Monday, January 23, 2017

All About Myrtle Topiaries


Happy New-ish Year! 

2017 is my sixth year of blogging - time flies! Is there anything you'd like me to blog about? Please share your suggestions in the comments section as I'd love to know.

One topic I frequently get questions on is my myrtles. Each time I post a topiary photo here or on INSTAGRAM, everyone wants to know how I care for these fabulous but fussy houseplants with such distinctive forms. Well I'm delighted to shed some light on this personal passion of mine. In the right environment and with a bit of TLC, anyone can keep myrtles happy and healthy for years.

The variety I favor is myrtus communis compacta or dwarf myrtle, an herb with fragrant foliage when crushed. These can be grown outdoors as evergreen shrubs in warm climates. Planted as a hedge, they are a lovely way to delineate parterre beds in formal gardens. The small leaves, which are an attractive glossy dark green, make them suitable for close pruning; a reason they are popular as shaped topiaries.

As topiary houseplants in colder environments, their needs are quite different than those of hardy shrubs living outdoors in warmer climates. Before sharing how I grow these verdant gems, let's look at those currently in my shop: 
Both photos above are from last week. See the three on the French round table? They were repotted just before Thanksgiving, and are doing great. All have fresh growth, a good sign that everyone is happy, as well as plenty of moss plus weeds. For now the weeds can stay because I welcome the extra pop of greenery during these gray wintry days. When they start to overwhelm, time to yank them out to conserve nutrients for the myrtles. The velvety moss stays; its roots are not as deep or invasive. 

For scale, here I am 😊 next to one of my giant triples. Now twice their original size, this handsome pair came from the nursery of the late Allen C. Haskell, a fine horticulturalist and nurseryman with a passion for topiaries.   
A couple more photos of my collection at Tone on Tone. Since we sold our DC home with its conservatory, I've moved most of them to the shop where they are bathed in natural light all day thanks to our floor-to-ceiling picture windows. Plus the heat is kept very low at night so my "topes" do not get dried out.
Now let's talk about how to care for these green beauties:

INDOORS VS OUTDOORS
In DC, dwarf myrtle cannot live outside during winter. It must come in before any threat of a freeze, which is around early October. Once inside, avoid placing near a radiator or heat register. After all danger of a frost is over, it can go back outside for sunshine and fresh air. Keep protected from thunderstorms, heavy rain and strong winds as this top-heavy plant can easily fall over.

SUNLIGHT
Give it as much light as possible, especially indoors. Otherwise it will turn spindly and not have that coveted density. Make sure to rotate occasionally for even growth on all sides.

WATERING
Never let the myrtle dry out completely, but water accordingly. If sitting outside in full sun, especially in a porous clay pot, daily watering might be necessary. Be mindful not to have water sitting in the saucer for too long as this can cause root rot. During winter I generally water (use lukewarm, please) every other day; do so until water seeps out in the saucer, which should be reabsorbed within 3 - 5 hours. Dump out any excess water afterwards. Misting is also beneficial.

REPOTTING
Usually the topiary is already in a pot that is too small, making it somewhat root bound - that's ok for a while. Think of it as a bonsai where you want to focus its energy / growth on top rather than at the roots. However, when it absorbs water too fast and needs constant watering, time to repot. Choose a pot one size larger to keep the proportions balanced. Also, if a pot is overly spacious the plant will waste energy sending out excessive roots. 

CLIPPING
To maintain a neat, tight form, clipping or shearing should be done every two weeks from late winter to the end of summer. Monthly is recommended for the rest of the year. This also encourages denser growth because whenever a shoot / sprig is clipped, two new ones emerge to create more foliage. When not in a rush, I clip at the branch between the leaves, being careful not to cut the actual foliage which can create unsightly brown spots. But since I have so many, I tend to just shear the entire "ball." 

FERTILIZING
From late winter to early fall, I will fertilize with Miracle-Gro once a month. Fertilizing is essential to the success of container gardening where the nutrients are depleted by the plant as well as leached out with watering.   

INSECTS
Bugs are unavoidable. I spray liberally with a mild insecticidal soap on the foliage and soil. If persistent, take to your nursery for diagnosis and proper treatment.

SHEDDING
Shedding of the old leaves as new ones form is to be expected. But excessive dropping may be due to diseases, insects, changes in light and moisture levels, etc. Please consult your nursery's specialist.

And that's all! Just minutes each day dedicated to the care of a few living sculptures that add such warmth, charm and personality. I really love these civilized yet whimsical beauties, and couldn't imagine not having them

In our former home, myrtles lived amongst us in nearly every room. Enjoy these photos - many taken by photographer Helen Norman for Martha Stewart Living and Southern Living magazines.             
Here I am demonstrating how to properly clip using my favorite Japanese pruners. If any seem tipsy, steady their trunks while clipping.
Some also come up with Tom and me to Maine (below photo). Yes, they travel with us!
Additionally, I have other types of topiaries like this pair of rosemary. Unfortunately both were zapped by the frost when left outside during an unusually frigid winter.
Next to the rosemary is a "Duckfoot" miniature ivy which I had for quite a while. I gifted it to a friend last year when Tom and I were in between homes.

Speaking of homes, I have exciting news to share: Tom and I are moving, again! Not far, though...just a few blocks from our Tudor, which we'll be selling soon. Anyone interested in a move-in ready storybook Tudor with fabulous architectural details including slate roof, dramatic chimney, arched front door, interior French doors, ceiling beams, bay windows, period woodwork and hardware, etc? All the double glazed windows were recently added. We replaced the HVAC system, and installed custom shutters, built-in bookcases, lighting, staircase runner, marble floors, and more. It is located in the tree-lined neighborhood of North Woodside, Silver Spring (inside the beltway) where there are many gracious colonials, charming bungalows, and unique Tudors all from the 1920 - 30s. Please spread the word - thank YOU kindly.

Why are we moving? We found another small home (a Cotswold style Tudor) on a large lot with plenty of gardening potential 🌼. More to come!

Cheers,
Loi