Let ivies help your grounds take shape

Artistic: With different types of the charming plant to choose from, topiaries can be a divine addition to your garden landscape.

In The Garden

September 02, 2001|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Gardening and art become delightfully entwined in the classic forms of ivy topiary, and it is easy enough to grow your own sculpture. Ivy planted in pots can be trained on wire frames in the shapes of hearts, balls, spirals or whatever form catches your fancy.

Living ivy sculptures make every gardener look like an expert and an artist.

"It's a slightly different approach to gardening," says Patricia Riley Hammer, president of the American Ivy Society. "You're not trying to grow the biggest plant -- you're trying to create a shape. It's gardening with an artistic twist."

Ivy experts call the technique of growing ivy on a sturdy wire frame "trained-up topiary" to distinguish it from moss-filled topiary, in which plants are grown on the outside of moss-covered forms. Trained-up topiary requires only a handsome ivy plant or two, a wire form and a flowerpot.

Anyone can grow ivy, says Hammer, who is also the owner of Samia Rose Topiary in Encinitas, Calif., which specializes in ivy topiary. Hammer has been growing ivy since 1984, when she was assigned the job of refurbishing the ivy collection at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia.

"I wasn't very excited about it," she admits, "but as soon as you take a good look you realize how many different kinds of ivy there are." The American Ivy Society recognizes 500 varieties of English ivy (Hedra helix is the most widely grown species). To keep them straight, they're divided into eight classifications based on the size and shape of the leaves.

Ivy can have heart-, fan- or bird's-foot-shaped leaves. Many ivies are variegated, with gray, white, yellow or light green markings that give the leaves a speckled, painted or marbled appearance. The leaves of the charming miniature ivies are less than 1 inch long.

Small-leaf ivies are the best choice for small topiaries, Hammer says. "Always fit the scale of the topiary to the ivy," she says. "Don't get an 11-inch cone for ivy with great big leaves." A 30-inch cone, on the other hand, will look dramatic as large, lush ivy vines twist their way to the peak.

It's a good idea to buy your flowerpot at the same time you buy a topiary form to make sure they are in scale. Then choose a pretty ivy with lots of trailing vines.

Plant the ivy in the pot and carefully anchor the topiary frame in the pot. Gently twist the ivy vines around the form one at a time, wrapping them as close to the wire as possible. The ivy will look out of place and uncomfortable at first, but after a few days the leaves will all turn outward to the light. Before long the tendrils will start to grow. It usually takes a few months for the ivy to grow over the form.

Potted ivy thrives outdoors in bright shade. Indoors, set the plants in a north or east window where they will receive natural light. Indoors or out, direct exposure to too much sun will burn the leaves. Water thoroughly when the soil feels dry, and fertilize with a specially formulated foliage-plant fertilizer. Do not fertilize ivies when they stop growing in the summer heat or during winter.

In cold climates, bring topiaries indoors when the temperatures drop below freezing. To provide the humidity ivies love, set the pots in a shallow tray of pebbles and keep it filled with water, but do not let the pots sit in water.

These flourishing green sculptures look great on a windowsill in the house, on a table on the porch or outside in the garden. They are a striking foil for flowering plants and add height and substance to a collection of smaller plants in pots.

The most common geometric shapes are very formal, but they fit nicely into gardens of every style. Hearts are by far the most popular ivy topiary frame, Hammer says. "People who can't buy mushy greeting cards can buy a heart," she says.

Once your ivy has completely covered its frame, keep the plant trimmed to maintain its shape and definition. Give the cuttings to friends or use them to start new topiary frames.

Eventually the stems become woody and detract from the sculptural form.

"At that point, throw it away and start over," Hammer says. "The topiary police are not going to come get you."


Garden shops and mail-order suppliers sell topiary frames and ivy. A number of shops also sell trained-up topiary ready to go.

Patricia Riley Hammer, president of the American Ivy Society, recommends shopping for one of the pretty, named varieties of ivy, such as Lady Frances, a miniature ivy with star-shaped leaves splashed with silver and white. Lady Frances has been named the American Ivy Society's ivy of the year for 2001.

Here are a few ivy sources:

The American Ivy Society

P.O. Box 2123

Naples, FL 34106


Provides information on ivy and American Ivy Society events. The organization publishes an annual journal and three newsletters a year. Annual membership of $20 includes the publications and a free plant.

Samia Rose Topiary

1236 Urania Ave.

Encinitas, CA 92023



Sells ivy, topiary supplies and ready-made topiary. Catalog available online only.

Hedera Etc.

P.O. Box 461

Lionville, PA 19353


Sells ivy and topiary supplies. Catalog $2.

Chesapeake Topiary Frames

P.O. Box 188

Galena, MD 21635



Sells 22 topiary forms, including two pretty topiary candelabras in two sizes. Catalog available online only.

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