When Your Pet Dog Is Really a Tree

Edward Scissorhands had a flair for it. So did the Egyptians. And the Romans.

The gardens of Versailles in France are a shining (green) example of this garden whimsy called topiary. And according to the American Horticultural Society, this ancient art of pruning and sculpting plants is making a comeback in both large public parks and home gardens.

In Maryland, 12 swans float atop a long, green hedge. A green giraffe, deer, and camel in reside in Rhode Island; a rhino and leopard in California. And a 30-foot-long caterpillar named Munchy lives in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Some of these garden sculptures tower more that 20 feet high.

One feels like Alice in Wonderland, shrinking.

In these public gardens, amid other leafy birds and beasts, gardeners clip a leg or snip an antler or shape a ragged nose all in a day's work. The click-click-click of the shears and the shower of branches, leaves, and needles reminds us that we are in a stationary but ever-growing menagerie.

To have successful topiary you have to consider the climate where you live.

"It's tough in New England," says Ann Gibbs, a Maine state horticulturist. Most topiary is grown in the warmer zones, where heavy snows can't crush a peacock's tail or dehorn a unicorn. "Northern gardeners should only use the hardiest plants like yews, and the shapes should be rounded or pointed on top so they won't collect heavy loads of snow and ice," advises Lewis Hill, author of "Pruning Simplified" (1979).

And don't fear the shears. If you can rearrange the furniture in your home, you can prune. "Try thinking of the outside of your house in the same way you think of its inside," the book advises. Hedges literally function as living, leafy walls. Shrubs are like furniture. Some are covered with blossoms and resemble the floral coverings on sofas and easy chairs.

Vines are natural substitutes for draperies, cascading down fences and walls.

Traditional topiary means snipping bushes into shapes - after waiting for them to grow anywhere from five to 20 years. Then one day that humdrum shrub is a peacock or a ballerina or a dolphin leaping out of the lawn. "It's a great delight when a bushy mess of whiskers turns into a svelte beard," says Mr. Hill.

Evergreens such as yew, boxwood, and holly are most often planted for topiary. They are the least harmed by those with the urge to overclip. Wary gardeners place a shapely metal skeleton over the plant to guide the cutting and then just clip away.

Cypress, arborvitae, and hemlock may also be used but fare better in warm climates.

Whatever you choose must have abundant dormant buds so new growth can continue from where you snip. And it's better that the plant have dense narrow leaves or needles to keep the leafy beast from looking woebegone as you wait.

Creating classic topiary, like bonsai, is an exercise in time and patience.

For faster (and more portable) results, you can start with hollow wire frames available at garden centers in a variety of animal and geometrical shapes. Sphagnum moss is stuffed into the frames, and ivy is then planted directly into the moss.

Once the vines grow to cover the surface of the frame, one just keeps it neatly groomed by snipping off tips. No flurry of flying twigs. Wire frames vary from table-size bunnies to herbaceous pachyderms, like the life-size topiary elephants at the San Diego Zoo, stuffed with olive trees and a built-in sprinkler system.

To learn the art you can take topiary classes. In the workshops at gardening centers in California, for example, aspiring topiarists learn to fashion birds and beasts out of small moss-filled wire forms, misting wings and feet, and calling their potted ducks "bush babies."

The ultimate in topiary design can be seen at the Deaf School Park in Columbus, Ohio, where the French Impressionist Georges Seurat's landscape painting "A Sunday on the Grande Jatte, 1884" is re-created in wire armature and greenery.

Fifty plant people, eight boats, three dogs, a monkey, and a cat - all of yew. It's where pruning and painting meet, and where you can walk into a canvas just by going downtown.

"A landscape of a painting of a landscape," the Columbus brochure calls it, "and the only topiary interpretation of a painting in existence." But the city also suggests that you visit between July and November, for in the winter, like all Northern topiary, "it can be a bit ragged in the wind."


Leading topiary gardens open to the public in the United States


Portsmouth, R.I.

(401) 683-1267


Kennett Square, Penn.

(610) 388-1000


Bronx, N.Y.

(718) 817-8700


near Towson, Md.

Deaf School Park

Columbus, Ohio

(614) 645-8100


San Diego, Calif.

(619) 231-1515


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