Tree Shaping: Your Next Gardening Endeavor?
Tree Shaping: Your Next Gardening Endeavor?
Tree Shaping: Your Next Gardening Endeavor?
Consider adding practical and imaginative tree shapes to your landscape
By Carol J. Alexander
Images courtesy of Ladew Topiary Gardens
For hundreds of years, people have shaped trees for practical reasons, artistic pursuits, and just plain fun.
The Khasi people of the Meghalaya state of India erected a series of bridges across rivers using the aerial roots of living banyan trees. Some of these bridges still stand today; they’re at least 100 years old and can hold more than 2 tons.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Disney World. If you’ve been, you’ve likely walked past huge trees shaped like Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, and Mickey Mouse. Artist gardeners use a tree-shaping method called topiary to create these whimsical lawn ornaments.

topiary garden decoration
Topiary is just one form of the fascinating craft of tree shaping, a practice that trains living trees and shrubs to grow into creative or resourceful shapes. Other forms include pleaching, which involves weaving and intertwining the branches of trees planted closely together to create a fence or hedgerow. There’s also espalier, growing fruit trees, grapes, or berries flat against a wall supported on a framework or lattice.
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/ Tree Shaping Methods /
Aeroponics:
To build their bridges, the Khasi people used a tree shaping method called aeroponics. A plant is grown in air, without soil, and misted. The moist river region of India made using this method possible.
Instant tree shaping:
Also known as arborsculpture, this method uses mature trees. It involves bending and weaving branches and holding them in place with “casts” until the tree creates its own cast of new growth, achieving the desired shape. According to Phil Krach, senior gardener at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, this is the fastest way to transform a tree.

“It’s best to know what you want your shape to be beforehand,” he says. “Then, go find a tree that’ll work. The shape has to be in the tree already.” Phil suggests using flexible species, like willow, maple, and some fruit trees.

Gradual shaping:
Gardeners start with a young, pliable tree plant and encourage the trunk or branches to grow along a wire frame or wooden jig. This method requires patience; waiting for the tree to grow into the desired shape can take up to 20 years.
/ Techniques Gardeners Use to Shape Trees /
Inosculation:
Often, artists graft branches from other trees onto their tree to achieve their desired shape. Or, they may do a natural type of grafting called inosculation. This involves planting the trees close enough together that you can encourage them to grow into each other, forming one larger plant.
Inosculation garden technique
Framing garden technique
Framing:
This is another technique gardeners use to encourage growth in a particular shape or direction. “Framing helps lead the plant where you want it to go,” Phil says. “It helps the plant build the strength to support itself.”

And the frame isn’t always hidden; gardeners sometimes use something ornamental and make it part of the design, Phil says.

Framing:
This is another technique gardeners use to encourage growth in a particular shape or direction. “Framing helps lead the plant where you want it to go,” Phil says. “It helps the plant build the strength to support itself.”

And the frame isn’t always hidden; gardeners sometimes use something ornamental and make it part of the design, Phil says.

Framing garden technique
Pruning:
Just as you prune your rose bushes or fruit trees, regular trimming done at the proper time helps keep living tree art in shape.

“Sometimes visitors to the gardens ask why we don’t keep on top of our pruning,” Phil says. “But they don’t understand that you have to balance the pruning with the health of the plant because those leaves are what feeds the tree.”

He suggests gardeners prune after the new growth has finished growing.

Pruning garden technique
3 Tips to Add Shaped Trees to Your Landscape
Whether you want whimsical lawn ornaments or a hedge the dog can’t get through, tree shaping is a creative and rewarding addition to any property. Phil shares three tips for those who want to add shaped trees to their landscape:
Computer
Read everything you can find.
“The internet is an amazing resource,” Phil says.
Trees
Start with a simple design.
Phil recommends an arch or a tunnel. “You plant two trees side by side, tie the tops together, and let it grow that way.”
Hourglass
Go slow.
“You really have to work it a little at a time,” he says.
For more information on tree shaping, read “Arborsculpture: Solutions for a Small Planet” by Richard Reames.
About the Writer
Carol J. Alexander writes about sustainable living, food, and home remodeling from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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