Basic topiary from Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk. Photo courtesy of Snug Harbor Farm

When I heard that Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk is holding a topiary class next weekend, my mind immediately went to the fabulous animal-shaped creations at Cypress Gardens I saw when my parents took the family to Florida in the 1950s.

The topiaries that students will create in the now sold-out class are much smaller and should be brought inside during the winter in order to survive the cold. Also, they won’t be making animals but will learn simpler shapes like spirals, hedges, cones and loose mounds on top of long stems.

Broadly speaking, topiary is the trimming and training of plants into decorative, artificial, sometimes whimsical shapes. Topiarists often practice their craft outdoors with evergreen trees and shrubs, such as boxwood and yew, or with evergreen perennial herbs.

Spiral-shaped topiary at Snug Harbor Farm. Photo by Tom Atwell

It’s a very old art. In his history, Pliny credits a member of Julius Caesar’s inner circle with inventing the form. It was revived in the 16th century in the terraces of cottage gardens. Cloud pruning, which has been done for centuries in Japanese gardens, is also a type of topiary. Topiary pruning creates a kind of living art that shows the gardener’s mastery over nature.

“What we teach people is how to prune and cut the plants into topiaries, as well and about the maintenance, light and water that are needed,” said Meghan Farrell, a Snug Harbor employee and one of the instructors.

Most of the plants Snug Harbor uses in topiaries for its classes are herbs and perennials such as lavender, crepe myrtle, scented geranium, curry-leaf plant, santalina and helichrysum.


Nikki Lemoine of Snug Harbor Farm holds a box of hedge topiary, Photo by Tom Atwell

One of the examples I liked best during a Snug Harbor tour, conducted by greenhouse manager and instructor Nikki Lemoine, was a coleus plant that had been turned into a topiary. It had a delicate stem rising more than a foot above the pot, supported by a bamboo stake, with foliage and some blossoms at the top. (Most of the potted topiaries require stakes, with the stems of the plant clipped to them to hold them up.)

My wife Nancy and I grow coleus throughout our perennial gardens, and we love them for their colorful leaves and their spiky but dainty blossoms. While coleus aren’t hardy in Maine, they do self-seed regularly in our vegetable garden. When I mentioned to Lemoine how much I liked the coleus, she said topiaries can also be made with begonias.

If you create your own topiary or buy one created by Snug Harbor – or anyone else, for that matter – the work doesn’t end there. They are high-maintenance projects. Like bonsai, they should be kept about the same size as time goes on. That requires a lot of delicate trimming, not only of the leaves and branches, but also the roots.

You can tell that a topiary is getting root-bound when it requires almost constant watering. To show me, LeMoine pulled one topiary out of its pot. The root ball held the shape of its pot, a sure sign it will need to be cut and trimmed.

Once we left the greenhouses, I got to see some topiaries that the staff created and are for sale at the nursery, in terra cotta pots designed by Snug Harbor, for prices ranging from $65 to $125. These topiary are mostly too large and complicated to be done in a single afternoon.

A dappled willow, or Salix integra, pruned into a relaxed topiary shape at Snug Harbor Farm. Photo by Tom Atwell

My favorite was a dappled willow, Salix integra, that is a Zone 4 shade-tolerant tree with pink flowers and leaves that are white, pink and green. The foliage and flowers had been trimmed into a buoyant pom-pom shape atop a thin trunk.

One interesting creation – I am not sure it is a topiary but I’d say it’s in the same creative family – was an espaliered apple tree that grows four varieties of apples on a single tree. The branches are trained to grow on a free-standing frame. I’ve seen espaliered apples before, but I saw them on the south wall of a barn rather than a tree growing without support. Personally, I don’t plan to try anything so complicated in my own garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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