By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
More fairytale than front yard, Bob Little’s Bluefield home looks something like “Alice in Wonderland” due in part to the swirling topiaries growing by the front walk and driveway.
Little, 72, has an artistic approach to making sure the shrubberies on his property are appropriately manicured.
“I guess you would call it a type of topiary,” he said. “It was just an idea that developed several years ago. The ones out by my steps are really the eye-catchers. The ones there were getting so large, so I just decided to cut some type of design in them to see what I could do. That is how it developed. There is a sidewalk that goes around the porch toward the driveway. I always have to cut that back to keep it out of the driveway.
The hedges in Little’s yard didn’t spring up overnight. It took several years of hard work for Little’s landscaping to take on a more whimsical quality.
“The six large ones I have out by my steps have been out there probably 20 years, but I just started designing them seven or eight years ago,” he said. “My sister and I live here and this is our parents home. There was old shrubbery here when we moved here 49 years ago. As time passes, you have to get rid of things. We just played it by ear and went and bought what we wanted to put out. Our mother was a big vegetable gardener and loved to grow flowers herself. She had a big vegetable garden in the backyard.”
Unlike other topiary sculptors, Little does not look to magazines, books or other gardens for his ideas.
“The ideas just come out of my head,” Little said. “I don’t pick things out of a book or anything. It just comes from my head. Sometimes I fail and sometimes I don’t. It’s very experimental. When I first started I didn’t realize how thick it was. I just took a pruner and started cutting designs. You take it from that and develop it year after year. Now, the plants are pretty much stationary. I just have to go cut and straighten out the groove every year.”
Over time, Little has cultivated his pruning skills, cutting down on the time he has to spend working on his yard.
“It took me an hour per shrub when I first started, but now I have learned to go faster,” he said. “It takes me about three hours now to trim all of them out now. I just use an 8-inch pair of scissors like you buy to cut paper with. Once I used the pruning sheers to get the design going, but now they are too big and bulky to keep the design going. Now I just use the scissors. It takes longer to trim the ones with more intricate patterns than the others. You have to give your back a bit of a rest on those.”
Fortunately, Little said his hedges are relatively low maintenance.
“It’s called Japanese garden juniper,” Little said. “I don’t feed them water or fertilizer at all. They have never been fertilized since they’ve been planted. It’s a very easy shrub to grow. Depending on where you plant them and where you want them to grow, you can get them to do whatever you want. I keep the ones by the driveway in sort of a mound so I can get the flowers to grow there. They may get some fertilizer through the plants nearby, but I don’t spray or fertilizer them.”
Local residents and out-of-town visitors often stop to comment on Little’s yard. More than once Little said he has had to explain the shrubs are the result of hard work and not just something you can pick up at the neighborhood greenhouse.
“Over the years a lot of people have knocked on the door to ask where they can buy shrubbery like mine,” he said. “I tell them they can buy shrubbery anywhere, but it doesn’t grow that way. Of course, you have to be a little crazy to make it grow that way. A lot of them are surprised when they find out I did it myself. People take pictures of it and the flowers and everything else. Some people really think the shrubs just grow that way.”
Little said visitors have found odd ways to describe his topiaries.
“People have compared the shrubs to cinnamon buns and a piece of rope,” Little said. “Those two stand out. People say it looks like something that ought to be down in Disney World or somewhere like that. People ask me to come to their homes and do something with their shrubs. I have three lawns that I mow besides my own and trim shrubbery at now. Years ago, I had 14 places I maintained when I was working a full time job. Of course, that was a long time ago.”
With all the time he devotes to his own yard, it is no surprise Little is a member of the Bluefield Beautification Commission.
“I am on the beautification commission and have been for almost 19 years,” Little said. “When I was asked to join the commission, the shrubs were out there but they weren’t trimmed like that. There have always been flowers in our front yard. I knew some of the people on the commission and they asked me to join. I love the flowers and the fellowship of the committee and everything. It’s good to do something that helps the city look a little bit nicer.”
Though it may be a time-consuming task, Little said he has no plans to quit trimming his yard any time soon.
“I like for it to look nice,” he said. “I enjoy being outside and I’m not a person who can just sit down on the front porch and not do anything. As long as I am able to, I want to keep it up. As long as I can get out there and work a pair of scissors I will.”
— Contact Kate Coil at