Saturday, December 12, 2015

Living Art
Exploring the creative potential of succulents, air plants, moss and staghorn ferns
Originally published November 27, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Shelly received a best in show ribbon at the Monterey
 County Fair this year for her staghorn fern moosehead.
She has several mounted along the fence in her back yard.
As a software writer for Fiserv, Shelly Trabuco was happy to be able to work from home for 18 years. When she retired, she didn’t yearn to travel. She just wanted to continue staying home. This was her opportunity to spend more time with her plants.

Shelly isn’t your average gardener. She uses plants in traditional ways in her spacious, sloping yard in Prunedale. But like a topiarist, she thinks a lot about what else a plant can do, and comes up with imaginative solutions.

You’ll see lots of succulents, cacti, air plants and staghorn ferns in her yard—more self-sufficient sorts of plants that don’t require a lot of watering, or, in some cases, even soil. These are the plants that allow her the artistic freedom to create what she calls, “living art.” Strolling through her garden you’ll see them incorporated with salvaged materials like old picture frames, vintage birdcages, discarded shoes and chairs.

Shelly designed this outfit from live air plants and
 Spanish moss to grace her greenhouse mannequin
 long before she considered entering it in a fashion
 show. For the upcoming “Pivot” art/fashion show
, this garment plus a second male version will be
 modeled on the runway as “living wear.”
Repurposing found materials is one of Shelly’s prime objectives. She turns succulent cuttings into artwork inside up-cycled picture frames. She revitalizes a worn cowboy boot into the perfect receptacle for a beaded succulent aptly called string of pearls. She transforms old chair seats into beds for echeveria and sempervivum.

Shelly’s succulent frame:  Shelly pokes a hole with a metal skewer to
 help embed the tiny succulent cuttings into the moss and soil when making
 a succulent frame. When the entire frame is full of succulents, she will
  allow it to rest horizontally for a few weeks until the tiny plants take hold.
Even her two greenhouses, built on the hillside above her Prunedale home, make use of salvaged doors and large multi-paned wood-frame windows from Second Change Mercantile in Marina. She designed what she calls her “Mission Prune Tuscany”-style dream greenhouses, with tiled roofs, faux adobe walls, and even a bell tower. No plant ever had it so good, nurtured in these stylish interiors, featuring ceiling fans, a chandelier, French doors, comfortable chairs and mood lighting. The breezeway between the two small buildings provides shade for air plants, which decorate the wire cage of a vintage metal fan, and staghorn fern pups mounted on slabs of wood. Comfy chairs and tables are included for relaxing and creating.

Shelly uses water wisely, channeling rainwater from the
 roof into a long row of 50-gallon plastic trash barrels, each one
connected to the next with pieces of plastic garden hoses. The
 inverted lids of the trash barrels make a ideal spot for her
 succulent wreaths to rest while she keeps them damp and
horizontal for a few weeks until the cuttings are established.
When I visited Shelly’s garden sanctuary in September, she showed me how to make one of her framed succulent pieces, suitable for hanging on the wall. She likes to use low growing, easy care succulents such as hens and chicks, echeveria and sedum, and resin or plaster frames, that won’t rot like wood when the plants are watered. She collects a box-full of tiny cuttings clipped from her yard, then places them one by one into a bed of damp moss and soil—a somewhat random process she refers to as “poke and play.” When the space within the frame has been completely filled up with these colorful, flower-like plants, she keeps them damp and horizontal for a few weeks until established. Then the framed living art is ready to hang on a wall.

Shelly took two first place/best in show ribbons at the Monterey County Fair this year for one of her for her staghorn fern moose head, and her double brain cactus which sits atop the hollowed-out head of a classical Greek-style bust; and one of her succulent frames took second place. She was also thrilled to win the grand prize—a special award for Excellence in Horticulture.

Shelly loves to share her ideas and techniques with other plant lovers, and did so at a recent Gardeners’ Club meeting in Aptos. Her blog also features lots of photos and step-by-step tutorials, such as how to make boutonnieres and corsages from succulents and statice that can be replanted afterwards; hangable glass globes with a tiny seaside tableau of air plants (tillandsia), sand and seashells; and cement garden stones with phrases such as “Compost Happens” and “My Happy Place.”

Although most of her plants are drought-tolerant, Shelly uses water wisely, channeling rainwater from the roof of her home into a long row of 50-gallon plastic trash barrels, each one connected to the next with pieces of plastic garden hoses. To avoid over-watering, she uses Blumat self-watering probes that can sense when a plant needs moisture and draw it automatically from a nearby receptacle.

For the “Pivot: the Art of Fashion” runway show coming up December 4 in Santa Cruz, Shelly will debut two his-and-her garments made from living plants. Her island-wear designs are made with epiphytes (air plants and Spanish moss)—plants that acquire water and nutrients from moist air rather than from soil—accented with the large red blooms of earth star bromeliads.

Although native to Central and South America, these three plants adapt well to our moderate coastal climate. Air plants are especially suitable for crafting because they can be attached to many different surfaces such as rocks, seashells, ceramic pottery or untreated wood, using waterproof glue, wire, twist-ties, or fishing line.

For more information about growing and crafting with these adaptable plants, as well as events featuring her living art designs, consult Shelly’s website

Pivot: The Art of Fashion will premier at 7:30 p.m., Friday, December 4th at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. For tickets and a list of featured designers go to

Here’s how to make one of Shelly’s succulent frames (also see

First, spray the inside edge of a wooden frame with sealer to help it repel water, or use a plaster or resin frame that will not rot. Nail or screw together four 3-inch wide pieces of composite decking board cut to fit the frame back. Paint one side of a piece of stiff, 1/2-inch square-grid hardware cloth with black spray paint (the dark color blends in better than shiny metal until the plants cover it up), and staple to the bottom of the decking boards to create a box. Attach the wire-covered side of the box to the back of the picture frame using deck screws

Frame-side down, cover the hardware cloth with a layer of moss and then fill the box with tightly packed potting soil. Staple shade cloth and plastic fencing to the box, to hold the potting soil in place, and add eye screws to each side for attaching hanging wire.

Frame-side up, insert the succulent cuttings into the potting soil by poking roots into the moss with a skewer or chopstick. Allow the framed succulents to lie flat and water regularly until the cuttings are rooted well-enough to hang vertically on a wall.