UNION MILLS — When everything else is going crazy in your life, you can always control your plants.
At least that's Barbara Steele's theory, co-owner of Alloway Gardens in Littlestown, Pa., who will be demonstrating topiaries and exhibiting herbs May 2 and 3 at the Union Mills Homestead Plant and Antique Show and Sale.
"I think they are good psychology, good garden therapy," she said. "When you can control nothing else, you can control your plant."
Topiary, or the art of training or trimming plants into ornamental shapes, can take many different forms -- from coaxing a plant to grow around a form to sculpting it into animal shapes.
A third trains the plant to grow treelike, similar to a lollipop shape.
To create a lollipop-type topiary, Steele recommends starting with a young plant that naturally has an upright stem, such as standard rosemary or fringed lavender.
Also, the gardener should choose a seedling that hasn't been pinched at the top, which would make it grow out and bushyrather than straight up.
"Many garden places pinch it at the top because their customers don't want such a straight plant," she said. "But we keep a few around for people that want them for topiaries."
The gardener should gently tie the plant to a stake, allowing it togrow upward and pinching off the side shoots while leaving some of the side leaves.
"It is a living thing and needs leaves to grow," Steele said.
When the plant has reached an appropriate height, the top should be pinched and the sides allowed to grow, giving it a bushy, lollipop appearance.
Only then can the gardener "strip the stem," Steele said.
"I always wait until the top is pretty developed,"she said.
Gardeners also can train a plant to grow around a ring or to fill out a specific shape. One project that combines the two isa flower basket-type shape.
Inside the basket bottom, a gardener can stuff sphagnum moss filling it with potting soil and planting a flowering plant inside.
An ivy-type plant can be trained to grow onthe outside, Steele said.
For the handles, one should choose a trailing plant such as prostrate rosemary or a small leaf ivy.
Choosing a prominent shoot for each side, the gardener gently ties them tothe ring and picks off the side shoots.
Steele uses a grasslike, natural material called raffia to tie the shoots, but says some of her customers use tiny strips of old pantyhose.
"That's just the underpinnings, which you could take off later," she said. "They are onlynecessary while the plant is in training."
The plant should grow up each side and meet at the center. Although it is tempting to try to train the plant to grow around the ring, one is not likely to be successful, Steele said.
"A plant naturally grows toward the sun," she said. "If you try to train it down it will only grow back upward."
Prices for topiary shapes range from $2.50 for small rings to about $25 for a swan used in a stuffed topiary. However, some people enjoy making their own shapes with wire about the gauge of a coat hanger.
"If you have a teen-ager in metal shop, they could make a shape using a bending jig and solder," Steele said.
Simply bending a coat hanger into shape isn't always satisfactory since kinks can remain in the metal, she said.
"You want a clean, smooth shape," Steele said.
Most topiaries should be treated as house plants that can be placed outside during the summer, but are brought in during the winter months.
However, gardeners should remember that these are not hothouse plants.
"These are borderline inside plants," she said. "You need to find a cool room, like a back room, where you will rememberto water and trim it."
In addition, one should remember that the plants need sun to survive.
"The most deceptive thing is these magazines showing topiaries used in interior design," Steele said. "You can put the topiary in the center of your table for a party, but afterwards you have to remember to take it back to the window.
"It is a plant and needs light."
Decorators who want a permanent centerpiece might like to use a dried topiary, made from dried herbs and flowers, Steele said.
"That way you don't have to water it," she said.