Imagine a shrub shaped like your wildest dreams. Therein lies the magic of topiary, the art of sculpting foliage into silhouettes resembling everything from chess pieces to geometric marvels to butterflies taller than Tyson Chandler.
Yes, there will always be the deep, Depp eyes of Edward Scissorhands, but here in real life, there is virtuoso/rock star Joe Kyte, who creates steel sculpture, landscapes and topiary under the banner of Topiary Joe, based in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. His portfolio is whimsical and diverse: international clients have included the American Museum of Natural History, Disney, Dreamworks, the Denver Nuggets, Sandals Resorts, wildlife protection org Elephant Family, and Hard Rock Resorts, just to name a few, in addition to many private/residential commissions. Joe’s works number approximately 3,400.
All photos courtesy of Joe Kyte.
Did we mention Prince Charles, uber-gardener, keeps one of Joe’s elephants at Clarence House? In addition to the artist’s steel sculpture, Topiary Joe offers three kinds of topiary: traditional shrubbery (like Ficus repens) and vines (like ivy) planted in the ground in or around the base of the sculpture; a sphagnum moss-stuffed sculpture planted with vines; and frames fully covered in UV-resistant fake boxwood. His topiary has taken the shape of nearly every animal under the sun, plus “living logos” and showstopping sports cars — Porsches, Ferraris and Bugattis that recently caught the attention of Autoweek.
Interested in a topiary or sculpture of your own? Make like a tree and head on over to topiaryjoe.com or contact him here for details. In a series of lively emails, we caught up with Joe, who lives just steps away from the Tellico River and the Cherokee National Forest. He lets us in on the “magic and mayhem” of his job — including the transport of a 45-foot-long tyrannosaurus rex (“we only hit one bridge”), his artistic heroes, and the dragon that just left his yard.
How did you get into topiary? Twenty-one years ago, I started while working for Grodan Rockwool, introducing hydroponics to the US and Canadian greenhouse growers. That got an exhibit at Epcot which is still on exhibit in The Land pavilion growing tomatoes and cukes. The topiary form at Disney was developed by Walt to reflect the character figures within his park, a steel wire frame on a moveable pallet with plants. [It’s] American portable style topiary, so maintenance could be performed outside the viewing area.
About that — how do the Disney people keep everything looking so…perfect? When they create a new topiary at the Disney World tree farm they will build two or three. One to start new growth at the base and slowly grow in a shrub, one stuffed with sphagnum moss and planted with vines, flowers or a combination of greenery, and one with fake boxwood, which looks perfect from a distance…for hard-to-maintain pieces.
How would you describe the work you do today? Each project is way different. From spending three months in Negril as guest at Beaches/Sandals Resorts building topiary for 16 resorts, visiting and staying at each whilst installing…to [spending] seven weeks alone (well, [with] two dogs and a cow), in an Irish cow barn, welding a herd of 13 elephant frames, to standing in a mall parking lot in Santiago, Chile, creating 15-foot-tall Coca-Cola polar bears for three weeks. I work here at the shop quite a lot but really relish the travel and fun of going somewhere different for inspiration and perspective. I average four months a year out.
What kind of plant material do you use? The plant material is always diverse. If planting a frame, I seek whatever looks best in the local hedge row. If color is wanted, we stuff the frame with moss, make an internal drip system and plant with annuals. [My] favorite plants include Ficus repens/F. pumila (creeping fig) for more tropical areas, ivy for up north. The color palette is wide open as we can use just about anything when determined.
How do people react when they see your topiary? Reactions to my work I always like to see. During installations I listen and watch the faces of children as they imagineer their way through the sculpture – and it is universal, as I see it in every destination with the same smiles and exclamations of recognition.
What’s been a particularly memorable project? The 45-foot-long T. rex in Chicago. He was originally 15 feet tall, and took three months to build in the driveway, right on the trailer. We only hit one bridge, a low-slung el train one, upon entering the city. It shortened him by four inches when we put him back together. Ssshhhh…
What kind of care is taken while creating your topiary? I have to admit that using the fake boxwood is great for larger pieces. Infusing real plants makes it better on the mind for the gardener… I am admittedly a steel sculptor/landscaping/topiarist. The true form of topiary, a cut shrub, is best expressed by my hero, Pearl Fryar. He rocks the house with the wild shrubbery he cuts at his place. I make the forms to train, he simply spends the time to cut and cut and cut.
[Ed: You must see this man’s work. Check out this trailer for a Pearl Fryar documentary:]
I am more like the American immediate green satiation. I do it Disney-style for short-term exhibits with a little magic and mayhem, but all the projects get finished in the nick of time. We often get requests for stuff to be finished and shipped within a week. Live or fake or even on location,Topiary Joe has been fashioned to move quickly and build custom frames for topiary, scenics for film industry and events worldwide.
What does your own yard look like right now? I have a new mailbox after seven years of a 12-foot dragon (which is now the mailbox at the Crab Trap restaurant with a crab added to the top of the cup the dragon holds). The new box is a swoopy ’30s Delahaye coupe. I also have the Porsche 356 sculpture (which goes to a private party with the motorcycle and a cobra soon), the motorcycle, a sailfish, Willie the Bookworm, gates, fences, hangers, archways, plant holders, tables, chairs, ramps, racks, rotisserie.
Okay, we gotta ask: thoughts on Edward Scissorhands? Hero!