One of the oldest forms of sculpture, the art of topiary historically involves meticulous pruning and shaping of plants over years to create three dimensional masterpieces. Today, creating your own topiaries at home may be easier than you think. Using succulents and some imagination, you too can create your own topiary, but in hours rather than years. DIY succulent topiary is easy to make by following these steps for preparation and planting.
Succulents are a great starter plant for a project like this; they are easy to propagate, need very little care, and most have compact growth habits that work really well for keeping a tight form. The basic steps involved in this process are 1) preparing plants, 2) filling the frame with a growing media, 3) planting and finally, 4) maintenance and care.
As noted earlier, succulents are great plants for your first topiary creation. Try to collect or purchase plants that are compact in form so that they maintain the desired shape of your object rather than growing tall and distorting the form. You can collect cuttings from a generous friend or purchase cuttings directly from a supplier. If you are purchasing potted plants, go ahead and clip off your stems for the topiary but keep the pots, most of these will regrow quickly to a very full plant. As you prepare your cuttings simply remove the lower leaves from approximately one inch of stem, this will be the part that goes in the frame. It will help to collect the plants a few days before planting your topiary so that these new wounds can callous over.
Choosing a Frame
The key qualities desired for a frame are sturdiness and an ample amount of space to plant cuttings. If your topiary is going to stand on its own it will need to have a heavy or wide base to support the weight of the plants and planting media. Shapes can range from a very formal sphere to a decorative type of wire chicken or a simple cone for a tree topiary. A visit to your local hobby store will give you a wide variety of ideas and possibilities.
The example here shows a bookend-type of sphere with a decorative finial on top. The heavy base works well to support the weight of the ball when planted. Don’t worry about the spacing between supports because you can always add wire to help hold in your moss for the “stuffing” of your topiary. If the spacing is mesh-like and too small to easily fill, take privilege with a pair of wire snips to open things up. You will be filling the frame very tightly with sphagnum moss and it is important to get it very solid into all corners and spaces to be planted.
Prepping Your Topiary Frame
Your supplies for this process are going to be very simple: long fibered sphagnum moss, monofilament (fishing line), gloves and perhaps a light floral wire. Sphagnum moss works very well for topiaries because it holds water well, is easy to compact and at the same time will also expand to help hold cuttings and small plants in place until they root.
Soak the sphagnum moss in a bucket of water until it is fully saturated. Wear gloves when handling the sphagnum moss to fill your frame. If the spaces in your form are too wide to keep the moss in, simply use a light floral wire to create a netting that will help keep the moss in firm. You will be packing the form very tight and it will be helpful to have a strong form to push against. As you put in small amounts of sphagnum at a time, continue to push it in so that the form ends up being almost hard to the touch. If you can push your finger in and make an indent then you definitely need to pack it tighter.
Don’t worry about extra pieces of moss hanging out or an untidy look as this next and final step of preparation will make it look like a store bought topiary. You will use your fishing line to tightly wrap the frame over and over until all of the small pieces are pulled in. The fishing line will not show in the final product so make sure to wrap the frame very liberally—you really can’t overdo it here!
This is the rewarding part of the process. Planting your cuttings in the prepared frame is as simple as using a pen or pencil to make a hole in the sphagnum moss. The moss should be tough to poke the pen into, so move quickly to push your succulent stem into this opening after the pen is removed. The opening will stay visible for a few seconds before the moss starts to tighten back in around the stem and hold it in place.
Work with your largest cuttings first and then finish with the smaller ones. Using an assortment of different plants will add color and texture to your topiary while a more formal look can be achieved by using a single variety for the entire frame. Your succulents should be rooted in two to three weeks. Keep the frame in a bright area and resist the temptation to water often. As the sphagnum moss starts to dry out it will turn lighter in color as an indicator to you that it is time to water the form.
Your succulent topiary will grow and spaces will fill in over the next couple of months. Most topiary forms with succulents will need to be watered once a week. For best results shower your frame with water for several minutes until the moss is fully saturated. A light application of water soluble fertilizer every other month will keep your plants healthy. If your topiary starts to look a little “unruly” as plants begin to grow, simply take a pair of pruners and cut back any long plants. These will soon regrow and the pieces that you cut off can fill in gaps or be the start to your next project.
Gathering the correct supplies, choosing the right plants and minimal maintenance can create a showpiece for your garden or patio. This project will get you started thinking about all the new ways you can use these versatile plants and how to repurpose household items into planted forms. The topiary process that may have taken years for horticulturists to achieve can be yours with a few simple steps.