Article and photo by Donna Iverson
When some people look at bushes, they see geometric shapes, or animals or even humans. It makes them want to get out the hedge shears and transform the bush into the character of their imagination.
Topiary artist Georgia Donovan of Rockford is just such a person. She combines her love of art with her vocation of gardening, creating the most difficult form of topiary, animals and human beings. The human beings she calls her cedar sapiens or "tree people."
Free-form topiary like Donovan's is where you basically use your artistic eye to create a whimsical animal or other fantasy shape. A second type of topiary is when you use a wire frame and allow the plant to grow over it to form the shape. Somehow to me, the free form topiary is most intriguing as no two shapes are alike. They are living sculptures.
The tools you need for this garden craft are hand-held shears or pruners. One could also resort to electric or gas-powered clippers, although they pose a greater danger to the gardener. ..i.e. be very careful and wear heavy gloves.
If you are going the free-form route, topiary experts recommend you start at the top of the bush and work your way down. The bushes most amenable to holding their ornamental shape are boxwood, yew, privet, cedar, and arbor vitae.
If you want to use a wire frame, they are available at most garden centers, varying in size from small to large. Potted topiary, created using a wire frame, are great for patios and decks and even to dress up a front step. Small topiary make great house plants, and are often shaped in geometrical forms like circles, squares and spirals. Herbs make great scented topiary and possibilities include rosemary, lavender, mint, sage, thyme, bay and savory. Information on how to create an herbal topiary can be found at michigangardener.com
Digging back into history, topiary was popular in Elizabethan England, where English gardeners tried to recreate the ancient Roman gardens. But historians believe that topiary is even older than that, originating in Persia during the time of Alexander the Great. Of course, the Japanese have a long history of pruning bushes and trees into shapes, creating their graceful and peaceful Japanese gardens and diminutive bonsai.
If you are looking for topiary inspiration or just an interesting excursion, topiary gardens can be found in many states including Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Maryland and Rhode Island. The closest topiary garden is in Columbus, Ohio, and has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine as the only known topiary park to mimic an impressionist painting. There is one section dedicated to ghosts.
In Michigan, the best place to see topiary and buy supplies are garden centers. If you are interested in your own cedar sapiens like the ones featured here, contact Georgia Donovan on Facebook. Cost estimates are between $100 and $200 and that includes the tree.
Planning ahead: The Grand Garden Show on Mackinac Island this summer is scheduled to open August 30. Tickets are available at the following site: https://grandgardenshow.com. Book early if interested.