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These garden totems are right up Etsy's alley

Who knows? Garden Whimsies by Mary could be the next Microsoft or Burger King or Hyatt — businesses launched during recessions.

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You may have seen Mary Mirabal's playful plate flowers and garden totems at Annie's Garden Shed in Lutz or Dragonfly Garden in Dunedin. She sells them through etsy.com, the online marketplace for artists and artisans, and she makes the rounds of festivals and plant fairs, including the Seminole Heights Sunday Market. She'll make her first appearance at GreenFest March 24-25 at the University of Tampa.

Mary's a Tampa gardener and a friendly, bubbly presence online. Look for her Facebook page, Garden Whimsies by Mary. So I'd seen photos of her creations and even "chatted" with her. But she really grabbed my attention in my mother's dining room a month ago.

I unwrapped a birthday gift and immediately recognized a distinctive original Garden Whimsy. The tag confirmed it.

Small world! Big business?

Mary, who lives in West Tampa, launched Garden Whimsies about a year ago, two years after getting laid off as vice president of operations for a broadband Internet distributor. She kept looking for something full-time, but then her now-28-year-old daughter announced she was about to make Mary a grandmother. And her now-24-year-old son told her to get ready for a wedding.

"With a baby and a wedding coming, I thought, 'I don't need to be looking for full-time work.' I started looking at what I could do to make some extra money."

She cast about online for ideas and found garden sculptures created from thrift store tchotchkes and discarded dishes. She never considered herself creative, but she and her husband, Dino, are longtime masters of reimagination: The kids' old swingset is now a charming potting shed, its all-purpose countertop fashioned from the metal slide. A discarded coat rack displays vintage watering cans. You get the idea.

Mary did some research, put together a few sculptures crafted from vases, bowls and candleholders and showed them to her friends. They snapped 'em up.

Since then, she has created 250 totems — themed sculptures crafted from stacked plates, bowls and candleholders topped with some nifty find — and garden stakes, usually three-dimensional flowers on copper-pipe stems. They're all designed with an eye toward pleasing combinations of color and texture. A fluted candy bowl might work as a dainty glass ruffle; a white scalloped saucer can become swirls of creamy frosting.

Mary's studio is daughter Blair's childhood bedroom. She stores her hundreds of plates and ceramic figurines on shelves in bedroom and bathroom closets; a bathtub is stacked drain-to-ceiling with packing supplies for mail orders.

Usually twice a week, Mary makes the round of thrift stores, down to Sarasota, around Hillsborough County, over to Pinellas, in search of discards priced at $3 or less that scream, "Buy me!" Goodwill stores are a favorite. "They have a lot of variety and good prices."

Then the fun begins. (I lie — obviously, the fun has already begun.)

"I have all of these unique things that inspire me — look at these Blue Sky birthday cakes!" she says pointing to two new collectibles she got for $3.99 and $4.99, a splurge. "Isn't this blowfish neat? Look at these plates! MacKenzie-Childs. Oh my gosh, they sell for $50 and I got this one for $1 and this one for 50 cents. . . . My mind just spins with ideas, and I really have to tell myself, 'Focus, Mary.' I do talk to myself a lot."

So, will Garden Whimsies by Mary be the next Burger King?

Mary hopes to grow her business, but Dino keeps warning her, "Don't quit your day job" — she works two days a week as a bookkeeper. And he still won't let her use his drill. (What is it about husbands and their drills?) Then there's granddaughter Bella, her new love, whom she babysits. She has no plans to give that up!

But she adores her new vocation. Getting down to business by the light of the sun from Blair's old bedroom window is sheer pleasure, she says. Finding just the right colors and sizes, pieces with surfaces that will adhere, putting them all together, it's relaxing and rewarding.

"I could do this for hours," she says. "It's much more fun than cleaning the house."

Mary's garden stakes sell for $25 to $30. Totems go for $45 to $65. They're made to weather the outdoors. Visit her atgardenwhimsiesbymary.com.

Discover more local gardeners and share ideas on Facebook at diggin floridadirt or visit Penny's blog at www.digginfladirt.com. Penny can be reached at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com.

How to make a garden stake sculpture

Mary shared her tips for creating a garden stake using a miniature sculpture for Valentine's Day. If you want to create a plate flower stake, the process is slightly different (as seen at right). You'll want to flatten the bowl of a serving spoon and attach that end to the back of your flower so the handle can insert into the "stem" of copper pipe or rebar.

Materials:

• Exterior silicone caulking (Mary and Dino like GE Silicone II*,

1-hour Rain Ready. It costs about $7 a tube. Mary loves her Tomboy caulking gun — made for women!)

• A razor and/or X-Acto knife.

• The pieces you plan to assemble.

Directions:

Step 1: Identify your centerpiece, in this case, a teapot decorated with hearts, and find coordinating saucers or bowls to create a miniature sculpture. Don't use anything with cracks, which will doom your creation. In this case, Mary used an upside-down vase on the bottom of her piece for display purposes. It will slide over the copper or rebar stake.

Step 2: Assemble the parts in a "dry stack" until you're happy with the look. You might test saucers right-side-up and upside-down. Pay close attention to how surfaces of objects fit together; if they don't meet, you'll have gaps in the adhesive and your sculpture won't hold up.

Step 3: Clean the pieces. Use a razor to scrape off stubborn price tags, and if they're super stubborn, squirt them with Windex and let them sit for a minute or two.

Step 4: Start gluing from the bottom up. A continuous bead of caulk is important. Don't worry about straying outside the lines, you'll clean that up later. Once she puts two pieces together, Mary eyeballs them for perfect centering. You can slide them around for a minute or so, then apply pressure to set. Note: For glass, it takes a minute or two longer of firm pressure.

Step 5: Allow the piece to sit for 24 hours, then pull out your razors and trim away the excess caulk. If your piece has a hole (like a teapot or bank) that might collect rainwater, plug it with a marble or caulk. If water collects, it will eventually crack.

Step 6: Enjoy!

Cost: 99 cents for the milk-glass vase; 99 cents for the glass plate; $1.06 for the pink saucer; $2.06 for the teapot. (Plus caulk.)

These garden totems are right up Etsy's alley 01/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 1:33pm]

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