Monday, April 30, 2012

Life is too short for beige

Three ways to add color to your garden
 Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, April 21, 2012

Sunset magazine once featured a garden with only two colors: green (a given) and white. It was like a bad- dream wedding where only the bride shows up--no groom, no bridesmaids, no family, no guests. By contrast, my garden is more of a circus parade. I’ve got orange, pink, purple and yellow flowers, blue chairs and red seat cushions. I think I was scarred long ago from a painting incident involving a beige bathroom. Ever since then I’ve decorated my home in bold (some would say garish) colors—and my garden is no exception.

When asked to participate in this year’s Aromas Country Garden Tour (Saturday, May 12) I decided mine would be the DIY color garden. Maybe I’m not the best (or even the 151st best) gardener in town, but at least I can show people how to make colorful accents for their garden—the splashy throw pillows on the otherwise monotone sofa.

So, here is a preview of three new additions to my garden. These projects are especially good for a rainy weekend when you can’t really get out and dig or prune, but you can move the space heater to your garage and create something for your garden. If you don’t have a workbench, set up two saw horses with a piece of plywood covered with plastic garbage bags (like I did) and you’re ready to go.

A rolling plant-caddy enables you to move large, heavy pots around with ease. A change of location might be good for the plant, and can also help prevent stains or discoloration from a pot sitting too long in one place. A caddy will also allow greater access when harvesting tomatoes or cutting flowers grown in pots against a wall. They’re easy to make, and, best of all, can be painted in fabulous colors.

What you need:
Scrap plywood
Four 2-inch hard rubber swivel plate casters with 1/2-inch screws
Acrylic paint
Paint brush
Clear shellac

What you do: 
Cut plywood in squares that are an inch or two larger in diameter than the plant saucer. Paint the plywood top and bottom in whatever colors and patterns you choose, then add shellac to protect the wood. Attach casters to the bottom at the four corners and you’re ready to spin your plant until it’s dizzy.

Santa Cruz concrete artist Terri Ryan has the easiest technique for making colorful round stepping stones. Without a mold, she simply adds a thin layer of concrete to the top of a purchased concrete stepping stone and stamps a circle or two into the concrete before it sets. She then uses stain for concrete floors—which comes in small bottles and bright colors—to paint her stones.  

You can find round concrete stepping stones at Central Home Supply in Santa Cruz for about $2 each. Or, if you want to make them from scratch, one $4 bag of sand and one $8 bag of Portland cement will produce six or seven 12-inch stepping stones, with lots of cement left over.

What you need:
94 lb. bag Portland cement
50 lb. bag masonry sand
12-inch plant saucers or stepping stone molds
Plastic bucket or trough
Cans from the recycling bin, various sizes
Long stake for stirring and leveling, scrap plywood
Petroleum jelly or cooking spray
Rubber gloves, towels
Cement stain (Smith’s Color Floor at Central Home Supply), brushes, distilled water
Metal file (optional)
1 yard of ½-inch hardware wire and wire cutters (optional)
Dust mask

Apply cooking spray or Vaseline to the bottom and sides of the saucers.  Using a dust mask, mix six 14-oz cans of sand with two cans of Portland cement. Stir with a stake or gloved hand until sand and cement are completely combined. Add 2 cans of water and stir until well blended. Add additional water until concrete is like a thick batter, somewhere between crumbly and runny. Press concrete into corners of mold and fill to the top. (For greater strength, cut ½-inch hardware cloth to fit inside mold without touching the sides, and add to the mold when it is half full of concrete.) To eliminate air bubbles, tap the mold against the table several times, or set on a running washing machine. Level off the top with the edge of the stake, moving it in a side to side sawing motion as it sweeps excess from the top of the concrete. Use paper towels to absorb excess water that floats to the top.

After an hour the concrete should be firm enough to imprint circles about 1/4-inch deep with the cans. After about 6 to 12 hours (depending on the weather), place a board or tray on top of the mold, invert each stone onto the board, and carefully remove the saucer. Cover with plastic for 24 hours, then round the edges of the stone with a file. Cover stones again in plastic to keep moist for five days to cure. Remove from plastic, mix stain with distilled water and apply with a brush to color in areas of the stone. Always keep concrete out of direct sun while it’s curing.

My husband says my fish look like swimming ties, which I kind of like better. I somewhat followed the birdbath pattern given in “Garden Mosaics: 19 Beautiful Mosaic Projects for your Garden” by Emma Biggs and Tessa Hunkin. It took me about three weekends to complete this mosaic birdbath using a terracotta plant saucer and vitreous glass tiles.
This project comes from a wonderful book, “Garden Mosaics,” by British authors Emma Biggs and Tessa Hunkin. Many of the projects use vitreous glass tiles, which are lighter than ceramic tiles and come in a wide range of colors. You can buy them in small mixed bags at craft stores, or more economically, in sheets of 225 ¾-inch tiles from or other online sources. Cutting the tiles is done fairly easily with tile nippers or double-wheel nippers. There is some waste, since the tiles do not always snap in the intended direction, so I highly recommend buying the tiles in $5 sheets. You’ll have plenty left over for another mosaic project.
The bowl of the birdbath is an 18-inch terracotta plant saucer (Probuild in Santa Cruz has them) and the tiles are attached with fortified thin-set mortar and sanded grout. For the stand to hold the bowl, use three inverted terracotta pots (12-inch, 14-inch and 16-inch), which can also be painted in bright colors (halleluiah). You’ll find photos and directions by Patricia Petrat at