How to get started doing topiary? The person to ask is obvious to all who live in greater New Paltz. It’s the garden designer, horticulturist, nurseryman, and environmental artist Keith Buesing. He’s the one who did the iconic stegosaurus (aka dragon) in Gardiner at Ireland Corners. In New Paltz, he’s the artist behind the heart in the town’s welcome garden, the praying yogi outside the Living Seed Yoga Studio, and a whole garden of topiary outside The Bakery.
Buesing has practiced topiary for about 20 years, starting with shaping a rooster out of hemlock at his parents’ plant nursery in Rockland County. Before we query Buesing, here’s a super brief horticulture lesson.
Why does repeated clipping make shrubs develop thick, recognizable shapes? The actively growing apexes (tips) of shoots and branches are hormonally dominant until you cut them off. When you do that, hormones are cued to “release” side shoots. You have “broken apical dominance” and energy is simply diverted from the tip to the sides. Over time, the side growth gets bushier and more defined, and thus your intended topiary shape gets more defined.
Also it’s helpful to know that in the Hudson Valley, shoot elongation on shrubs ends around early August. So when you prune in March through July, you’re going to see new growth in the same season. But if you prune after July, you won’t see a lot of action until the next spring. What plants are the easiest for beginners to learn topiary on?
Pretty much any plant will work if the conditions are right. Generally, though, you avoid coarsely branched, big-leaf shrubs like rhododendrons in favor of shrubs with smaller leaves and finer branching. Boxwood is my number one go-to. It’s deer resistant, evergreen, and takes a certain amount of shade. There’s a common misconception that boxwood is slow growing, but there are some varieties, like Winter Gem, that grow pretty quickly. I also like Green Mountain boxwood and the variety called Winter Green. You can use a string of planted boxwood to create something interesting [like a reclining womanly figure at Buesing’s place]. By using a series of plants (rather than one big one) to compose your topiary, you are able to readily swap out individual plants if one shrub dies or has major damage.
Burning bush is another great shrub for beginners. You can shape it into a heart, and then in the fall when it colors up, you’ve got a red heart. Yews are great for topiary but you have to plant them only where deer aren’t prevalent, like in busy towns or where there’s extensive deer fencing. I also like arborvitae (but again, beware the deer) and different types of junipers. The Hetzi juniper grows nice and fast, as does the one called Sea Green. These cultivars put on a good foot of growth a year, which is significant for a juniper. Mercifully, the deer don’t bother junipers.
I also recommend trying out the barberries—greens, reds, and bright yellows. They’re not evergreens, but they grow very fast and they get very thick from trimming. I also like to work with viburnums, spireas, and forsythia. The forsythia is neat because you get a shape that is flaming yellow in spring, then the leaves are a pretty green in the summer, then the plant has some underappreciated burgundy fall color. How do you know which individual shrub at the nursery to pick out?
It depends on what your goal shape is. I did an arborvitae topiary for the Living Seed Yoga Studio and we decided on a person standing with hands in prayer position. I knew the basic shape so I went to the nursery and looked through arborvitaes to find that one that had thick growth up top for the head and shoulders and had a little extra material in front that I knew I could use to make hands. If you pick well, the general silhouette can come out right away. In this case, after one growing season you got the idea that it was a person standing there, and now you can really see the arms and hands. How often do you have to trim topiary to maintain their shape, and what tools do you use?
It depends on how fast growing they are; boxwoods I visit twice a year, in June and then August. Other things that are fast growing like a Rosy Glow barberry I might trim three or four times a year. The stegosaurus/dragon at Ireland Corners I trim once a year after it fluffs out with new growth in mid to late June. It’s composed of yews for the body, blue junipers for the feet, and golden arborvitae for the “fins.” About 95 percent of the time, I use hand shears, as they give me way more control and allow me to do finer work than do gas-powered hedge shears. What’s the most common frustration new topiarists report?
Commonly, the topiary is not happening as quickly as people might hope, depending on how elaborate the design is. A common misconception is that you walk up to a plant and just shape it immediately like you would a piece of wood—one time and you’re done. In fact, you’re going to revisit this plant numerous times to get it into the shape you want, and you always will.
Even in my own experience, I frequently find that when I go back to a shrub that’s got all this new growth, I think, “This isn’t that great.” It’s like a picture that’s out of focus and I’m not that psyched about it. But then I trim it up and stand back and say, “Oh, yeah. This is actually something awesome.” So some patience and perspective are helpful. Any other tips for the topiarian-minded?
You have to work with the growth habit of the plants. Don’t try to make something tall out of boxwood because that would take a long time, but something prostrate, like lizards or people lying on the ground—you can build that out of a number of boxwood plants very quickly, almost instantaneously. So think low-profile when you are getting started.
Let shapes suggest themselves based on new growth, and let the creatures morph over time. For instance, the “dragon” in Ireland Corners started out as a basic traditional crocodile. But every year, eight or 10 inches of new growth would come out on it. So, for instance, on the tail, I used that new growth to make spikes, and in the mouth, I used the fluffy growth to make teeth. The last thing to develop on that was a forked tongue that came to me when I was contemplating new growth coming out of the creature’s mouth. Try not to impose your will too much, but rather, be open to suggestion.
You don’t need special training. Just look at pictures for inspiration and go out and do it. If you make a mistake, most shrubs will grow back, and you’ll get to try again.
Coral Acres/Keith Buesing Topiary, Landscape Design, and Rock Art. (845) 255-6634. Cornell Living Sculpture