Sunday, October 23, 2011

I'm Just a Cockeyed Topiary Optimist!

As readers of this blog may recall, Reggie isn't very lucky when it comes to caring for topiaries—those charming, impossible-to-sustain, diminutive potted standards sold by swell florists and specialty growers to those of us weak-willed enough to succumb to their siren call.  I've written about my failures with keeping such darlings alive, despite my most earnest efforts to, here and here.

Our remaining topiaries—trimmed, rinsed,
and sprayed, and (I hope) ready to be brought
indoors for the winter...

But, being the optimist that I am, I never seem to figure out that buying yet another topiary (which for me actually means buying at least two of them at a time, since they look best in pairs) will lead to the inevitable death of said plant.  For under my care death is what their fate will most assuredly be, despite my best efforts otherwise.  I've killed countless dozens of them over the years.

This spring, at the Trade Secrets garden show held annually in Sharon, Connecticut, (founded by the inestimable Bunny Williams) I bought half a dozen new pots of topiaries from Atlock Farm, one of the vendors showing there, to replace the topiaries I'd murdered over the previous winter.  I did so with the newfound understanding that my approach to owning and caring for topiaries had theretofore been flawed.  In the past I had erroneously thought that I could keep them alive for months (if not years) with careful and loving treatment.  I had also considered that my inability to do so was, well, a failure on my part.  Not so, one wise reader, named Flo, advised me—I was in good company because it is virtually impossible for mere mortals such as Reggie to keep such tender lovelies alive over the winter in a northeastern house, particularly one such as Darlington House that is lived in only on weekends and where there is no temperature- and humidity-regulated greenhouse for the topiaries to vacation.  Just think of a topiary, she wrote, as an expensive potted plant that has a limited life span, and enjoy it as such.

Such freedom!  I now understood that my topiaries' withering was as inevitable as the tides rolling in and out, something entirely beyond my control.  That is, unless I were Bunny Mellon, famous for—among other things—an extensive collection of perfectly cared-for topiaries, acres of greenhouses, and armies of gardeners charged with ensuring said topiaries' long life.  As I've pointed out here before, I am, most assuredly, not Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Of the half dozen topiaries I bought at the Trade Secrets show this spring, four remain with us, having survived a summer of mostly benign neglect on our screened porch at Darlington House.  I am showing them, ahead of our bringing them indoors for the winter, pruned (by Boy) of their late-summer shagginess and returned to their desired, perfectly coiffed profiles.  They are resting behind our gardening barn in the shade, after having been rinsed and sprayed, awaiting their transfer into the house.

Even though I know there is scant hope that these topiaries will survive until spring under my care, I still hope and wish that they will, despite the odds stacked against me.  I just can't help myself.  I'm a tender-hearted optimist when it comes to such things.

And that is why there will always be a demand for nurseries and plantsmen to bring fresh batches of topiaries to market every spring—because of cockeyed optimists like Reggie who, when confronted by a  new topiary deludes himself into believing that he might be able to, this time, nurture it from one year to the next.

And because I am aware that such optimism is foolishness on my part, I know that I will return to the Trade Secrets show next spring to, once again, replenish my stock of topiaries, continuing the never-ending cycle . . .


  1. Good luck with the topiaries, but maybe you should also consider an espalier or two. They have decorative shapes, and you could grow fantastic old fruit varieties, such as those featured in Apples of New York. Finally, espaliers are redolent of those old-world walled gardens, etc.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Reading this, I think I understand why dried topiary plants must be so popular here in Northern CA. It sounds like they can't stand too much heat.

  3. I travel back and forth between homes...with orchids and flowers...why don't you move these to the city from the weekend country jaunts as well!

  4. I'm an optimist too -- and feel so frustrated when they "go" -- sigh -- but all gardeners are optimists, otherwise, we'd only have one garden!

    My beautiful ivy topiaries were victims (and the only victims) when we were gone for two months in the spring . . . sigh -- I hated to see that for I had had them a couple of years . . . but then I look at topiaries such as yours and yearn, once again for a couple for the breakfast room sideboard!

    What we both need is a greenhouse!

  5. Maybe part of the problem is pruning in the fall? That would seem to add a second shock to the plant, to go along with the shock of being moved indoors.

  6. I love topiaries and have many that thrive outdoors, year around. But the winters are not so harsh here. You might consider miniature ivy trained on a form; it would be more likely to withstand the changes in temperature and survive less frequent waterings.

  7. That optimism, or hope, is to be cherished. Good luck.

  8. Wishing you good luck with your topiaries. Why is it that we are eternally optimistic when dealing with plants? They hold so much hope.

    Helen x

  9. Flo is a gem, and you just enjoy those annual topiaries!

  10. Four of six is a pretty good success rate, Reggie. I am a fool for topiaries, too, but have never managed to keep one alive more than a year or so. They are so charming, though, that I continue to purchase each spring.

  11. You're a better man than I am. This summer, while visiting Maine's best topiary pusher, Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunkport, I resisted the call, and for the first time, did not buy. I was beginning to feel like a serial (topiary)killer...

  12. Could your bad luck be due to your name? Have you considered changing it to, say, Bunny?


  13. My family are all adept at gardening- My mother grows hybrid banana trees and actually harvests bananas-her orchids bloom like mad in time for Christmas- I however can keep nothing alive- Her advice to me concerning those seductive little topiaries- "Buy a couple of them but give them away in a hurry before you kill the poor things. So, I think you are doing wonderfully well.

  14. Here we go again....I guess we will hear in 6 months about the demise of the last four.

    You and Lucy Westie are made for each other and if you have ever wondered what kind of dog you will come back as in another life now you know.

    Dearest one, as always, I stand behind anything you do, but I'm afraid, like in the past, you will be sorely disappointed. Why don't you send them down to spend the winter in Florida? perhaps Mrs. Mellon's private jet can stop on the way and pick yours up too. That is the best, albeit an expensive solution. But in the end, who cares, it's just money and they are just plants.

    As Flo (and I) told you it's not's the dryness of the house in winter. The only time I have ever had beautiful topiaries or any plant for that matter, was when I lived in Miami. Now I know that what I am going to say will make Reggie appoplectic, but they have the most incredible (whisper) fake ones in the market and if you can overcome yourself, that might be the solution.

    PS glad to see you back...the blogosphere was just not the same without you!

  15. Indoor dryness and indoor lighting ..... have you ever tried one of those in-home terrarium setups ? They look like one of those very large birdcages only with glass sides and top instead of wire.
    Good luck ! Some of that would not hurt at this stage too.
    Best -
    - Mike


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