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The Magical Gardens of Disney
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Brian Bennett


Topiary gardening, the art of fashioning living plants into ornamental shapes, has been practiced for centuries. Found throughout the gardens of the Walt Disney World Resort are hundreds of topiary figures, ranging from traditional hedges and sheared trees to fanciful shapes and a whole menagerie of "chlorophyll" Disney characters.

Three different types of topiary at the Walt Disney World Resort have developed out of our desire to put on an award winning horticultural show. Free-form topiary requires your imagination and some shart shears - the other two utilize a frame specially suited to its needs. A lightweight frame is used for shrub topiary, while sphagnum topiary require a much stronger frame specially designed to support the weight of the figure.

Free Form Topiary

Free-form topiary is the oldest form of topiary and has been practiced for centuries. Look around your neighborhood and you can probably spot free-form topiary in many yards. Shrubs and trees, with some imaginative shearing, can change into round balls, squares or rectangles, or geometric forms. Before starting, check your yard to see where a topiary will add to the landscape and will be able to grow for a long time - then you are ready to begin.

Tips for creating free-form topiary:

  • Begin with sharp, well-oiled pruning shears.
  • Prune hedges so they are broader at the bottom than the top.
  • For straight lines, consider constructing a string guide line.
  • Fertilize regularly and continue pruning and pinching until the desired shape is achieved.

Shrub Topiary

Shrub topiary require from three to ten years to produce. A sculpted metal frame is used as a guide to assist with the training and shaping. The frames, which are placed over the plant, must be large enough at their smallest points to allow for growth - usually no smaller than four inches in diameter.

Shrubs that shear well, are naturally full, and are fairly fast-growing should be selected. Don't choose a very fast grower or you will be spending alot of time shearing! Fairly young plants that haven't gotten woody yet work the best - older plants may have woody trunks that don't hide well and may "sunburn" if severely shaped. Also, mature plants won't "break" or fill in as quickly.

Tips for creating shrub topiary:

  • Fill the container with a well drained soil mix.
  • Plant a shrub at each place where the frame comes in contact with the soil - if you have a four-legged pig, place a plant in each of the four legs.
  • After planting, place the frame over the plants.
  • Mulch and water in the new plants.
  • Constantly clip, prune, and tie to achieve the desired shape.
  • Feed and water regularly.
  • Maintain by shearing regularly.

Sphagnum Topiary

Sphagnum topiary produce quick results. These topiary are grown using heavy steel frames. The frames for sphagnum topiary must be heavy-duty as they are the only support for these figures. The frames are stuffed with un-milled sphagnum moss and planted with either close growing vining plants or uniform compact plants.

Tips for creating sphagnum topiary:

  • Cover the steel frames with plastic mesh - secured with wire ties or hog rings.
  • While wearing latex gloves, stuff with moistened un-milled sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss can contain bacteria that can cause infection if you handle the material when you have even a minor abrasion.
  • Make a hole in the moss and plant small plants or "plugs" into the sphagnum.
  • Pin vines into the moss with hair pins or fern pins.
  • Water daily and fertilize regularly.
  • Trim, pin, and prune weekly until the sphagnum is covered.

Standard Form Topiary

The word "standard" is used to describe a plant which is grown to a designated height and then encouraged to bush or form a "head" at the top. Many people think that this resembles a small tree. Creating a standard is quite simple:

  • Select a plant that grows quickly and will eventually become rather sturdy (even so, you many have to stake your selection).
  • Pinch out lateral branches that form from each axel leaving the leaf intact until maximum height is reached.
  • When the plant reaches the desired height, the terminal or top bud is pinched to stop upward growth - this encourages lateral branching in the leaf axils.
  • As soon as "breaking" occurs, remove leaves from the ground to the desired height on the stem. "Tip" or trim back the head until the desired size is achieved.

Topiary Reference Guide

Plants used for Free-form and Shrub Topiary

  • Buxus microphylla japonica – Japanese Boxwood
  • Ilex cornuta "Burfordii" – Burford Holly
  • Ilex vomitoria – Yaupon Holly
  • Juniperous chinensis "Sylvestris" – Sylvestor Juniper
  • Ligustrum japonicum – Japanese Privet
  • Podocarus macrophyllus – Japanese Yew
  • Pyracantha coccinea – Firethorn
  • Rhododendron cultivars – Azalea

Plants used for Sphagnum Topiary

  • Alternanthera ficoidea – Joseph's Coat
  • Begonia semperflorens-cultorum – Wax Leaf Begonia
  • Ficus pumila – Creeping Fig
  • Hedera helix – English Ivy

Sphagnum Topiary Plant Material Sources

  • Gilson Gardens P.O. Box 277, Perry, OH 44081 (216) 259-4845
  • Samia Rose Topiary 1236 Urania Ave, Encinitas, CA 92024 (760) 436-0460
  • Topiary Artworks P.O. Box 574 Clearwater, KS 67026 (316) 584-2366

Sphagnum Topiary Frames

  • Cliff Finch's Zoo P.O. Box 54 Friant, CA 93626 (209) 822-2315
  • Colburn Topiary 20182 Quest Haven Rd, Escondido, CA 92029 (760) 752-1077
  • Gardenworks P.O. Box 216 Markleeville, CA 96120 (530) 694-2515
  • Hollywood & Vine 2411 ME 32nd Ave, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33305 (954) 566-6712
  • Kinsman Company River Rd, Pt Pleasant, PA 18950 (800) 733-4146
  • Noah's Ark Topiary P.O. Box 10213, Largo, FL 33773 (727) 393-8830
  • Robertson Originals 1123 Golfview St, Orlando, FL 32804 (407) 839-0565
  • Topiary Artworks P.O. Box 574, Clearwater, KS 67026 (316) 584-2366
  • Topiary, Inc. 4520 West Wtrous Ave, Tampa, FL 33629 (813) 286-8626

Topiary Gardens to Visit

  • Colonial Williamsburg Williamsburg, VA 23185 (757) 229-1000
  • Deaf School Park Topiary Gardens Town & Washington Avenues, Columbus, OH 43215 (614) 645-7464
  • Ladew Gardens 3535 Jarretsville Pike, Monkton, MD 2111 (410) 557-9466
  • J. Paul Getty Museum 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265 (310) 458-2003
  • Green Animals Topiary Garden 380 Cory's Ln, Portsmouth, RI 02871 (410) 683-1271
  • Longwood Gardens P.O. Box 501 Kennett Square, PA 19348 (610) 388-1000



Garden Tours

Barb's Top 10 Disney Garden Attractions

Brian's Top 10 Disney Garden Attractions

Tips: Right Plant in the Right Place

Tips: Interior Plants

Backyard Habitats

Butterfly Gardening

Bonsai and Penjing

Water Gardening

Flower Gardening

Cutting Gardens

Disney StyleTopiary

Disney Style Horticulture at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Disney Style Hanging Baskets

Disney Style Floating Gardens


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