Saturday, November 27, 2010

How to Make a Rosemary Topiary

I love rosemary topiaries. Especially the small ones. They smell fantastic all year round, evoking thoughts of a summer herb garden, the Mediterranean, and holiday meals.

Given that the holidays are upon us, I thought I'd post a how-to on making your own topiary. They make great gifts, you can use the clippings in cooking if the plant is free of pesticides, and they'll freshen the scent of whichever room you place them in.

Here's what you'll need:
a small rosemary plant
potting soil
a small pot (6"-12")
a wooden stake and twist ties
liquid fertilizer (optional)

Step 1: Start with a small rosemary plant sold at most nurseries and garden centers. Since you'll be training the plant, it's important to start small, with a 6" or 8" pot. Ideally, look for vertical starters like these:

I like the idea of having two topiaries of the same size to create symmetry on a mantel or tablescape, so I purchased a pair of plants, although they're bushier than the ones above:

Step 2: Transfer the rosemary from its container into a small pot filled with potting soil. I like simple terracotta planters, but there's a planter for every style out there.

Step 3: Trim the lower branches at the sides to encourage the plant to grow vertically. It's ok if it looks really small to begin with.

{image from Smith & Hawken}

Step 4: Tie the plant to a stake. (Any straight object can be used as a stake--a thin, firm stick, chopsticks, etc. Or you can buy one at a garden center.) I used a thin stake I happened to have from an orchid plant. Put the plant in a bright spot where it will get a lot of sun (maybe 6+ hours a day) and let it grow. (South-facing locations are the best.) Fertilizing it weekly will help.

{I chose to clip this plant back quite a bit because it was bushy, without a strong central shoot. You can see that the stem is still curved, but I'm hoping it will straighten out with the help of the stake.}

Step 5: After the plant has reached 12"-36" tall, or to the desired height, you can trim the central shoot to stop it from continuing to grow vertically. Then clip away the bottom branches, trimming them right to the thin trunk. To get the globe-like form, you'll want to trim about two-thirds of the lower part of the plant, leaving the branches in the upper third of the plant to be shaped. At this point, the plant should start to resemble the general form of a topiary, although the top won't be ideal yet. In time it will look like this, and can be shaped into a globe.:

{image from One Gardener's View}

Step 6: Remember to turn the plant about once per week so that balanced sun exposure will ensure even growth. As the plant continues to grow and the central trunk starts to thicken, remember to loosen the ties to the stake supporting the plant. Trim the plant to maintain its shape, and fertilize the plant monthly. Rosemary can handle cold temperatures, but it can be risky to expose container-grown rosemary to freezing winter weather. Be sure to keep it indoors during winter if you live in a cold climate.

{I love the natural, slightly less perfectly coiffed look of this topiary.}

There are several plants suited to being shaped, so if you prefer a different style, try an ivy, holly, or classic boxwood. My landscape designer friends tell me you can even train flowering plants like Lantana into a topiary! The same rules apply: start with a small plant, trim away the bottom portion and clip the top into a round, globe-like shape.

 {Boxwood topiaries}

{Maybe you'll develop a passion for topiaries and create your own masterpiece! Ok, not everyone has that kind of space, but a scaled down version lining your front walkway or even on a table top could be interesting! Image via}

{Or maybe you'll decide to try different shapes!}

{These life-size topiaries of The Beatles greet visitors at a train station in Liverpool England. Unless you're a die-hard fan, this might be going too far. But it shows the unlimited possibilities of topiaries!}

Click here and here for more tips on growing rosemary indoors, and info about its ideal growing conditions.

For plant lovers, here's a link to a unique documentary called The Secret Life of Plants. You can watch it for free, and it's also available on Netflix. Stevie Wonder wrote the soundtrack, and the documentary explores scientific research on plant consciousness. Expect some stunning (if trippy) time-lapse cinematography! Thanks to my plant-loving friend Karen for recommending this.

Does anyone have suggestions or advice for growing topiaries? This is my first, and I welcome your feedback!


  1. Now I want a huge topiary garden with elephants! Wow. Amazing photos.
    Are you sponsored by the RGAA (Rosemary Growers Association of America)?...because you make it sound so inviting and so much fun that I'm going to go right out and buy a rosemary plant!

  2. How can I make a topiary of The Moody Blues?

  3. Thanks for the tips, I am going to try this. Do you know how long it takes for it to grow to 12 inches?

  4. Hi Ginger~

    The rate of growth depends to some degree on where you live--how much sun, and the conditions in general. I started mine when I posted about it, and it was maybe 5 inches tall. Over the past 3-1/2 months or so, it's grown to 11", but I live in Florida where the conditions are pretty ideal for rosemary. Be sure to fertilize weekly, and your plant should grow fairly quickly. Good luck! Send me a photo when you're done! : )