Once upon a time, European Renaissance gardeners spent months upon months carefully pruning and shaping foliage into the geometric shapes, swirling spirals and life-size animals of traditional topiary. Good thing times have changed.
Modern-day topiary, which tends to make its graceful appearance around the holiday season, is much less demanding, requiring only regular watering and an occasional trim.
"A lot of people shy away from topiary because they think they're intensive, meaning they require a lot of work," says Sunny Wright, the greenhouse manager at Strange's Garden Center."But they're actually fairly low-maintenance. Whether it be for fun indoor gardening or elegant appeal, topiary is a good choice around the holidays."
The most common indoor topiaries, often called "tabletop topiaries" are fashioned from English ivy, which can be found in the shape of cones, squares, wreaths and hanging balls, and rosemary, which is often pruned into the pyramid-like shape of a miniature Christmas tree. Topiaries are also crafted from angel vine, a borderline hardy vine that boasts tiny leaves with wiry burgundy stems.
"Angel vine makes a lovely topiary form because with small leaves, you get better definition on the form," says Margot Gunn, the tropical buyer at Great Big Greenhouse. "It grows very fast, though, so you'll have to do a lot of clipping."
Care for indoor topiaries, which can range from 1 to 3 1/2 feet tall, varies according to the plant, but keeping the soil moist and providing adequate light for the plant type are a few general rules of thumb.
Most topiaries "require an even moisture. If someone isn't an experienced gardener, they could poke their finger into the soil about an inch," explains Tom Brinda, assistant director at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. "If it feels dry, it needs water. If not, it's moist enough. For an indoor decoration that's away from a window, you'd probably only have to water it once a week."
If these maintenance requirements seem a bit much for your not-so-green thumb, there's always the option of plant-free topiary: wire forms "planted" in pots and decorated with lights, ribbons, ornaments and more.
"We have one like that in the garden where we just have an urn and a frame that we wrapped a bunch of lights around," says Brinda. "It has the look of a garden topiary, and all you've got to do is plug in the lights." He pauses and laughs. "But I'm sort of in favor of the living thing."
Watering: English ivy is finicky about water, so check its soil frequently. It should feel moist -- not soggy wet, not bone-dry. If you have a hanging ball topiary, allow the plant to soak in a bucket of water and drain before rehanging it.
Fertilizer: If you plan on keeping your plant past the holidays, you should fertilize it about once a month. A hardy plant, English ivy can be transplanted outside once the growing season begins.
Light: English ivy requires very bright indirect light or direct morning sun.
Insect care: Central heat can dry out the plant and make it a good breeding ground for mites, so you should mist it once a week to discourage infestation.
Watering: Rosemary likes to stay on the dry side, making it the most low-maintenance of all the plants.
Fertilizer: Fertlize once a month. Rosemary, which prefers being outdoors, should be moved outside immediately after it has served its function as a holiday decoration.
Light: Rosemary likes very bright light, which makes it less than ideal for the fireplace mantel. On sunny days when the temperature is above freezing, set it outside for a little while to allow it some sunshine.
Insect care: No misting required.
Watering: Angel vine prefers evenly moist soil, so check soil moisture daily.
Fertilizer: Because angel vine is an avid grower, limiting fertilizer might actually make it easier to care for and may prevent you from having to trim it as regularly.
Light: Bright light is best, but angel vine will tolerate lower light levels.
Insect care: No misting required.