The artful HEDGE

Topiary: People give Maria Taylor their poor, struggling plants, and she turns them into works of beauty.

April 04, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

It's an Easter story of sorts, and not just because of the egg tree or the six-foot stuffed rabbit in the window. It's a story of rebirth, a little funky, told at Maria Taylor's house in the 1200 block of Lake Avenue.

The house is known all over Baltimore for its topiary (evergreen plants sculpted into artistic shapes). The postage-stamp front yard is filled -- no, stuffed -- with over 40 examples. Ducks and bunnies cavort with crocodiles and dogs made of yew, Alberta spruce, cedar and boxwood.

People visit Ladew Gardens in Monkton to admire topiary worthy of grand estates. They stop by Maria and her husband Allan's house to see what any of us might accomplish with a privet hedge, pruning shears and a sense of whimsy.

But what many people don't know is that Maria Taylor's specialty is rescuing shrubs, ones their owners have given up on, by snipping away at dying branches. And in the process, she creates small works of art. She's the SPCA of the topiary world.

Her back yard is her hospital. "These are the animals that are sick," she jokes, pointing to a row of topiary shapes in large containers, shapes created from woebegone plants people have donated. "I'm trying to bring them back."

Maria Taylor is a self-taught topiary artist. A tiny woman in her late 50s with bright red curls, at the moment she's working in high-heel sneakers (she added the heels herself for arch support), a long purple dress and a gold "Don't Worry, Be Happy" pin at her throat. That's her philosophy of life, although she had to deal with a bout of colon cancer a few years ago.

"I'm a survivor," she says, as she snips away at a straggly branch.

A large part of surviving seems to involve bringing joy to others. Half of the topiaries in her front yard were created at the request of one neighborhood child or another -- there's a dinosaur, a teddy bear, even a cookie monster.

Lori Revitz, who lives next door, describes her as a "wonderful neighbor." Maria rescued one of the two six-foot yews flanking her front door by reshaping it into a giant Mickey Mouse head. Revitz is thinking of asking her to transform the other one as well. "I'm a person who likes symmetry."

When Taylor noticed two trees dying at the Exxon station on North Charles Street near Stevenson Lane, she asked the owner to let her reshape them rather than cut them down. They survived for years as two bears before they finally had to go.

She was responsible for the original topiary of three dogs chasing a cat at the Animal Hospital on Falls Road. It's now professionally maintained, but she was the one who imagined the animals out of a bedraggled hedge.

"When I see a shrub in bad shape," she says, "I say, 'Let me try.' There's no guarantee it will come back, but if you nurture it, have a little hope and give it food and water, there's a good chance."

Turning on to topiary

If you have an evergreen shrub that needs pruning, you might want to try your hand at a topiary shape. Here are some suggestions to get you going:

* Start slow, perhaps with a geometric figure.

* Be patient. Topiary animals sometimes need a year or two to grow into their mature shapes.

* Make sure your shears are sharp.

* Take small cuts at first, cutting from the top down and the center out. Work on both sides for symmetry.

* Spread a tarp underneath for easy cleanup.

* Feed in early spring with a slow-release complete fertilizer.

* Trim lightly but regularly, but don't trim late in the season. New growth might be damaged by frost.

* Protect topiary from snow and ice with wire mesh.

Adapted from "1001 Hints & Tips for Your Garden" (Reader's Digest, 1996).

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