly, santolina, boxwood, yew, and myrtle. But you can create a topiary from just about any perennial that develops a woody stem. Some of Ken's favorite plants for topiary include Christmas cherry (Eugenia), Marguerite daisy (Dendranthema coreanum), Red Shield hibiscus, and colorful varieties of coleus (Solenostemon scutellariodes) such as Kiwi Fern, Mars, and Saturn.

You can create your own standards using a variety of healthy young plants, or purchase established plants from garden centers and prune them to the desired shape.

Coleus Standard
Tools and Materials

  • Potted coleus, at least 1-foot tall
  • Garden shears or scissors
  • Garden stake
  • Soaked raffia or twine
  • Liquid fertilizer or time-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote
  • Moss (optional)

Coleus Standard How-To
1. Remove the lower branches from a bushy coleus plant to make a clean trunk up to the point where you want the leaf ball to begin.

2. Working carefully from the bottom up, sculpt the ball by trimming the leaves at a distance of 1 to 2 leaf nodes from the trunk; this will promote fullness and healthy growth. Step back and assess the progress of the shape before beginning another side. Trim slowly and deliberately, until the form is clean and well defined.

3. Carefully shape the top of the topiary, taking care not to prune the terminal bud unless the plant has reached its desired height; the terminal bud is the spot from which the plant grows vertically.

4. Finally, prune any leaf nodes that are distracting to the eye. Carefully insert a wooden stake into the pot to support the topiary, and tie the trunk to a wooden stake with the soaked raffia. Cover the topsoil with moss, if desired. Fertilize and water well.

5. As the standard grows, sculpt new growth. Keep moist and feed with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, as necessary.

Christmas Cherry Hedge
Tools and Materials

  • Rectangular planter
  • Ceramic pot shards
  • Potting mix
  • 3 potted Christmas Cherry (Eugenia) standards, sculpted according to instructions above or purchased from a garden center
  • Garden stake
  • Garden shears or scissors
  • Soaked raffia or twine
  • Liquid fertilizer or time-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote

Christmas Cherry Hedge How-To
1. Partially cover the drainage holes of a rectangular planter with pot shards. Sprinkle a layer of potting mix in the bottom of the planter (enough so topiaries will sit at the same heights as they did in former pots). Remove Christmas Cherry standards from their pots, and loosen roots if necessary.

2. Arrange standards in planter so the bases are level and stems align along the central axis. Fill in any pockets between each standard's root ball with potting soil. Pack the soil snugly to eliminate air pockets and ensure stability. Secure each trunk to a garden stake with soaked raffia.

3. Sculpt growth into boxy vertical hedge by snipping off individual leaf nodes or carefully trimming with scissors. Carefully shape the top of the topiary, taking care not to prune terminal buds unless the plant has reached its desired height; terminal buds allows the plant to grow vertically. Fertilize and water well.

4. As the hedge grows, sculpt new growth. Keep moist, and feed with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, as necessary.

Alternanthera Topiary Planter
Tools and Materials

  • A terra-cotta pot that fits comfortably within the planter, and leaves 2 to 4 inches of open space between the two containers.
  • Round terra-cotta pot, the same height as the planter
  • Large square planter (4 to 8 inches larger in diameter than the round terra-cotta pot)
  • Potting soil
  • Young plants of Alternanthera

Alternanthera Topiary Planter How-To
1. Set terra-cotta pot in the center of the planter. Fill area between the pot and the planter with potting soil.

2. Plant with Alternanthera; fertilize and water well. Display topiary or floral arrangements by setting them in the terra-cotta pot liner.

Plants are available from local nurseries and garden catalogs; tools and materials are available at home-improvement stores.

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