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Gardener turns wire frames

Daily Press

December 18, 2010
By Kathy Van Mullekom, kvanmullekom@dailypress.com
Gardener turns wire frames, moss and small plants into living art
Topiaries can live outdoors year-round, and need only a little water here and there

Two standard poodles keep Teresa Bennett company in her York County garden. Black Jack and Red Baron romp while she weeds and follow her around while she walks her yard.

Now, the poodles and Bennett enjoy even more companionship in the yard — a cocker spaniel with a fetching face, or maybe a terrier with adorable eyes.

These dogs, however, don’t roam or run. Fashioned from wire frames, moss and small plants, these topiaries stand perfectly still, adding an artistic touch to the landscape.

A master gardener since 2001, Bennett, 56, recently launched a new business, Gardens and Accessories by Teresa. Topiaries created with wire frames and plants are the prime focus of that venture. A gardener all her life, Bennett is always doing something with her love for nature. For seven years, she taught an after-school junior master gardener club at Seaford Elementary School and continues to promote environmental education to students throughout the county.

“I grew up around gardening, particularly with grandparents that farmed, and my grandmother grew beautiful flowers and roses,” she says. “After growing houseplants and containers for years, when we moved to Seaford 15 years ago, I finally had space to really indulge my interest in gardening.”

Bennett’s interest in topiaries peaked while she worked part-time at the former The Flower Pot garden center near her home.

“When the owners decided to close the business, I looked at the topiaries and decided they were just too unique to let go,” she says.

“I knew there would be interest in the 33 different dog breeds at dog shows, but I need other outlets as well.”

Growing many of the sedums and other plants she needs for the topiaries, Bennett qualified for the “Virginia Grown” designation. She sells the topiaries at the seasonal Yorktown and Port Warwick farmers markets and at Green Hand Gardens, which used to be The Flower Pot garden center on Route 17 in York County. In spring, she hopes to offer topiary parties where party-goers choose a frame and stuff and plant it under her guidance.

“I picked one of the hottest days of the summer for my first venture into farmers’ markets, and, despite the heat, I loved the atmosphere, talking to people, explaining how the topiaries are made and the plants I use in them,” she says.

The topiary frames are welded metal, finished with a black powder coating to resist the elements.
“The frames alone are beautiful, unlike chicken wire that is flimsy and subject to rust, even when painted,” says Bennett.

“The other details come from the plants. I can change the look of the topiary by the plants I use. Ivy is an option, but by using a variety of plants, I create both color and texture, and really bring the topiary to life.”

The frames generally come in two sections, making it possible to stuff them with sphagnum moss.

To fill each frame, Bennett dampens moss in a container of water, and works with one handful at a time. She wrings out any excess water and first stuffs all small spaces in the topiary – ears, legs or tails, using a screwdriver or wooden garden stake to pack the moss in as tightly as possible.

After the small spaces are stuffed, she moves to larger sections, continuing to work with one handful of moss at a time, and again packing as tightly as possible. When the frame sections are filled, they are attached with zip ties.

“This is the messy part of the process and uses more moss than you would expect,” she says.

Then, she begins the fun, creative part — selecting plants that resemble the fur, feathers or skin of the topiary creature. Typically, she uses low-growing perennial groundcovers that are at least semi-evergreen in Hampton Roads.

“I like hens-and-chicks to create a turtle shell, or as a collar on a large dog,” she says.

“Dwarf mondo is great as a topknot on a poodle frame. Irish moss and wooly thyme make a great short fur. Acornus works as feathers on a duck.”

Sedums, however, are the main group of plants she uses on the topiaries. Sedums tolerant drought, often root where they touch, cover an area quickly and love the sun. They are ideal groundcovers for hot, dry spots.

“After growing many different sedums in my own back yard, I know they tolerate a bit of neglect,” says Bennett.

“I got really excited when I found a pink-edged sedum to plant in a flamingo topiary.”

After Bennett selects the plants for a specific topiary, she divides them into small sections and rinses off as much soil as possible. Using her fingers or a wooden stake, she makes an indentation in the moss, then “shoe horns’ the roots of a small plant division into the space. She pushes the moss around the roots to hold the plant in place.

“The plants grow in the moss, no soil required,” she says.

She continues this process until plants cover one-fourth of the moss.

“Half the fun is watching the plant grow and fill in,” she says. “But, if someone requests a fuller topiary, I place a plant about every three to four inches.”

Bennett can create more than 130 different topiaries, including dogs, frogs, turtles, cats, rabbits, giraffes, seahorses, dinosaurs – even a life-size golfer. Prices start at $40 for a small frog or turtle; mid-sized topiaries run $70-$125; and larger ones like a Labrador retriever are more than $300.

Ongoing care is fairly simple. The topiaries stay outside year-round. In summer, they require watering about every other day; in winter, water is needed maybe once a week. To water one, you thoroughly wet the moss. A monthly feeding with a liquid fertilizer during summer months speeds growth. Turning the frame from time to time helps the plants develop evenly. Scissors can be used to trim the plants to maintain the frame’s shape. “It’s living art that will last you many years,” she says.

To order topiaries:
Phone Teresa Bennett at 532-0080
Email GardensbyTeresa@aol.com
Reprinted courtesy Daily Press; get more gardening at dailypress.com/digginblog