Theresa Henry has a gazillion reasons to practice topiary.
“I just love it. It’s relaxing. It’s therapeutic. It gets you outside with nature. The end result is healthy. It’s a labor of love.”
Topiary is the art of trimming and training shrubs or trees into unusual, ornamental shapes.
“You might start out with one shape and decide to make it into a new shape,” said the Cortlandville woman. “It just evolves.”
The registered nurse and health care administrator has a 21- by 40- foot topiary garden in her backyard. It also has statues, flowers, walking paths and overlooks the valley of Cortland.
Henry and her husband, Richard, “Dick,” a software designer for Seimens Corp., do not know of any other topiary gardens in the area. They drive down South and visited Brookgreen Garden in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“It was spectacular,” Dick Henry said.
“It definitely inspires you to get out there and create something in your own garden,” Theresa Henry said.
The couple had family in Cortlandville and they noticed a field in a nice neighborhood. The Boston couple bought it in 2004. They designed their own house for it. Contractors didn’t do all the work. The couple installed their own wood floors on the first floor, several chandeliers and trucked a double oven from Boston to their new dwelling. Today, the home is pristine, both in construction and furnishings.
Katie Keyser/Living and Leisure Editor
Theresa Henry in her topiary garden in Cortlandville.
Their care extends to the outdoors. Fifteen years ago, their lawn, a cow pasture, was all dirt. They planted grass and started in on their landscaping.
Around 2006, Theresa Henry started to shape her first topiary bush.
“It’s in the trimming,” she said. “When you find the shape you like, you keep trimming it. As it grows, you keep trimming.”
Many of her bushes have concentric circles going from wide on the bottom to small on top. A few look like a mushroom with a wide head over a thick stem and still others have like bell tops over layers of circles.
“I think it’s pretty interesting,” said Claudia Hitt, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County. “It’s not for everybody, but I think it’s a cool thing for folks to experiment with. I always wonder how they manage to make them do that!”
Hitt doesn’t know how many topiary gardens there are in Cortland County.
“I don’t see a lot around, but you do see some here and there throughout our suburban area.”
Today, the Henrys have over a dozen topiary bushes on the property, most within the rectangle garden. Also in the backyard is a big herb garden, a play house for the grandkids, other flower gardens and a tiny pond with a fountain.
“Every year it changes, depending on what happens in the winter,” said Theresa Henry, earlier this month. “This last year was terrible weather.”
Some of their bushes and a line of zebra grass took a beating. “It died off in the middle,” she said, pointing to a patch of zebra grass.
The couple lives on a hill and the wind and cold is a factor.
Henry started her topiary garden, comprised of mostly Alberta spruce and some arbor vitae, with two bushes. The deer really like arbor vitae.
“We have to wrap them up every winter,” she said.
If not, the deer will destroy them.
For her topiary clipping, Henry uses a light-weight German-brand electric clipper, called Gardena.
“It’s like giving a hair cut,” Dick Henry said.
“Every barber doesn’t have a steady hand,” said his wife. “And you guide it. You can get, you know, dents. There’s no going back if you cut too much.”
“I love flowers,” Theresa Henry said. “I love perennials. I want them to come up every year. That’s more difficult than people think, when you have a variety. Again, the harshness of the winter affects the plants. And as you get more experience, you look at color. … You want colors that flow. You want pinks and lavenders, purples and yellows, red and whites.”
“One of the more interesting combinations I have had — I did red bee balm with white lilies. It was fantastic one year. They bloomed at the same time.”
She uses Miracle Grow to fertilize her plants.
“That really makes a difference.”
And they use a lot of mulch on their property. This year, three pallets, with 75 bags to a pallet.
Pat Mones, one of the owners at Valley View Gardens on Luker Road, said her landscaping business sells topiary bushes already shaped. “It’s not an enormous amount,” she said.
But they have some cypress, spruce and pine topiaries.
At points in the year, The Henrys have about 14 deer that bed down on their property every night. Sometimes they have deer fights. The deer dig up the lawn.“I will open a window in the middle of winter and they will be right by the deck.”
And the deer are not frightened by clapping. They will not move, Henry said. Sometimes they bed down in a flower garden!
“I never know, between the winter and the animals, what’s going to make it,” she said.
Henry learned to care for plants from her father, an avid gardener, and from gardening books.
“I read the books and then I experiment. That’s the nice thing about gardening. You can move the flowers. You can change the color … and height is important. Look at how tall plants are,” she said.
She advises: Buy Miracle Grow. Water, feed the plants, talk to them. Be patient.
“Don’t be afraid to move a plant,” her husband said.
They’ve moved bushes, trees, flowers.
“It was like moving furniture outdoors,” Dick Henry said.
“You do your research to find out what will do well and it will either grow for you or won’t. If it doesn’t, you try something different,” Hitt said.
Gardening is “awesome,” Hitt said. “You get to be outdoors, to be soaking up the sun, sitting in the shade and admiring the garden when it gets to be too hot … You get to look at beautiful flowers and just marvel at what nature does.”
“The next shape that I am going to do — I am going to do an animal,” Theresa Henry said. “I am not sure when. I have to look at the bush. They have these wire frames. It goes over the bush. You start shaping the animal beside it, on the wire. I am really interested in doing that.”