Topiary in the Tropics

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Topiary is a living sculpture and an art form that fuels a global industry. In the Caribbean, topiary is patiently growing a loyal following. Gardening enthusiasts in Trinidad credit one landscape architect with introducing topiary to luxury communities across the island, and she’s fondly called the ‘topiary queen’.

“I [was studying] jewelry design in Florence for two years,” recalls Natalie Gabriel, CEO of Trinidad & Tobago Landscaping Co., “and visited many stunning gardens there. I remember being intrigued by topiary and often found myself peering into topiary to examine their trunk structure.” When Gabriel returned home she collected a variety of Ficus plants from across Trinidad to test grooming styles.

The art of training plants into artistic forms, “dates to the first century AD when wealthy Romans would have their initials shaped out of box hedges.”  “Chinese and Japanese civilizations practiced the art with the ingenious stunting of trees (Bonsai) [and] elaborate shaping of plants and shrubs in gardens,” says Gabriel. “The golden age for topiary was in the gardens of European elite in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

In the narrow lull between the dry and rainy seasons, when the skies over Trinidad and Tobago are consistently moderate, Gabriel provided a tour of her projects in Port of Spain, then tailored this tipsheet on cultivating topiary in the tropics.

What considerations do you review when you approach creating a topiary?

“First step in creating a topiary is [to] look at what you have to work with, the key [is to highlight] the strong points of the plant trunk structure, branch layering, surface roots structure, leaf size, size of pot (if potted),” explains project manager Lester Charles. “One must consider target size of the finished topiary is kept in botanical and visual scale with the pot. A great part of this art is dependent on imagination, individual skill [and] copious amounts of patience and creativity.”

When a topiary design falls short of the perfection envisioned what are the options?

“This is where creativity comes in,” explains Charles. “This is up to one’s creativity, errors [can] extend the investment in time on the plant exponentially because in order to support proportional shape you have to trim back sections of the plant until the mistake has grown or filled-out [then] resume shaping it.”

Is there a style rule that dictates that topiary should be installed in pairs?

“There is an almost addictive tendency to collect topiary, one never seems to be enough,”  notes Gabriel. “In landscape design it’s about harmonious balance between various items in a space.  eople [often] use pairs of potted topiary to frame the entrance to their home, this is where the ‘topiary in pairs’ belief may have sprung from, topiary at the entrance to a home creates drama.”

What are some of the don’ts when it comes to employing topiary in a garden?

“Consider maintenance, quality of grooming services available, choice of plant type and its suitability to location or soil type.” Charles adds, “style of garden, its placement in garden, and consider if it will disrupt the garden’s balance. These are factors to be mindful of when contemplating if topiary [is] suitable for use in [a] garden.”

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