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Dig This
Friday, September 15, 2000

By Stephanie Kendrick

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
At Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, Dean Okimoto holds
a 1-1/2-year-old rosemary plant that has just begun to fill its mold.

A taste of Topiary

Rosemary, chile pepper and
other culinary herbs are sculpted
into delightful shapes using
the art of topiary

THERE'S no denying the beauty of bonsai, but it's a lot of work and you can't eat the clippings.

Bonsai's western counterpart is garden topiary. Where bonsai creates an idealized view of the natural world, topiary involves molding plants into whimsical shapes and creatures.

Herbal topiary delivers benefits in both garden and kitchen.

Garden topiary was developed to accent the formal gardens of ancient Rome. Standards, which look like lollipop trees, are the simplest form. To create them, the trunk of the plant is kept bare and straight and a round bush of foliage is clipped at the top. Variations on the standard include braided or serpentine trunks topped by a mop of foliage. Animal forms and geometric shapes are also popular.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Detail of a golden dewdrop trunk in training.

Dean Okimoto doesn't understand why topiary is not more common in Hawaii, home of so many gardeners and herb-friendly sunshine. The owner of Nalo Farms, which specializes in herbs and greens, was inspired to try his hand at topiary on a trip to Disneyland a few years ago. And he's learned a lot since.

"(It takes) a lot of patience; it's a lot of labor," said Okimoto. Prices of as much as $80 commanded by even small potted topiary used to amaze him. "I can see why now," he said.

"The key to topiaries is you want to get it up to the height that you want the plant to be, and that's when you clip the stem and it'll start branching out," said Okimoto.

Mostly, he's been experimenting with standards in herbs like Mexican stick oregano, Hawaiian chile pepper and naschia.

His most complete animal topiary, a 1-foot-tall rosemary squirrel, is just starting to bush through it's wire form. It's a year and a half old. "The plants have to grow through the wiring before you cut it," he said. "If you overcut, you're going to stress the plant."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Parts of a rosemary plant sprout though the
bottom of a bunny mold, but it's got a long way to
go before being shaped

When an animal form topiary fills out, the wire form can be cut out, or left to use as a guide. Okimoto is planning to leave the squirrel form intact.

Okimoto is offering a class on topiary later this month, much to the dismay of his assistant, Ed Nishida, who has taken over much of the topiary experiment. Nishida swears they are not ready for students, despite what looked to the unexpert eye like many fine examples.

Okimoto admits he's still learning the art. "It's more of a hobby with us than anything else," he said. But he sees the class as another way to teach people about herbs, an area where he has considerable expertise.

Disneyland's displays of large topiary influenced Okimoto's choice of rosemary for his early experiments, but he does expect his plants to reach such magical preportions.

"Those ones at Disneyland, some of them have got to be 10 to 20 years old," said Okimoto. Alas, rosemary grown in Hawaii tends to die after a few years. It seems to succumb to a soil disease, he said.

The chile pepper topiary are a lucky accident. "They stripped them for a purpose at first, because of white flies," said Okimoto. "I looked at them and thought, this might work."

His sister is crafting standards from golden dewdrop, both the white- and blue-flowered varieties, simply because it is one of her favorite plants. But while the plant has beautiful flowers, leaves and even berries, it is inedible.

And Nishida has chosen a silvery artemisia for Christmas tree topiary. Okimoto said it's the perfect herb to have on hand for that gluttonous time of year as its leaves settle the stomach.

The only real requirement for topiary herbs is they should have a woody stem, he said.

Thyme can work, but it is prone to fungus in Hawaii, so should be grown in a breezy area, or kept in a pot and brought in when it rains. "Never water from the top, water only the dirt," said Okimoto, a rule he applies to lavender as well and for the same reason.

Scented leaf geraniums and common myrtle were two other topiary herbs recommended by "The New Guide to Herbs" (Lorenz Books) that Okimoto said will grow well in Hawaii. It can be hard to find the former, said Okimoto, but he carries the rose and lime varieties.

Geraniums are large-leafed plants better suited to bigger topiary, he said. Common myrtle, on the other hand, is easy to find and its leaves can be used like bay leaf, said Okimoto.

Like any herb, herbal topiary should be grown in full sun with good drainage and judicious watering.


Bullet What: Culinary herbal decorations and a guided tour of Nalo Farms
Bullet When: 9:30 a.m. to noon Sept. 23
Bullet Where: Nalo Farm, 41-574 Makakalo St., Waimanalo
Bullet Cost: $15.50, $11 for Lyon Arboretum members
Bullet Call: 988-0456

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

Stephanie Kendrick's gardening column runs Fridays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu 96802
or email

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