Field trip! We’re off to a Water-Wise, dollar-smart garden

Last week, I wrote about Maryhelen Zopfi’s garden for the Tampa Bay Times. The North Tampa gardener recently won the 2012 Water-Wise Award for Hillsborough County — a testament to her creative efforts at conservation.

But her creativity and careful marshaling of resources transcend plant zen. Maryhelen “shops” curbside discards for shelves and other helpful garden hardscape. She turns her unused whatnots (including an in-ground swimming pool!) into yard art, and she hasn’t met a plant she can’t propagate — I think.

The Times was able to run just three photos with my column, so I promised to share more here. Seeing is inspiration!

Here’s a great idea for attractive hanging baskets with super drainage: enameled metal colanders. Maryhelen finds hers at thrift stores.

decorative metal enameled colander used as hanging baskets peace plants green foliage white bloom filtered light

All that Noritake china Maryhelen just had to have when she and Simon married 40 years ago has been gathering dust. So, when they replaced their aging gazebo a few months ago, she borrowed from her collection to create a candelabra.

china teacups and saucers used to create candelabra saucers turned upside down five teacups  decorative chandelier from recycled china

(Note: The saucers are turned upside-down so the decoration is visible to those seated below. Also, for the record, the old gazebo became a trellis and shelves.)

Maryhelen was surprised — and pleased — when a cardinal took up residence in one of the teacups.

female cardinal nesting in Noritake china teacup, part of a hand-crafted candelabra in an outdoor gazebo

In September, her husband spotted eggs. And then … baby cardinals!

newly hatched cardinals in a teacup nest, part of a hand-crafted candelabra

The baby birds have since flown off to their new lives, so now Maryhelen and Simon are empty-nesters — for the second time. Their yard, like mine, was all about the kids for years — turf, swingsets and (for Maryhelen and Simon) a swimming pool.

What can you do with a pool when you’re no longer hosting screaming kids at birthday parties?

in-ground swimming pool converted to koi pond. owner feeds koi cheerios from a bucket

Koi! They’re so much quieter. And a good pump and filtration system keeps this pond crystal clear. (Thank you, Simon!)

I absolutely love Maryhelen’s tool storage idea. It’s handy, waterproof, and keeps her pruners, trowels and other necessities just where she needs them. In the front yard, they’re in a traditional mailbox on a post in the center of the garden.

In the backyard, they’re kept in a convenient, wall-hung letter box.

black, wall-hung mailbox used for garden tools. pruners visible

Of course, hard-core recyclers don’t stick with just the man-made stuff. Maryhelen’s garden is full of plants from others’ gardens. Those of us who love pass-alongs appreciate not only the frugality of plant-sharing, but the memories they bring with them. When you get a cutting or seed from a friend or loved one, you always think of them when you see it.

These beautiful pinecone gingers are from Maryhelen’s dad’s garden.

bright red floresence of pinecone ginger in bloom

Her 4-o’clocks (“I call them 6 o’clocks!” Maryhelen says) came from a friend. These are shrubs that like filtered light and open their blooms at 4 o’ clock — or 6 o’clock!

fuchsia four-o'clock 4 o clock blooms open late in the afternoon. 2 open fuchsia blooms

Those of us who love low-maintenance plants are big fans of canna lilies. They do ┬áhave their downsides. Fading blooms will dangle forever, looking brown and bedraggled, until you snip them. And some, like India Shot, will take over if you don’t lay down the law.

Maryhelen reins in her canna in a beautifully artistic — and recycled — way.

canna lilies, no blooms, india shot, in claw-foot bathtub

Yes, that’s a claw-foot bathtub!

Finally, just to establish Maryhelen’s credentials — and perhaps entice you to shoot for your own Water-Wise Award — here’s Maryhelen with her custom-made steppingstone.

maryhelen zopfi holds hillsborough county 2012 water-wise award steppingstone mosaic



  1. Laura Barber says:

    Great story! Loved the chandelier and baby cardinals! Also the recycled bathtub!

  2. Virginia Overstreet says:

    As the Hillsborough County Water-Wise Program Coordinator, I was thrilled that Maryhelen won the 2012 Water-Wise Award. A visit to her garden is entertaining and inspirational. She really knows how to manage her garden with very little water. Like Laura, I adore the baby cardinals in their teacup nest!

    • She has wonderful ideas, Virginia, and her garden is one surprise after another. Good choice!
      I’m curious — how many applicants do you get for the award? And how many winners are there?

  3. Oh I just Loved this story you can see all the love, sweat, and work that went into this garden. And the creative genus I just love it! ..Chip

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