ACS Distance Education UK
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).
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.
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.