A Master Gardener Prepares for the Festival of Flowers

Greenwood is known for its spectacular topiaries on display throughout Uptown every summer.

  • Publication date March 16, 2021
  • Categories Outdoors
Talent, vision and volunteers form the foundation that keeps Greenwood green and charming.

“We couldn’t do all the things we do without the volunteers,“ says City of Greenwood horticulturist Ann Barklow. “The volunteers free up the staff to be more creative. We have a lot of very talented people here; you have to let them have some artistic freedom.”

When Ann started working with the City horticulture department several years ago, she had 25 years of experience as a landscape designer, but in another climate altogether. She had specialized in creating drought-tolerant gardens in the Manhattan Beach, California, area. 

“I felt really out of my comfort zone when I came here, with 50 inches of rain each year, compared to nine. I thought I wouldn’t do anything with horticulture here, but I went through the Master Gardener refresher program here and began to volunteer.” After being hired as a crew chief, she started promoting the idea of bringing more native plants into local landscaping. “We started a monarch way station, started planting pollinators and bee gardens” and reworking the “meatball gardens” of rounded shrubs. She also started a practice of bringing in volunteers every week as opposed to twice a year.

 “I have to really commend the leadership here. Without their support, this would all have been dead in the water,” she says of the effort to transform city landscaping.

After semi-retiring as crew chief, Ann took on the double roles of volunteer coordinator and Bee City coordinator.

Birds and bess visit a birdhouse with a living roof.

“We have a really cool community garden, and grow plants that provide nectar and pollen for our Bee City.”

Planting Festival Seeds

Named a Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event for 10 straight years, the South Carolina Festival of Flowers began with Flower Day, and the visiting growers who came every year to trial gardens of Greenwood company Park Seed. In 1968, partly to celebrate its 100th year, Park Seed and the Chamber of Commerce joined together to create the first Festival of Flowers.

Then, Greenwood representatives went to Disney World, saw the topiaries, met with the Disney horticulture team, and changed the course of the event in a big way. Disney’s team taught Greenwood horticulturists about creating topiaries. With help from Piedmont Technical College and area master gardeners, they began building the first ones. “The Disney team recommended that they start with four,” Ann says, “but they began with thirteen. We stored them at the Piedmont Tech greenhouse, in some empty stores around town or in people’s home gardens. Even our continuing care community, Wesley Commons, hosted some storage space.”

A topiary of a life-sized Jeep with flowers in the foreground.

Eventually, the City partnered with the Chamber and built the first of three greenhouses, including one just for the topiaries, with a special cooling system, extra height and huge door for Gertie the giraffe. The first greenhouse, lovingly called the “Hoop House,” or “Serenity Dome,” is for annuals and propagating. The horticulture team quickly outgrew that one, especially as the Bee City gardens require plants grown without pesticides. The third greenhouse is used largely to grow plugs to fill in the topiaries and to grow the landscape plants.

“We do a lot of the grow-out,” Ann says of the team. “We pick up a plant at a store and propagate more, and volunteers bring plants from their home gardens. We grow 80 percent of plants for the topiaries and landscapes.”

Care and Feeding of the “Animals”

The topiaries are returned to the greenhouse each July, after the Festival of Flowers. “We start working on them the minute they come home.” The staff meets in September to plan the following year’s changes, repairs and maintenance. “February through April is an intense time to get the plants in place so they will have stable roots.,” Ann says. “Our deadline is April 1 to have all of the plugs planted in the topiaries.” 

Ann helps with design and assigning volunteers where they are needed. Sometimes there are small changes, like the color of the golf ball. “One year, the swan changed from white to pink. The Jeep got a new roof of green ficus this year. We added a trellis to the elephant box, a bandana and tennis ball for the dog, and a large succulent to the frog’s head as a crown,” Ann says of the changes.

A family of topiary pandas sits atop a replica of a camera.

Gertie has to be redone every seven years, since birds like to strip away the palm fibers to use in their nests. Some, like the elephant’s creeping fig, can stay in place for several years, while smaller ones, like the ducks and turtles, might need to be redone every year. A taxidermy specialist creates the eyes.

“Once they are out there in the community, they look different,” Ann says. “Art needs to be visualized from a distance. Sometimes we make a few tweaks” once they are set up.

“We want people to get close and pose with them, take pictures, go viral, even touch them (gently, please). But they do sometimes get vandalized, and we have to replace some of them with plants we’ve held in reserve,” she adds.

Jimmy McInville, 2015 Lakelands Master Gardener of the Year, is one of the topiary artists. Each topiary has a corporate sponsor, and many companies chose the same one each year.  For example, Clemson University’s Greenwood IPTAY chapter always sponsors GRRRRR KASASA, the tiger, Lander University their mascot the Bearcat, and Chick-fil-A the cow, Milkshake. Some are held back for a few years and then rotated back out. 

The Garden Gurus

Greenwood’s topiaries are so popular that the city’s horticulture department has become a well-known resource for whimsical displays—and for teaching others how to make them. Amber Nappier has been spearheading a program to teach horticulture and topiary building in area schools, and the city horticulture team has visited all 12 middle and elementary schools in the Greenwood County School District 50 for the last four years, involving students in creating the topiaries. Amber has been doing video tutorials for the schools’ virtual learning program during the pandemic to keep sharing the knowledge.

The city has also posted some tutorials on YouTube to teach the basics to curious gardeners. The topiaries have a metal base, layered with moss, plastic tubing and a variety of plants in different sizes, textures and colors. Learn more about the basics, and even about how to make a jellyfish from these videos.

2021 Festival of Flowers

This year, the city will bring back a popular feature from 2020: a link to download a topiary map so visitors can take a walk or drive through a magical display. Flora the Flamingo, Gertie and little Gidget, Dino Dude, the Dabbling Ducks and over 40 of their friends posed for pictures as usual in 2020, and this year promises to be filled with fantastic creatures again. The topiaries hit the streets in late May and stay out on the town until the second week of July.

The 2021 festival is back on track and will feature the signature topiary collection and events revised to be both safe and fun events. The Festival’s main weekend is planned for June 11-13, 2021. Stay tuned for the official details.

Related posts
Join our newsletter to receive the latest updates.