Lessons in useful outdoor decor

It’s a bird, it’s a plane – no wait, it’s a … shrub?

Topiary – the art of trimming shrubs into ornamental shapes – was one of three gardening techniques taught at the USF Botanical Gardens on Saturday. The first of the year-long series, “Cultivate Your Creativity,” this workshop educated participants on how to create topiaries, steppingstones and rain barrels.

With every leaf and petal freckled with glistening morning dew, the event commenced in soft sunlight. Setup adjacent to the Botanical Gardens’ plant shop, an activity area was canopied to protect from the imperceptible drizzle. The area was sectioned off for the three activities, with the raw materials for each laid out respectively. Despite the early Saturday morning hour, the attendance multiplied fairly quickly.

Angel Miller, freshman and assistant gardener, meticulously unwound a roll of chicken wire with her gloved hands while giving tips on how to approach the art of topiary. She was helping Adrienne De Nisco, an effervescent participant, create a rabbit topiary. Miller and Kim Hutton, who is the special events coordinator for the Gardens, ran the topiary workshop.

“Once you make a cylinder wire frame, it becomes really easy to shape it into anything you like. I built my alligator and snake topiaries beforehand so I could use those to explain better,” Miller said.

As Hutton explained, creating topiaries is fairly easy. Build a wire frame of the desired shape, fill it densely with wet sphagnum moss, insert a few plugs of a rapidly growing, low-maintenance plant like Ficus pumila, and your topiary is all set to bedeck your garden.

Carol Fanella, a member of the gardens, was pleased with her topiaries.

“I am so excited about this,” she said. “I made two hearts, one for myself and one for my daughter’s birthday.”

The topiary activity area was full of enthusiastic participants, who brought to life their green plant-pets.

Among other marvelous creations of botanical art were cat and rabbit topiaries. The vision of artistic participants driving away with their topiary animals was so climactically picturesque that the Gardens could have been mistaken for a pet shop.

While observing the shaping of wire frames, a distinct drilling sound in the background punctuated the atmosphere. It was Bill Dunk, a Carrollwood resident, drilling a spigot into his rain barrel as his wife Linda held it down. Supervised by Laurie Walker, director of the USF Botanical Gardens, the rain barrel workshop bustled with activity.

Walker explained that the significance of a rain barrel lies in its sustainable nature. It harvests rainwater and helps to supplement a garden’s watering needs without using ground water, which is particularly important in the wake of Tampa Bay’s drought.

To create one, drill a hole to install a spigot near the bottom of a barrel, cover the barrel’s opening with a fiberglass mesh held in place by a rubber ring, and your rain barrel is ready – but the recycling aspect doesn’t cease here. The barrels were actually waste products from the restaurant business; those used for this workshop were Mediterranean. The barrels’ labels explained the pungent scent emanating from some of them, such as “Greek Peppers (from) Turkey.”

“The black color of the barrel is important,” said Walker. “Black prevents the growth of algae because it prevents any light from entering. Also, the fiberglass screen prevents mosquitoes from breeding in the water, and keeps other debris from falling into it.”

The third activity area – steppingstones – had a variety of materials ranging from decorative rhinestones to wet cement. Sara Powell and Linda Levenes, both members of the Gardens, were engrossed in making a heart-shaped mold of cardstock. Wet cement, also made by the staff, was then poured into the mold and set aside to dry.

As her steppingstone solidified, Levenes embellished it with glitter, colored rhinestones and letters that spelled J-O-Y.

“It’s such great therapy,” she said. “This has really been very fulfilling. You feel alive when you make something. I’m making these steppingstones for my home garden.”

The next workshop, “Cultivate Your Creativity: Bookbinding,” will be held on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 10 a.m.