The leafy art of shaping flora into fauna

Plants resembling animals and other sorts of objects? Unnatural? Maybe, but fun just the same.

In fact, some topiary creatures seem so lifelike that people have been known to talk to them and even try to hug them - then laugh at themselves for embracing an armful of leaves.

The ancient art of training and trimming trees, shrubs, and ivies into unusual forms dates back to the 1st century AD. It's said to have been invented by a friend of the ancient Roman emperor Augustus, but may well have simply evolved through the efforts and imaginations of innumerable gardeners over the years. Dogs, pigs, peacocks, elephants - and even chairs, fountains, and sundials - were duplicated with greenery in those early gardens.

Topiary reached the height of its popularity during the 18th century. It was most common in areas where money was no object and native stone for sculpting was rare. The stately homes of England and the Netherlands were often graced with this art of the ``tree barber.''

Today, topiary creatures are popping up in unexpected places. Motels and office buildings rival Disneyland's famous plant menagerie. A California shopping mall spells its initials out in shrubbery. And hedge horses adorn a local racetrack.

One person responsible for bringing topiary to homes and offices is Douglas Pierce Hiatt. He's a well-known designer whose efforts have enriched the properties of Loretta Swit, Farrah Fawcett, and many other Hollywood personalities.

Mr. Hiatt's interest in gardening leads him to assume an overall environmental view of each job he undertakes, which includes landscaping and outdoor lighting. More often than not - because he likes them personally - his view calls for at least one topiary figure. For Loretta Swit, there was a topiary dog. For singer Michael Jackson a whole ``zoo'' of giraffes, teddy bear, fox, rabbit, and a little mouse.

Doug recalls with amusement his first effort at creating topiary strictly for himself. ``I did a little drawing of a seal balancing a ball on its nose, then took chicken wire and started bending it.''

He's also chosen a nursery plant for its resemblance to some specific animal, and refined it by trimming into that shape.

Now, Hiatt feels he's perfected an effective method, using welded steel frames wrapped in wire. Consulting with a client to learn of personal preference, he draws up a design for a topiary figure, then works with an artist who helps to build the frame.

The plant is then attached to the frame for guidance in growing. It can be rooted directly into the ground or into a pot that will allow it to be moved in- or out-of-doors.

He once made a large teddy bear topiary and took it indoors to decorate instead of a traditional Christmas tree. For a client he created a special glassed-in dining room area as a setting for a topiary animal. He cautions that when one does place a topiary ornament indoors, it's important to remember that it is a living plant and requires care.

And it's best, he insists, that such plants remain outside and be rooted into the ground whenever possible. When they are, he encases a steel rod into cement and welds the frame to it as protection from strong winds.

As for trimming to keep the desired shape, Hiatt says that it's a pretty simple matter if one will follow the form, allowing about two inches of growth outside the steel. This is necessary about every six weeks to two months.

Topiary figures aren't cheap. The cost - largely owing to the expense of the steel - runs from about $500 to $5,000, or even $10,000, depending on the size and style of the figure.

Plants used range from Eugenia compacta to Texas privet and boxwood. Hiatt sometimes uses ivy or moss laced with small plants instead, or adds flowering plants for accent colors. Seeing a topiary grow to its completion can take from six months to a year.

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