BOXWOODS clipped into spirals resembling soft-serve ice cream. Yews shorn into elephants and peacocks. A verdant Mickey Mouse waving hello in Orlando. Topiary, the unnatural shaping of shrubs through assiduous pruning, is not exactly in step with prevailing horticultural philosophy, which values native species, informality, and minimal human intervention.
But contemporary floral stylists offer a bridge between the rigid ancient technique and today’s less-formal approach to plants, making topiary an ideal bit of green to get you through the winter, no matter how casual your décor.
Tight-leafed evergreens traditionally supply the raw material for scissor-wielding sculptors. But Molly Wood, a landscape designer who also owns a garden shop in Costa Mesa, Calif., experiments with plants such as geraniums, lavenders and rosemary to create a less-dense take on the classic lollipop shape, known as a standard. “I wanted a plant that’s looser, more natural.” She adds yellow reindeer moss or crushed coral around the plant’s base for texture and contrast. Handmade clay containers, like those from Double M Pottery (photo at right), lend warmth and originality. “Sometimes, I go a bit quirky, a little Alice in Wonderland,” she added. “I took an old funky jade succulent, a real grandma houseplant, and pruned off the side shoots to make it into a three-foot-tall, round tomato shape on a fat green stem.”
Denise Fasanello, a New York florist, interprets topiary even more loosely, winding button ferns or creeping fig around a round, metal armature to create a leafy, obstreperous ball. “I wanted to break up that standard lollipop shape and make it wilder, more forestlike,” she said, “because isn’t that what you crave in an apartment?” She adds moss or pebbles, and maybe a bit of twine as the underdressing because “it nudges the idea of being in nature a bit further.” To create a dramatic tablescape, Ms. Fasanello plants three topiaries of different heights in a low ceramic bowl and places it atop a wooden slab. “It’s a good option for clients who are tired of standard houseplants.”
Garden designer Desiree Lee learned topiary at the 4,000-acre Oak Spring Farm of Bunny Mellon, the late American heiress and horticulturist credited with popularizing the form in the U.S. in the 1960s. “We had one greenhouse just for ’topes, where I learned to stretch and shape a plant into that tall shape with a ball at the top,” said Ms. Lee, who’s based in Upperville, Va. Anything that will create a woody stem works, she said: scented geranium, thyme, heliotrope, fuchsia. Pick a young plant with a strong main stem, pot it and attach it to a stake with twist-ties so that it grows straight and tall. Then remove bottom stems and start to clip the top part every couple of weeks so it begins to assume a frowzy globed shape. Vining plants like ivies and some ferns, which don’t feature a woody stalk, can be wound up a support and then trained in a round wire plant armature, available at any craft store. When you strip the leaves of the vine around the supporting pole, what’s left resembles a stem.
Experiment with a sturdily stalked plant first. “Just pot it up and start training the lead stem,” said Ms. Lee. “You can really try making ’topes with almost anything that won’t bend under the weight at the top. Try it. See what will happen. We’ve all done that.”