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Topiary on the table Plants: Pruned and shaped, these small 'trees' lend an air of elegance to the holiday home.


This time of year, I look at the artfully decorated rooms in magazines, and I want them. Handmade garlands of bittersweet and Russian olive around doorways, kissing balls of boxwood and strung cranberries at the entryway, sprigs of holly in windows held by a dollop of beeswax. I want it all. But the realities of time preclude it. Fortunately, there's tabletop topiary.

Topiary, the art of pruning a plant into a geometric or whimsical ornamental shape, has been practiced by horticulturists and amateurs alike since Roman times. The world-famous jardin d'ornament at Chateau de Villandry in France is punctuated with precision-cut bushes that look a little like "Alice in Wonderland" characters. Closer to home, Ladew Gardens holds fine examples of topiary.

On a smaller, non-chateau scale, tabletop topiaries can add instant elegance to even the most humble home. Whether it's a tree-shaped variegated ivy spangled with tiny lights, a rosemary wreath on a windowsill, or a miniature rose topiary that enhances the table without obstructing the view of your scintillating dinner guests, topiaries make easy, long-lived, and beautiful decorative focal points. Additionally, you can satisfy creative urges by trimming them with anything from cranberries and kumquats stuck on toothpicks to shiny little balls, ribbons, dried or fresh flowers, or tiny origami cranes.

"We decorate a few [topiaries] here with ... gold and silver garlands," says Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms. "We have a whole area called 'Tiny Trims' in our Christmas shop."

Most herb farms and greenhouses sell tabletop topiaries. St. John's Herb Farm in Bowie sells topiaries of boxwood, myrtle and juniper, among others. Valley View Farms carries ivy, rosemary, lavender and myrtle topiaries.

"We've also seen a huge growth in containers with flowers that have the topiary look," says Engel. "We have two-tiered potted plants with poinsettias, ivy and cyclamen that give the same effect."

Topiary can be grown from many plants. For example, White Flower Farm sells a dark pink azalea ($68) topiary and a rosemary standard ($32). Shrubby herbs like rosemary, thyme, bay and hyssop make great topiaries. So do vining plants like ivy, honeysuckle, jasmine and wisteria. Smith & Hawken sells ready-made topiaries that range from an ivy-covered candelabra with three glass votives to tree-shapes, lyre-shapes and wreaths ($12-49).

Growing Your Own

You can buy ready-made topiary, or you can grow your own. It's not hard, and if you start now, by next year's holidays you will have a semi-creditable specimen with which to amaze your family and friends. In two years, it should be lush.

For vining and some shrubby topiaries, it's easiest to start with a ready-made form. Smith & Hawken carries several wire topiary forms: an obelisk ($10), three sizes of globe ($10, $12 and $16), which train a topiary standard, and a 24-inch cone ($10). They also carry two sizes of what they call a "wobbler," (3 feet or 5 feet tall), which guides a spiral topiary. Eastridge Garden in Centreville also sells forms.

The key to shrubby topiary is judicious clipping.

"With small plants like dwarf box, shaping begins when the plant has reached its desired height," says Lesley Bremness in her book, "Fragrant Herbals" (Bullfinch Press, 1998). "A wire net of the desired shape is placed over the plant and anything growing outside the shape is removed."

In "Fragrant Herbals," Bremness also gives a good description of how to cultivate a bay leaf topiary standard whose lollipop-like ball is formed by removing lower side branches as the plant grows in order to cultivate a single central stem. Clipping the ball into shape begins after the plant grows to six inches above the desired finished height. For vining plants, training requires coaxing new growth onto and around the form, then clipping the wild tendrils that detract from the shape.

To begin, push the form up to its rim into a pot filled with room-temperature garden soil or potting soil mixed with a little compost. Plant two or three plants - ivy is easy to cultivate, whereas rosemary is a little fussier - evenly spaced around the bottom of the form. Ivies like a cool, light room out of direct sunlight, and damp but not wet soil. As new growth reaches out for support, tuck it up and around the form. Trim dead leaves.

Last year, I bought two Eiffel Tower-like forms at Smith & Hawken and started variegated ivy topiaries. This year, they're proud hearth sentinels decked with ornaments. It looks just like the magazines.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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