Myrtle Topiaries Demystified!
One of the most common questions I seem to get from both novice and experienced gardeners alike this time of the year is “How do I keep my myrtle topiary alive indoors through the winter?”. I will admit they can seem a bit finicky, but just like any houseplant, all they need is the right balance of sunlight and water to sustain their growth. Well, that’s the short answer, anyway.
The long answer is that myrtle (we grow myrtus communis compacta, a small leaf variety) has been kept clipped this way as topiary for hundreds of years because it responds so well to being clipped into shapes, even if grown in a pot indoors.
We grow our topiaries on sight in the greenhouses at the farm. This requires practice and patience but also allow us to supply you with a well established plant that you will only need to maintain without too much trouble. Most of the topiaries we sell are already 1 1/2 to 2 years old and already well formed.
Most people find there myrtle plants thrive in the summer months. This is because myrtle prefers full direct sun. They can take a large amount of water in these conditions, especially for an established potted plant and so do best with regular, maybe even daily, watering in the summer. It is also best to clip your topiary often during it’s high growing season. This will not only make it easier to keep sufficiently watered, it will also keep the growth looking full and the shape well formed.
As the days get shorter in the fall and into the winter, the growth is likely to slow down considerably on your myrtle topiary. So should the amount of water and clipping necessary to maintain it. This means you won’t have to water or trim it as often! This is good, right? Just water it generously when the soil has dried out, you don’t have to soak it or mist it and the soil doesn’t want to be wet all of the time, watering approximately one to three times a week depending on how warm and dry your home is in the winter should do it, and just give it a quick trim when it starts to look shaggy, maybe once or twice a month.
Move your potted topiaries around inside if you don’t have a lot of light where you want to keep them. For instance, they look great on a mantle or tabletop but don’t get much sunlight, so once a week or so move them to a sunny windowsill for the day and give them a little water. This can be enough to keep them looking great through the winter months and ready to be enjoyed for years to come!
If you have had your topiary for some time or it’s growth has become much larger than the diameter of the pot that it is in, or if your New England home is drier than the sahara in the winter (I’m looking at you woodstoves and radiant heat) and you are finding it difficult to keep your topiary watered (i.e. I water it all the time and the damn thing is always dry!) it is time to transplant it into a larger pot. Pick a pot just slightly larger so the proportions will still be right, we have a great selection of terra cotta at the farm, and if it is particularly pot-bound you may want to loosen the roots a bit when transplanting. Always use a pot with a hole in the bottom and put something for drainage in the bottom of the pot like gravel or some broken pottery pieces. Myrtle requires good drainage. And make sure to stake and tie your topiary to support it’s shape, we use bamboo and raffia for this and both are readily available (bamboo stakes at most hardware stores, raffia at most craft or floral supply stores), inexpensive and have a natural appeal.
If you live nearby and want us to re-pot a topiary you got from us, we would love to have you bring it by. If you are not local or can’t stop in, you can email us with any questions you may have about something you got from us that I haven’t covered here.
Myrtle: How to grow
When crushed, myrtle leaves exude a soft eucalyptus aroma reminiscent of the Australian gum. Indeed, the two are closely related. Myrtle does not appear to have a medicinal use like eucalyptus, but the leaves are dried for potpourris and used to flavour pork and game dishes.
Usefully, they keep their rich, emerald green colour when dried. On hot summer days there is often a very slight aromatic scent as you brush past the leaves, so place your plant close to a door or path whenever you can.
The Greeks and the Romans held this elegant evergreen in special regard. It was the sacred herb of Aphrodite; her Roman alter ego, Venus, wore a myrtle wreath and is often depicted rising from the sea with a sprig of myrtle. As a result, all over the Mediterranean mature myrtles can be found planted close to temples dedicated to the goddess of love.
The plant is also thought to have aphrodisiac qualities and it is traditional to use myrtle in bridal bouquets. But this may be because it produces vestal-white flowers in July and August, when many brides marry. The fragrant flowers, though small, are packed with a mass of gold-tipped stamens that gleam in full sun. So it’s not surprising that myrtle is associated with the Virgin Mary, or that it was a Victorian symbol of love and constancy.
The variegated form (Myrtus communis ‘Variegata’) has pink-tinged flowers and silver-green leaves and it shines and sparkles in winter and summer sun. A more compact form with smaller leaves, Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina, is sometimes used for low hedges; there is also a cream-edged form of this.
How to Grow
For the best results, plant myrtle outdoors in late spring in a well-drained, sheltered position. This gives it the best chance of establishing lots of root before winter weather sets in.
