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Having fun with topiaries

The other day I bought a small topiary tree, laced with miniature lights, a sweet leftover from the holiday season. I liked it because of its tailored shape and crisp form and because it would look good in a third-floor city apartment with no garden.

I also got to thinking about the word topiary and its origins and learned that it comes from the Latin Topiarius. The first written descriptions between 38 B.C. and 14 A.D. are attributed to the Romans. But the art of cutting trees and shrubs into fanciful shapes _ mainly in the gardens of the wealthy _ has been practiced widely among cultures, Italian, French, Dutch and English.

My search uncovered another interesting nugget: One of the more unusual manufacturers of topiary frames in the world is in Tampa, in a garage in fact, behind a house on Bayshore Boulevard.

Mia Hardcastle and her partner, Mary Beth Greiwe-McNeil, have produced hundreds of the frames, used everywhere from the renowned Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia to Disney World to Six Flags to Sea World of Ohio.

Their firm, Topiary Inc., also deals in mass-produced frames, including a menagerie of rabbits, horses, mice and monkeys. But the beautiful custom shapes _ carousel horses, girls on swings, long-legged giraffes and pairs of Chinese Fu dogs _ are the handiwork of Hardcastle, 70.

Hardcastle, who has a degree from Vanderbilt University in mechanical engineering, is a trained welder with the eye of an artist.

"Back in the days when I studied engineering, they taught you to weld, plus I love to work with my hands," she says.

Her work has been photographed for two coffee-table books on the subject, including one, The New Topiary by Patricia Riley Hammer, that features Hardcastle's creations on the cover.

She even made topiaries for the most famous fictional hedge-sculptor of them all, Edward Scissorhands, the 1990 movie starring Johnny Depp that was filmed in Pasco County.

"We actually used fake plants for that one," she explains.

Her designs are visible around Tampa, from the tennis player in front of the Tampa Bay Yacht Club to the angels flanking the exterior of the florist, Bloom, on Bayshore Boulevard.

Loyal customers on plantations in Puerto Rico order Hardcastle's topiaries and frames. Fans have also included the Japanese royal family, Universal Studios, Tiffany's and Cypress Gardens.

Recently, a GMAC branch outside of Orlando commissioned her to fashion their gigantic initials in topiary. Hardcastle started the business in 1975 with another partner (Greiwe-McNeil joined her later), creating topiaries for the first Junior League of Tampa decorator's show house.

"It was a good business for someone raising children," she explains, leading a visitor to her garage where hundreds of frames dangle from the rafters. They come in every shape and species imaginable, both anthropomorphic and human: a cross-legged bunny, dolphins, swans, squirrels, a boy and girl.

Hardcastle can make a topiary elephant or an Eiffel Tower, even a flamingo with pink legs. She built an antlered moose, Glenda the Good Witch, even an alligator out of topiary wire.

They range from $12 for a simple mouse to $198 for a garden girl ($298 if she's covered in plants). They also offer tabletop kits that include moss, plant, frame and pins.

The San Diego Zoo commissioned Hardcastle to make a series of Looney Tunes topiaries, including a 6-foot tall Bugs Bunny made of creeping fig and "hardened putty" ears and feet.

The frames come plain or blanketed with a customer's choice of greenery.

"We actually developed a method of putting moss in the body (of the topiary) and planting in it."

For customers who are gardening impaired, she highly recommends sheet moss, which is actually dead, but can be spritzed yearly with a brew of water and green food coloring to make it look fresh again.

She also recommends creeping fig, but avoids ivy except for customers living in the north.

"People tend to overwater ivy and kill it," she says.

The decorating shows and magazines this season are crazy for topiaries as accent pieces _ both indoors and out _ a trend that's taken off because the plants are so easy to maintain.

"We're getting more and more orders from people wanting topiaries that don't require care."

The company has no showroom, just a Web site and a catalog featuring their 250 designs. They take pride in filling orders quickly and employ three part-time welders and a part-time gardener to help with the greenery.

"We're a small, cottage industry and have no desire to be much bigger," says Hardcastle, who lectures periodically on the subject at the Tampa Bay Garden Center. "But we've always claimed to be the best. Our animals really look the way they're supposed to, like animals."

For information on prices and ordering, go to www.topiaryinc.com or call (813) 839-1547.

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