For something completely unique and overwhelmingly spectacular: try growing your conifer into a different shape. If you choose the right plants and put some time into it, you can gradually grow a feature that will stun anyone who sees it.
Traditional plants used for topiary are buxus (box), or similar plants with small leaves and tight growing habits, but several conifers have also been successfully used including: Cedrus sp., x Cupressocyparis leylandii, Cupressus arizonica, Cupressus macrocarpa, Cupressus sempervirens, Cryptomeria japonica, Juniper sp., Taxus baccata & Thuja orientalis.
Topiary is the art of pruning or training a plant to create a desired shape. Plant sculptures, in particular animal shapes, have been grown in Europe for many centuries. A recent revival of interest in topiary has centred on container grown topiary which (unlike the more traditional forms of topiary) are portable and comparatively quick to train. They are especially popular as courtyard and patio features.
Many of the more rigidly branched conifers with finer foliage may not require training, but are instead pruned directly until the desired shape is achieved.
Note: Where possible choose slow-growing or dwarf cultivars of the above mentioned species, to enable you to keep your topiary specimens to a suitable size with as little maintenance as possible - some of the larger cultivars may be too vigorous and require a lot of regular trimming.
Conifers can be pruned into the basic standard, poodles and spirals (corkscrew or straight stemmed).
Conifer Topiary Standards
The first thing to do is select a conifer which you like - based on colour, foliage texture and plant form. Upright and round-shaped conifers are the best to train as a standard. With time and practice you can be more adventurous by experimenting with training prostrate conifers as standards.
The conifer plant must first have the lower leaves and limbs removed being careful not to damage the primary growing tip. The plant is best supported to prevent damage by wind, perhaps with a stake until it is strong enough to support itself. Side growth is removed until the desired branching height is reached. At this point, lateral side growth is encouraged and trimmed to stimulate bushy growth. Over time, with repeated clipping, the 'ball', or whatever shape you desire, will grow larger and fuller. For some conifers if the apical growing tip is cut the plant will continue to grow more thickly as opposed to upward and the stem will become thicker.
Standards need manicuring frequently in order to maintain shape. Clippings can be used for craft. Use scissors, secateurs or pruning shears. As a variation, the stem may be bent or braided for extra effect.
Follow the same procedures as above but allow a number of regions along the stem (several centimetres apart) for branches to be encouraged and thickened. It is traditional to have the largest 'ball' at the base and the smallest at the top. Three balls is the standard.
A variation on poodles is clouding. This is where roundish zones ('clouds') of foliage are developed to the sides and around the central stem. Foliage may be clipped close to the trunk or 'floating' away from the trunk. Lateral branching is encouraged to emphasise the floating feature of clouds. There is no set number of clouds or size a specimen may have - it is left up to the judgement of the pruner.
The most important ingredient is a well branched conifer to start with. Corkscrew spirals use a central dowel or stick around which the conifer stem is wound. At some point in the future when the trunk thickens, the stick is removed and the plant should support itself. The spiral then only requires regular trimming to maintain shape and look neat.
Straight stemmed spiral require the use of a straight conifer which exhibits multi branching along the trunk. To make a spiral, wrap tape of thick ribbon around the outside of the conifer beginning at the base and winding up the plant. Now prune out the exposed sections of the conifer that are not covered by the tape/ribbon. The end result will vary depending on the thickness of tape and spacing between the spirals. Finally, remove tape and give a light manicure to any rough edges.
Once the desired height is reached for either spiral, pinch off the leader and maintain the topiary by trimming for a neat well defined appearance.
Choosing Plants for Bonsai
Many different types of plant can be used for bonsai including perennial herbs or even weeds, however mostly only trees and shrubs are used. Some plants are used far more often for bonsai than others. These include: certain conifers (pines, junipers, spruces, Japanese cedar and yew work best), small-leafed deciduous trees, Azaleas, Berberis, Crateagus, Buxus, Cotoneaster, Eleagnus, certain Cornus, Ilex, Ivy, some gardenias, small-leafed Citrus such as Cumquat, Pomegranate, Leptospermum, some of the small-leafed Eucalypts, Grevilleas, Melaleucas and Callistemons. There are of course others not mentioned here.
- Regardless of the skill of the bonsai creator, the original material which is used to create the bonsai will have an effect on the end result. There are a number of things you should consider when selecting stock:
- Eliminate the completely unsuitable. You should immediately eliminate unhealthy or diseased plants. Anything that shows signs of insect infestation should be left alone. If the soil in the pot is too wet or too dry, the chances are that the specimen will not be too healthy. Ensure that if it is in leaf, that the leaves are bright and not speckled or dry around the margins. Bark should be smooth and not wrinkled. Check for the presence of moss which would suggest that the tree has become established in its container and is a desirable feature. Check for the presence of a drainage hole underneath the container, but do not worry if there is some fungal growth here since this is normal.
- Observe the structure of the plant. If there are any serious structural defects, decide whether they can be concealed. If not, the plant may not be worth using.
- Look for favourable attributes. For example, does the plant show a pronounced 'tree-like' shape, a pleasing curve, etc? Are the branches growing in an aesthetically pleasing manner? Are the branches arranged around the plant evenly?
- Are the larger branches on the bottom of the plant and the smaller branches toward the top? When looking at branches, remember that the location of branches on a trunk is actually set. Widely spaced branches cannot be made to come closer together. It is better to select a plant with many smaller branches that can be pruned. Leaves and soft foliage are not important structurally, as they will grow around the structural elements of the bonsai. These are the renewable parts of the plant: the trunk and branches are the important structural attributes.
- Generally speaking, trees with smaller leaves or needles work best. Whilst the leaves of many deciduous trees can be reduced in scale those of longer needled conifers are more challenging, the exception being Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii). The leaves of deciduous trees with larger leaves can be successfully miniaturised if they are not re-potted too frequently and if some or all of the leaves are trimmed off.
- If choosing flowering or fruiting trees, consideration should be given to the size of the fruit and flowers. For instance, normal apple tree fruits would look out of scale whereas crab apples look in scale. Once again those with small fruits and flowers are more well suited e.g. cotoneaster and pyracantha.