How to keep an indoor topiary alive

Topiaries are popular around the holidays, but they need regular watering and good light to keep them alive and looking good.

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When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision traditional greenery such as boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths, and fragrant firs or pine. But in recent years herbal ornamentals and topiaries have become bright new stars in the holiday decorating line-up.

Now that the holidays are around the corner, you’ll be seeing them everywhere from grocery stores to upscale catalogs. And it’s difficult to resist an ivy wreath or fragrant rosemary shaped like a mini Christmas tree . The problem is, not many of us can keep these appealing plants alive long enough to ring in the new year.

Many topiaries die of thirst

According to experts, topiaries and other ornamentals are quite often doomed from the moment they arrive in the mail or come home from the store. Problem is, they can dry out and begin dying before you even know there is a problem.

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When you receive your topiary, examine the first inch of soil to see if it is wet or dry. Better yet, pop the plant out of its pot and give the roots a close look. If they appear parched, water the plant thoroughly, then check daily to see if the surface of the soil is dry.

Most of these ornamentals need a drink at least every three days.

Ivy topiaries and other plants growing on frames stuffed with sphagnum moss also need to be watered regularly. In fact, if they are allowed to dry out to the point of wilting, the plants probably won’t bounce back.

Immerse a new, stuffed topiary in a tub or large bucket of water and hold it there until the water stops bubbling. Then move it to a waterproof spot until it stops dripping. Finally, place it on a piece of clear plastic where you want it to grow.

Topiaries growing on stuffed frames should be misted every day. And add a touch of diluted fertilizer to provide the nutrients that mosses lack.

It’s also a good idea to spray or mist regular topiaries weekly to spritz away dust, deter pests, and add extra humidity to a dry, indoor environment. Or give them a quick bath in the sink or tub.

Pay particular attention to the undersides of leaves, where spider mites gather to begin their dirty work. (Ivy is particularly susceptible to mites. Spray with an insecticidal soap to deter them.)

Location, location, location

You’ll also need to provide plants with the proper amount of light. Most topiaries, such as ivy, like fairly bright light, cool conditions, and good air circulation. East-, west-, and south-facing windows are all fine unless the sun is so strong it singes tender leaf tips.

Rosemary and lavenders crave bright light and will go downhill rapidly if stuck in a dark corner. Rosemary “trees” appreciate full sun, so make sure you have a suitable location before attempting to grow them. The foliage is very dense and without proper light, the tree will begin to rot.

If interior needles start turning gray or black, immediately trim the bad bits out and turn the damaged area towards the sun. Quick action just might save your rosemary from the trash pile.

Standards and trees should be moved one-quarter turn weekly to keep the shapes symmetrical. Feed every few weeks during the winter months with a diluted liquid fertilizer. And be sure to give regular haircuts when plants get scraggly, especially before stems get too woody to prune effectively.

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Lynn Hunt, the Rose Whisperer, is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's an accredited horticultural judge and a Consulting Rosarian Emeritus for the American Rose Society. She has won dozens of awards for her writing in newspapers, magazines, and television. She grows roses and other plants in her garden on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. To read more by Lynn, click here.You can also follow her on Twitter.

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