You can also grow myrtle in a container in soil-based compost. Water and feed with a potash-rich tomato food during the growing season.
The potash will encourage more flower and also harden the wood. Ease off watering from late August onwards, and then dry off almost completely before over-wintering the container. The shelter of a warm wall under the eaves of the house is a perfect place.
Take semi-ripe cuttings in summer as an insurance policy against loss. Look for new growth that has started to firm up and choose non-flowering shoots if possible (otherwise remove the buds). Take off some of the lower leaves and trim below the node with a sharp knife or scissors. Plunge the cuttings into horticultural sand, or a 50 per cent mixture of sand and compost, and place out of direct sunlight.
Cuttings should root within six to 12 weeks. Pot up individually in gritty compost and overwinter in a sheltered, frost-free place until the following spring. You can either keep the young plants in pots for another year, or plant them out. But they will need both protection from winter squalls and careful nurturing through dry springs.
The black strappy grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, also a lover of a warm spot, has dark leaves that will flatter myrtle’s white flowers in summer and pick up the black berries in autumn.
Bulbous plants share the same love of well-drained, dry conditions and you could accentuate the vivid green leaves by under-planting myrtle with silver-leaved forms of spring-flowering cyclamen, Cyclamen coum Pewter Group or Silver Group. Species tulips and white muscari also work well. The curly-leaved golden marjoram (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum Crispum’), can be cut into small mounds to create a leafy contrast.
Buy Myrtus communis from the Telegraph Gardenshop.
Common myrtle is a small, original, flower-bearing and very ornamental shrub.
Basic common myrtle facts
Name – Myrtus communis
Family – Myrtaceae
Type – shrub
Height – 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters)
Exposure – rather sunny
Soil – ordinary, well drained
Foliage – evergreen
Flowering – June to October
Many find it appealing all year round for its blooming, its fragrance and berries.
Planting common myrtle
Myrtle is a plant native to the Mediterranean area, and it finds cold weather unbearable, especially over long periods of time.
It’s preferable to plant common myrtle in fall to favor root development and renewed growth in spring.
It is also possible to plant common myrtle in spring but then you must be in a position to water it all summer long the first year after you’ve planted.
- Common myrtle prefer locations with high exposure to sunlight.
- It likes rich and well drained soil, that is where it flowers best.
- Adding soil conditioner when planting enhances settling in and root development.
- Water well during the first 2 years after planting.
Common myrtle in pots and containers
You can also plant common myrtle in pots outside as long as you avoid both below-freezing temperatures and hot weather.
Potted common myrtle is ideal for regions where winters are harsh, because since it can moved around, you can bring it in a greenhouse or unheated lean-in over the winter.
Propagating and preparing common myrtle cuttings
Common myrtle is quite easily multiplied by preparing cuttings from its semi-hardened sprigs, it is the simplest propagation method.
Prepare your myrtle cuttings in spring or at the end of summer, on soft-wood growth, that is, wood that is not hard yet, nor has grown brown bark, but is in the process of hardening.
- Collect myrtle stems that are about 6-inches (15 cm) long.
- Remove the lower leaves so that only the topmost one or two pairs of leaves are left.
- Plant the cuttings in special cutting soil mix or a blend of peat and river sand.
- Keep the substrate a little moist.
Protect your cuttings before winter
- Protect your common myrtle cuttings with a tunnel greenhouse, a greenhouse or any other solution that is able to keep them at a temperature of at least 40°F (5°C).
Transplant in spring
- When the last frosts are past, towards mid-May, transplant in nursery pots one size larger.
- Planting of your myrtle cuttings in the ground will take place in the following fall.
Read also: understanding the technique for cuttings
Pruning and caring for common myrtle
Although not pruning at all will suite the shrub fine since it rarely exceeds 16 feet (5 m) in height, you can balance or reduce the breadth of your common myrtle at the beginning of spring, pruning delicately.
To keep a compact appearance, prune the year’s new shoots back to half their length after the blooming.
You can increase the blooming by often adding liquid organic fertilizer, especially as an indoor plant when the soil tends to quickly lose its nutrients.
Learn more about common myrtle
It shares a cute summer blooming that is white in color and usually lasts from June to October with a delicate fragrance.
The flowers then turn into dark berries that is used to make liquor, especially in Corsica and Sardinia.
Common myrtle has acknowledged therapeutic benefits that have long been known, specifically as a tonic and antiseptic.
Its leaves are used in infusions to treat wounds and ulcers as well as urinary and digestive disorders.
Smart tip about common myrtle
You must water regularly in summer but not too much, choosing to water in the evening to reduce evaporation.