Saturday, September 27, 2003

Topiary gardeners create evergreen works of art


By Beth Burwinkel
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Nghia Phan in the front yard of his Westwood home.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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When Nghia Phan moved to Westwood in the early 1990s he set out to create a front yard that would delight the children on his street. Now, when people walk past his home they see a dinosaur, turtle, elephant and dragon. They may also notice a polar bear and the Energizer bunny in his neighbor's yard.

In Landen, a woman from the 1800s - with a hat, bustle and lantern - welcomes visitors to John Crane's house.

Both gardeners have spent years patiently pruning and coaxing the plants to grow into special shapes, called topiaries.

Phan's fascination with growing topiary plants began in his childhood in Vietnam. On his way to school when he was about 11, he would pass a house where the bushes were shaped like animals. He paid attention to the gardener's technique and began creating topiaries at home - animals and an elaborate church.

When he moved to Cincinnati, he went to yard sales and bought plastic animals that children play with to get ideas for some fun, cartoon-like animal shapes.

His front yard is home to two dinosaurs, an elephant, giraffe, deer, turtle, Chinese dragon, bunny and bear. A peacock is slowly growing into its shape. He crafted a cardinal from a Japanese maple with red leaves.

Tips for growing topiary plants from Nghia Phan:

Depending on the size of the bush and the shape desired, Phan determines what size frame he needs to encourage features to grow. He bends metal coat hangers into the desired shapes.

Use patience and allow the shrub to grow. Trim consistently. If people skip the trimming for a short time, features on the topiary disappear.

Phan is not fluent in English, but is willing to show people his technique. Call 481-2832.

It takes several years to guide a plant into its final shape. A deer grown from a taxus takes about four years to reach full size, Phan says. A giraffe growing from a deciduous shrub is taking even longer.

Phan creates most of his topiaries from evergreen shrubs such as taxus, also known as yew. But he's found that any slow-growing plant with small leaves will work. A fast-growing shrub would provide quicker results, but it would demand more upkeep.

Phan has created topiaries from established shrubs and new plants. If the plant is large and already close to the right shape, Phan simply prunes the shrub and adds a small frame made from metal coat hangers if he needs to encourage the plant to grow a certain feature, such as a head.

Sometimes he starts with new plants and a frame of the animal.

"I work inside (in the winter) and make many frames," Phan says. "In the summer I'm busy out here."

In Landen, Crane converted a neglected patch of ground cover into a 7-foot-tall woman from the 1800s. For a short time in the spring, she breaks out in tiny white flowers.

Seven or eight years ago Crane thought about ripping out the ground cover, which he believes is myrtle, which was planted by a previous owner. Instead he decided to have a little fun with it by trying to grow a topiary.

Inspired by an old-fashioned garment, Crane sketched and modified the shape.

Then he installed a 4-foot post and attached wood at an angle from the post to the ground to support what would become a skirt. More pieces of wood support the figure's upper body and arms. The brim of her hat grows over a steel ring.

Now that the figure is completed, Crane simply has to maintain it.

"I just wait until she grows horns and then I clip her," Crane says.

Crane says the once-annoying patch of ground cover will get to stay in his yard as long as the 1800s woman remains in good shape.


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