The Makings of a Topiary
A standard is a form of topiary, says garden designer Linda Plato of Kirkland, Wash. "It's the training of a plant into an upright form. Think of a lollipop, a little ball on a stick."
Almost any plant can be trained as a standard — annuals, perennials, shrubs, herbs. "I love the whimsy of topiary, and I love the structure that standards provide," says Plato. "It's fun to have dozens of them throughout the garden: deciduous forms, evergreen forms, herbs in the kitchen."
To buy these standards in the store, you'd probably pay big bucks. But while standards do take time to grow and shape, they're easy and inexpensive to make. "You can get a four-inch herb start for about 79 cents. Then get a thick twig from your garden, put it in the pot with the herb, tie it up with a piece of string and you're off and running."
Creating a Topiary
Step one is staking — select a stem to become the framework for the plant. "The important thing about staking is making sure the stake is as close to that strong central leader as possible," she says. "You want it right up against the plant."
Secure stem to stake using biodegradable string. This way you can throw the whole thing on the compost heap later. "In any kind of staking, you want to do what I call a figure-eight knot," she says. A figure-eight keeps the plant from rubbing against the stake.
A snug tie holds the central leader straight. "I like to make three of these ties, because that way my stake and my leader are connected very firmly, and there's no chance of that leader going anywhere but straight up," says Plato.
After tying the bottom, middle and top, grab the pruners. The next step in creating a standard is to decide what material to remove from the plant — this is the point at which you actually shape the topiary. The traditional formula for a one-ball standard is dividing everything into thirds, with the pot being the bottom third. Plato uses the height of the pot as a guide for how much foliage to take away. Making clean cuts, remove all foliage between the soil and where you want the ball to begin. Remember, each cut below stimulates new growth above.
Now it's time to form the lollipop. Once you've staked, tied and clipped, the next step is to do the shaping. Envision a basketball and rotate the pot as you pinch or prune the plant into shape. Pinching back many plants like coleus results in fuller growth. Step back periodically to check the roundness. Don't forget to examine all sides of the topiary for symmetry and shape.
If you're unsure about doing your own topiary standard, consider using a frame. For example, Plato uses a small frame for golden thyme because it won't get much taller than 18 inches. Tie long stems to the frame. Pinch them back to encourage new growth that will fill in the framework. For bigger plants, try bigger frames or multiple balls for an interesting effect.
Any standard — one ball or several — needs pruning every month or so. For bigger plants, this is made easier with some tools. Plato uses a small, rechargeable electric hedge trimmer with changeable blades — bigger blades for woody plants and smaller blades for more green, succulent growth. Established plants will continue to grow bigger and bushier as they are trimmed.
For a tender, non-hardy topiary, during the winter, place the standard on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse where you can snip and shape it once a month. Water and fertilize the plant throughout the winter. By spring you should have a nice full standard for the patio.
If your garden needs a makeover, consider a little nip and tuck. Topiary, the pruning of plants into specific shapes, can be a time-consuming and labor-intensive facelift. But with a well-rounded approach, one form of topiary can be fun, easy and elegant.