Inside: Father’s day topiary?! Yes! Kids think it’s fun, and the project combines the science of growing with hands-on exploration and the all-important practice of patience.
I love growing things from seeds with my children, especially wildflowers, cucumbers, tomatoes, sunflowers, pumpkins, herbs … well, actually pretty much anything. But one thing we haven’t done yet, and I’ve meant to do it for a while, is to grow a topiary.
I thought that would be an excellent project for Father’s Day because I wanted something that kids could do with minimal help from me. And not only would my husband have something pretty to look at all day, but he would also have more oxygen in his office. Ivy is one of the best air-purifying plants. So, not only is this topiary fun to put together, but it also has excellent health benefits.
Perhaps you’ve already read a couple of picture books about topiaries with your children. There seem to be quite a few of them popping up in the last years for some reason. The Night Gardner by Terry Fan and The Rough Patch by Brian Lies come to mind. Maybe these books already have your kids excited about topiaries. If not, and here is your chance to introduce your kids to something incredible.
What is a topiary?
Trees and bushes expertly clipped into shapes, like dinosaurs, are topiaries. But you don’t have to learn how to trim bushes. Don’t worry! You can easily make a tabletop topiary.
All you have to do is get your hands on a plant that grows fast (like English Ivy) and direct it to grow in a certain shape. Your kids will be excited to watch it progress, plus they will learn some science along the way.
The great thing about this project is that kids can make it with their own hands. Even small kids! If your older kids get excited about this project too, they can make more complicated shapes – like a butterfly (just use pipe cleaners and wire hangers as a base). The sky’s the limits – let their imagination run free!
Are you ready to start?
Tabletop Topiary for Father’s Day
What you need
- Ivy-type plant (we picked up some English Ivy from Home Depot because we already have a few of them and know that they are easy, grow fast, and love to climb)
- Something to form a shape for ivy to grow around. We used a stick and a string. You can use a wire coat hanger, pipe cleaners, straws, a box, or any stuff with wire in it.
- Some dirt
- A pot
- A ruler and a recording sheet (optional)
What to do
1. The Preparation Step – Gathering Supplies and Exploring Trees
Go for a nice, long walk to see if you can find some suitable sticks. My kids collected a great pile of sticks to take home. After some soul searching and a bit of an impromptu stick fight (everyone still has their eyes, thanks for asking :), the two sticks below were considered the best candidates because they were soft enough to bend without breaking and had an intriguing V shape, or is it U shape?
We weren’t sure and had to look it up. The difference is important if you are a tree. The U shape provides space for branch bark ridge growth, which makes a tree stronger. The V-shaped branches don’t have enough room for it, making a fragile union and increasing the chance of decay. Who knew?
Why is that branch ridge growth important? my kids wanted to know right away. It holds the space for the growth of specialized wood that limits the movement of disease to the branch.
It just looks like they are just standing there giving us shade, oxygen, and preserving soil, and all the while, it turns out they also have to fight pathogens and learn how to survive in an environmentally stressed modern world!
So, if you’ve ever walked through a wooded area with your kids and they asked you why tree branches fall for seemingly no reason, there is your answer. The difference stems from branches being strong or weak and when tree specialists (called arborists) make pruning decisions, they specifically look for V-shaped branches to remove.
Back to our project!
Decide what shape you want to make and practice with the items you gathered to see how it looks. We started off ambitiously trying to make a butterfly shape with pipe cleaners, but I wanted my kids to make it without much help from me, so we ended up with a… you will see below.
Don’t be too critical about how it looks! The most important thing is to create something for ivy to grab on to and climb. The fun thing about ivy is that it can grow in any shape and will look beautiful and lush no matter what.
2. Put Together a Frame for Your Ivy to Climb
We’re doing our project using a pot that one of my kids made in his pottery class ten years ago. We thought it would look especially good on my husband’s desk.
Once your kids decide on what they are using for ivy support, stick it in the pot for a moment to see how it will look. We almost used the plain V-shape as pictured below.
But then someone had an idea to turn it into a sail instead, so we tied the ends together with a string.
At least, we tried to make a sail. If it looks more like a leaning oval to you, no hard feelings. I totally understand.
3. Transferring Ivy to the Pot
Take the shape out now and gently put the plant inside the pot first. Talk about roots and what they do for the ivy. The roots of ivy might not look all that impressive to some people, but they perform a number of essential functions.
Roots serve as anchors, absorb water, dissolve minerals, store nutrients, and conduct those nutrients up to the stem. You can mention all that to your kids while you are doing the project. I find that the best education happens outside the classroom.
Now gently push the ends of your structure behind the plant.
4. Add Dirt
Add some dirt to fill the space between the plant and the pot and press down to secure it all in place.
Remember that once the ivy starts climbing it will be adding its weight to the top of your structure and might make it top-heavy and unstable. If you think it’s necessary, add a couple of stones to your pot to make the bottom heavier and more stable.
5. Help Ivy to Grab on Support
Train the stems of the ivy along the support. Like us, you might want to add a few ties just to speed it up, but believe me when I tell you that ivy plants don’t need much encouragement. Ivies love to envelop in a tight hug anything they can reach.
If you decide to add a few ties, encourage your kids to tie the string on their own. It’s an excellent fine motor practice.
Plus, kids love strings. Maybe only my kids? I don’t know how many times I tried to open a cabinet only to find that someone tied a string around the handles, so that it can’t be opened. Fun! In my house, I have strings wrapped around chairs, doorknobs, and toilet paper holders.
Water the topiary generously and keep adding some water every few days to keep it growing.
6. Find a Good Hiding Spot As You Wait For Father’s Day
When the topiary is ready, you have to find a good hiding stop for it. You don’t want the recipient of the topiary to find it before the big day. Mind you, you need a place with Sunlight, so a closet won’t do.
We decided to hide it in plain sight, nestling it among all the other plants in our garden.
By the way, what do you think of our baby cucumber plants? We planted the seeds just a few days ago, but it’s been so hot lately, they are already looking dandy.
The Science of Growing
To be all scientific about it, we decided to add a recording sheet and keep track of progress. It wasn’t as easy as you would think because we needed to keep the topiary hidden from my husband. We don’t want to spoil the Father’s Day surprise after all.
If you want your little scientists to practice some scientific thinking, then keep the ruler handy and (while they are waiting for their topiary to grow) print out our Plant Growth printables and Plant Growth Tracker.
Every day (or every other day), measure your topiary and write down the measurements. The shorter side of our topiary was 9 inches (15 centimeters) when we started. Right now, it’s already 13 inches. We can’t wait to find out what it’s going to measure by father’s day.
While your kids are waiting for the ivy to grow, you can show them the following printables.
NOTE: All my printables are located in the Subscribers-Only Library of Resources. To become a subscriber, add your email to the Kid Minds list and you will get access to the library and get an occasional email from me.