Topiary is living sculpture — plants pruned into fanciful shapes such as animals or geometrical forms. Topiary can be a garden focal point and a conversation piece; however, it demands skillful pruning and constant care.
Although many trees and shrubs can be pruned into topiaries, fine-textured evergreens such as boxwood and yew are the most versatile. When using larger or coarser plants, stick to simple geometrical forms. Begin with a small, full, and dense plant. As with a hedge, shear frequently to confine and direct growth into a definite pattern.
Creating a topiary takes years of patient pruning and shearing. A double-ball shape, for example, will take 5 years if sculpted from holly or privet, and 10 years from yew. Expect to wait twice as long to create an animal or bird shape.
The double-ball or poodle is an easy topiary for a beginner. After shearing to form the lower ball, select several strong central branches and let them grow at least 2 feet above the first ball. Keep the straightest, most promising branch and remove the others. Strip the foliage from the bottom 12 inches of the emerging branch to form the stem that separates the two balls. Begin to shape the other 12 inches of growth into a second ball by heading it back to force side branches to form, and then shear the tips of these into a ball shape.