If you've ever admired those closely cropped plants that form fanciful shapes called topiaries, Wayne McLaurin says you don't need a degree in horticultural art to get the same effect using herbs.
"Topiary herbs are functional and useful," says McLaurin, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.>
"You can always use herbs in seasoning your foods," he said. "And they make pretty nice patio plants."
So how do you go from a little potted plant to an eye- catching topiary herb?
Start with a healthy herb plant with an unpinched leader and a strong stem. Rosemary, French lavender and scented geranium work well. You'll also need scissors, stakes, ties and patience, McLaurin says.
"This is about a two-year project, so you need to start now," he says.
The growing point or tip of the plant is important in topiary, because that's where the plant grows.>
"If you pinch it back, the plant will produce side shoots and will be bushier," McLaurin says. "You can design what the plant will look like by pinching or not pinching the tips."
First let the plant grow straight up to the desired height. A slow-growing or small-leaf plant should be eight to 14 inches tall, and a fast- growing or large-leaf plant should be two to five feet tall.
Place a stake beside the plant and tie the plant to it for support. Allow only the tip shoot of the plant to develop by cutting off any side shoots that start to grow. Allow leaves to stay on the trunk.
"Check the ties often so they don't girdle or injure the growing stem," McLaurin says. "Check for bugs that like to hide around the ties."
Turn the plant so each side gets enough light and it grows evenly. With every four or five waterings during active growth, feed it a liquid fertilizer for houseplants.
"The next stage is forming the top of the plant to the shape you want," McLaurin says. "Before you pinch the growing shoot tip for the first time, think of the finished look you want. Consider leaf size and rate of growth. Where will you display your topiary? What kind of container will it live in?"
When you know those answers, you're ready to pinch out the tip of the plant to make it bushier. Allow three pairs of branches to develop. The trunk will lengthen a bit as it matures and thickens.
"Now comes the real art of topiary," McLaurin says. "Keep in mind the shape you want the plant to take and train the plant through careful tip pinching. Pinch tips about every two inches.
"Pinch or cut at nodes so new shoots will grow in the direction you want," he says. "Encourage width and branching at the base of the 'head.' Top growth will naturally develop faster, so keep upward-growing shoots trimmed back."
"As you become aware of growth habits and see the results of careful pruning," he says, "you'll see how to train the topiary to the shape you want."