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How to Prune My Shrubs Into Shapes

By Tracy Morris ; Updated September 21, 2017
Hand shears are a useful tool for trimming topiary shrubs.

Cutting shrubs with dense growth such as boxwood into ornamental shapes is an art known as topiary. Topiary shapes range from simple spheres, cones and squares to fanciful designs such as peacocks, bears and even faces. Incorporating a topiary shrub into a landscape gives it a structural element that helps to balance strong architectural elements such as a heavy fence or wall. Though pruning topiary may seem intimidating, it can actually be quite simple.

Set out your tools in advance so that they will be handy when you need them. Tools for trimming topiary include long-handled shears for cutting rough shapes and hand shears for cutting fine detailed shapes.

Mix a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water in a bucket. Soak a sponge in this solution and wipe the blades of your tools with it. This will sterilize the tools. Use this solution in between trimming each shrub to avoid the spread of diseases.

Schedule your first topiary training session for spring after all danger of frost has passed. Topiary should be maintained with regular trimming every three months from spring until fall. Never remove more than 1/3 of your topiary plant’s total size during initial training. For complex topiary, gradually shape the plant over time by removing a little bit of the shrub during each training session.

Choose a shrub to make into your topiary that already has a similar shape. For example, if you are making your topiary into a cone, choose a boxwood that already has a pyramid shape.

Create a rough-cut shape with long-handled shears. Select a reference point on the plant to work from. For example, if you are making a cone, work outward from a central stem. If you are cutting a spiral, wrap a string in a spiral around the bush to form a guide line.

Step back from your topiary plant after making each cut to assess whether you are trimming the plant properly.

Create a wire template to help you with fine trimming for your shrub. If you are trimming a shrub into a cone, create a straight guide that you can hold against the slope of the shrub to determine that the surface of the cone is uniform. Trim any branches that grow beyond the level of the template with your hand shears. If you are creating a round ball, bend the wire into a sphere. Hold the sphere against your shrub and trim any branches that grow outside of the circle.


Things You Will Need

  • Long-handled shears
  • Hand shears
  • Bleach
  • Cloth
  • Wire

About the Author


Tracy Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Arkansas.