Shaping up for the holidays

The Baltimore Sun

Even if you're trying to economize this holiday, you don't have to give up greenery. For as little as $8, you can make a potted topiary plant that will not only enliven your holiday table this year, but in holidays to come.

"They're easy to care for and they last for years," says Steven Winterfeldt, a horticulturist at Jackson & Perkins, a nursery in Hodges, S.C.

Topiaries are living plants that have been trained into distinctive shapes, an art form that started with the Greeks and Romans. The ancient specimens were often big outdoor tableaux like the fox-and-hounds shrubbery that leap across the lawn at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton. Today, we enjoy smaller, more portable topiaries that can be easily shifted from front hall to TV room to sideboard and beyond, so they offer a variety of decorating options. Their distinctive shapes - spirals, wreaths, cones, balls and more - add a striking note to a room or entryway.

"They're a little bit formal, and they can be lightly decorated for the holidays," says Winterfeldt. "You can enjoy looking at it during Christmas, and afterward it can be undecorated and used for a table centerpiece."

Potted topiaries are made from a variety of plants - from hardy shrubs (dwarf pine, holly, boxwood, juniper) to vines (angel vine, ivy) to blooming tropicals (fragrant jasmine). If you purchase them from a garden center or catalog, expect to pay $20-$30 for tabletop topiaries such as rosemary trees; spirals and other fancier shapes can range from $40 to a couple of hundred dollars, depending on size and plant material.

Tropicals need to be inside at all times. Hardy shrub topiaries can be used either indoors or out, though it's important not to leave them indoors for too long in the winter.

"If they stay in the warmth too long, they break dormancy," says Cindy King, a horticulturist at Kingstown Farm, Home and Garden in Chestertown. "And then you put them out and the sap that has risen into the stems and needles will freeze.

"The plant will [then] keep its green for a few months, but it won't survive [for years]."

Hardy shrub topiaries can eventually be planted in the garden if you wish, though keeping them potted makes them more versatile.

"You can really change the feel through the year by changing your pot or container," says Kristine Schickenberg, owner of Schickenberg Nursery in Half Moon Bay, Calif., which specializes in topiaries.

Decorating a potted topiary plant for the holidays is easy and fun. Ribbons, little cookies, tiny lights, holiday ornaments, hemlock pine cones (which are almond-sized), origami and gumball-sized Christmas balls are only a few of the possibilities.

Tree-shaped topiaries are particularly fun for kids to decorate because the small scale lets them complete the job before they lose interest. You can also personalize the decorating with pictures of loved ones, drawings or handmade ornaments. Or you can go minimalist.

"Some people just put a big bow on top whose ends trail down the sides," says Schickenberg. "I've also seen little dried berries tucked in."

Some topiaries don't need adornment, which helps the holiday-harried to simplify the decorating portion of the season. For example, the only thing a fragrant, flower-laden jasmine wreath needs is a place of honor - a tabletop or mantelpiece.

Topiaries are easy to care for. "You treat them like a normal houseplant," says Winterfeldt. "Water them once a week, and give them a little water-soluble fertilizer once a month."

Most need bright but not direct sunlight. Keep soil moist but not sodden.

Letting the plants dry out between waterings will produce browned leaves, especially on evergreens and ivies. And bear in mind that many American homes are bone-dry in winter, so the plant will need to be spritzed occasionally.

"They love their leaves showered off," Schickenberg says.

Tropicals such as winter jasmine are happiest if they are in a pot set on top of a container of pebbles filled with water. To water tropicals, set them in the kitchen sink once a week and shower them until water comes out the bottom of the pot. Let the pot drain for a few moments before putting it back on its pebbles.

Specific cultural requirements should be listed on the topiaries' tag; if they aren't, ask about them. To maintain the topiaries' original shape, simply clip the plant back into submission periodically. Pruning promotes bushier growth.

"You can trim or tuck in the unruly little strands of the vines," says Schickenberg.

Topiaries of all stripes enjoy an annual summer sabbatical outdoors.

Hardy specimens should be kept chilly to keep them from breaking dormancy until spring, but they will need some wind protection and careful attention to their water needs.

Tropicals can go outside in late spring, once the weather is reliably warm and nighttime temperatures don't dip below 55 degrees. Bring them in again in September, or before the first frost.

how to make an ivy wreath topiary

1. : Get a pot of ivy. "The small-leafed varieties are best," says Kristine Schickenberg, "because the large-leafed ones overrun the frame."

2.: Either buy a wire frame (arts-and-crafts supply stores often carry a variety) or make your own.

3.: To make your own wire frame, use wire approximately as thick as a coat hanger. Draw a template on a piece of cardboard or a board.

4. : Fasten little tacks around the template to act as a guide around which to bend the wire. This will keep the circle from getting lopsided.

5. : Bend the wire around the tacks on the template. Be sure to create two sturdy prongs approximately half the height of the frame to stick in the ivy pot.

6.: Push the prongs firmly into the pot.

7. : Wind the ivy around the frame. Secure with twist ties, bows or string. Don't use bare wire; it will cut the vine. Continue to train the ivy until the frame is covered. Twist stray tendrils back into the topiary and secure, or clip them off.

sources for topiaries

Green Fields Nursery and Landscaping Co., : 5424 Falls Road (at West Northern Parkway), Baltimore, 410-323-3444,

Homestead Gardens: , 743 Central Ave., Davidsonville, 410-867-6336,

Watson's Garden Center,: 1620 York Road, Lutherville, 410-321-7300, 877-492-8766,

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