How to Create and Maintain the Trim of a Perfect Spiral Topiary Tree

January 30, 2024

Have you ever tried to trim a spiral topiary?  If you are following existing lines, it usually isn’t too tricky, but if you are aiming to turn a cone into a spiral, it can quickly go off the rails. Topiary trimming is complex, and an overzealous Edward Scissorhands-inspired gardener can easily trim too much – causing a plant to take years to recover. If you are wondering how to trim a spiral tree,I have a spiral topiary tree trimming hack for you. The ‘tape trick’ will help you get a perfect spiral every time.

How to trim a perfect spiral topiary (with tape)

How to execute the Spiral topiary tree trimming tape hack

Here is how it’s done:

STEP 1 – Pick the right shrub or tree to sculpt

Select a shrub or plant that is tall and full and has a long, straight central stem. Evergreens such as boxwood or privet work well, as do various junipers, yew, hollies, and arborvitae. Trim the shrub to make a clean and neat cone. The cone shape is the starting point and base of the eventual spiral (you will be carving a spiral from the cone).

STEP 2 – Make a simple Tape Spiral on your tree

Once you have a cone, start at the base and wrap masking tape around the plant all the way up to the tip to create a spiral that you are happy with. Don’t do too many twists – two spirals are more than enough, even for a taller tree. If you are trimming a set of plants, use the tape to help you match the spirals before you cut.

STEP 3 – Cut the shape, following the tape lines

Following the line of the tape, trim back the foliage a few inches above and a few inches below the line. Taper the trim so that the longest branches remain under the tape.

STEP 4 – Keep your perspective

As you prune, step back frequently to take a look at your progress and make adjustments.

STEP 5 – Patience, Grasshopper

Be patient—this will take time. Let the plant recover for at least a few months after pruning. More trimmings and giving the plant time to grow into the gaps will eventually give you a perfect twist. Don’t feel like you need to do it all at once – the plant will appreciate a staged approach and will recover better from a few iterative prunings better than once big dramatic pruning.

What types of trees can you prune into a Spiral Topiary?

three evergreen shrubs in front of a mural wall.

With patience, most any shrub can be pruned into amazing shapes. (Think of bonsai!) But certain trees and bushes are easier to prune into the spiral shape.

Evergreens – If you want your spiral swirl trees to be a year round feature in your garden (and why not? – they look great with a winter frost of dusting of snow) – choose a plant that is evergreen where you live. Boxwood, juniper, cypress, yew, arborvitae, spruce, holly and even some evergreen shrubs like lavender and rosemary are all good candidates for twist trees.

Choose a shrub that has a strong central stem. This will help to ensure that you have a good upright shape for your final tree. A strong central stem means that you don’t have multiple vertical branches coming from the base of the plant. You just have one, and it is straight, strong, and upright.

As an example, I’ve had great success with creating an elegant spiral juniper topiary with a blue point juniper. Juniper plants are relatively inexpensive (compared to other evergreens like boxwood), they grow fast, and their natural cone shape and central stem are easy to work with.

If you want to create your spiral for container planting, you will want to consider dwarf shrub varieties.

A Vine alternative to using Trees and Shrubs for Topiary

If you are feeling limited in your choices for shrubs and trees, remember you can also get the same (or similar) look by growing a vine up a spiral topiary form. This is a great option for a container-planted spiral topiary. Many topiary forms are made to fit within a planter and are too small in scale for in-ground planting.

By using a vine, you can choose options with flowers and different leaf textures. This will, however, require you to pay more attention as the plant grows. You will need to regularly tie in the new growth to train the vine to the twist shape.

How to use Swirl bushes and spiral topiary trees in your Garden

A spiral-cut tree or shrub is going to give your garden’s design style a sense of formality. In a design that is looser and more naturalistic, this can be an exciting contrast to softer and more wild plants. Topiary tree spirals are typically used in pairs or multiples. Not that you can’t use just one, but their formality seems to ask for a pair. With a pair, you can flank a door, a gate, or an entry into another area. Also, with a pair, you can use them to frame something (a fountain, an artistic focal point, a distant view).

If you have just one spiral tree – make sure that you have placed it in a position where it can be a singular focal point. Don’t make it compete with other focal points or put it in a place where you don’t want to naturally draw your eye. (it will draw attention… so make sure that is where you want the attention!)

How to trim a spiral topiary tree FAQ:

When to prune spiral evergreens?

If you’re making dramatic cuts to outdoor evergreen trees and shrubs, prune in the late winter and early spring (before they start putting out new growth). You can still prune in the late spring after the new growth has started to come in – but I prefer to do this only with plants that already are in their spiral shape (and don’t need heavier cutting). Later spring cuts will help you to use the new growth to keep the spiral trees and bushes full and natural looking.
Additionally, you can cut trees in the mid summer since they tend to also have a dormant period when it is hot outside.
Avoid pruning in the fall – this tends to leave evergreens more vulnerable to winter damage.

How to maintain spiral topiary?

After the shape and swirl of your spiral trimmed tree or shrub is established, it will need to be maintained over time. New growth will generally be at the ends of branches so keeping those trimmed back annually will maintain the shape.

Can I grow Spiral trees in containers?

Yes! If you want to grow a spiral cut topiary tree in a container you will want to consider dwarf shrub varieties. Dwarf shrubs stay smaller and more container sized. It is not however, impossible to use trees considered too big for a container garden. Trees and shrubs that are grown in containers are limited in size by the space available for their roots. In a container – the roots are limited, and therefore the tree is unable to grow to its full size.

What plants can be trimmed into topiary?

In addition to the standard evergreen trees and shrubs (junipers, conifers, boxwoods, yew, arborvitae, spruce, holly, cypress) you can prune most anything in topiary shapes. Because the cone is the base shape of a spiral twist topiary, work with plants that have a central stem. (Many plants do not have this – but many can be trained and pruned to have a single leader). Rosemary, myrtle and lavender, are all options. I have even seen coleus trimmed into a popsicle/ ball-on-a-stick shape (referred to as a standard). It takes patience but coaxing plants into pretty shapes is doable for lots of different types of plants – more than you might think.

What tools do you use for trimming spiral bushes?

You can use any hand pruners you prefer for cutting out the branches. If you are working with larger shrubs I like to use my felco pruners. I also enjoy using the tools included in this bonsai trimming kit. Bonsai tools are better for smaller potted and indoor plants as well as smaller branches and finer tuned trimming.

Image: homestudio / 123RF Stock Photo and by Juan Rojas on Unsplash

How to Grow Humongous Hydrangeas

How to Make A Living Willow Arbor

Make A Countertop Kitchen Bonsai Herb Garden

REgister now!

A Free Master Class



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Does Your Garden Need a Makeover?

Learn my 7-step system to design and build a stunning garden anywhere in the world.


Join my Free Class!

Understand the 5 mistakes everyone makes when creating a garden. (Save yourself time, money, & headaches and get much better results!)

See how to work directly with me (but at a DIY price!) to
design and create your own gorgeous garden.