A wise bird takes his place among the flowers. You can make whimsical owls and other garden-worthy creatures with some cement and a flowerpot.
The decorative creatures in Steve Hess's garden in Overland Park, Kansas, are as bright and beguiling as the blooms in his flowerbeds. Steve loves whimsy, and his garden sculptures are full of fun.
Steve's home business, From the Summer's Garden, is dedicated to garden crafts. He specializes in hypertufa and cement projects and teaches popular workshops at his studio during the gardening season. For this Country Gardens project, he demonstrated his molded-cement technique with a simple owl-head sculpture. The wise old owl is made by filling a plastic flowerpot with Quikrete, leaving deep sockets for the owl's eyes. The basic head shape quickly turns into a wide-eyed owl with its distinctive beak and ear tufts, but by molding the features differently, you could create a dog, cat, raccoon, or just about any other animal.
To display, try setting a pair of owls on the posts of a garden gate or perch them at the corners of flowerbeds, putting them to work as hose guards. They're big enough to support a small flowerpot securely between their ear tufts. To give them a little more stature, you can raise them up on the simple pedestal of on an upside-down pot so they can fix their gaze on the surrounding garden.
Go ahead and give a hoot: Owl-head sculptures also make nice gifts for gardening friends.
• A picnic table, or any convenient surface, covered with a plastic tarp
• A bag of Quikrete sand/topping mix (a mix of Portland cement and sand). 40- and 60-pound bags are available at building supply shops for under $10.
• A small plastic tub, used for mixing the Quikrete
• Two 1-gallon nursery pots, one with slits on the sides.* The pots should be about 7 inches tall and 6 inches wide.
• A plastic grocery bag
• A foam ball, 3 inches in diameter (available at hobby shops)
• Gemstones or marbles (available at hobby shops)
• A small plastic container to scoop the Quikrete into the tub
• A garden or mason's trowel
• A brick
• A piece of galvanized pipe of a larger diameter than the gemstones (optional)
• Latex paint and paintbrushes
• Disposable gloves
*You'll need about 3 quarts of Quikrete to make one owl's head. A 60-pound bag of Quikrete is enough to make four sculptures.
Place the plastic grocery bag inside the nursery pot with split sides, and fit the split-sided pot into another nursery pot of the same size. This is your mold.
Note: Use a knife or scissors to cut two slits for the pot with the split sides. The slits will make it easier to remove the mold after the cement has set.
Scoop 3 quarts of Quikrete into a tub and add water while mixing with your trowel. The cement should not be runny; start with about 1 cup of water, and add more, a little bit at a time, as needed.
Tip: The proportions of Quikrete and water will vary with temperature and humidity, so you'll have to experiment a little. Continue to stir the cement in the tub as you are working so it will not begin to set.
Use your trowel to add about 1 inch of cement to the pot lined with plastic. With the flat end of the brick, pound the cement into the pot. This will be the top of the owl's head.
Cut the foam ball in half. Position the two halves inside the pot with the flat part of the sphere (the cut edge) against the outside of the pot at the 10 o'clock and and 2 o'clock positions. These will be the eye sockets.
Pack cement around the half-spheres (you might need to hold them in place as you fill in) until you can no longer see the foam. Tamp down with the brick.
Fill the pot with cement and use the brick to tamp it down. The cement should come right up to the lip of the pot. As you tamp, tug gently on the plastic bag to smooth out wrinkles. Then set the pot aside to harden and cure.
Note: It takes five days for the cement to cure completely, but 24 hours is just right for this stage of the project. You still have to add the features and paint your piece.
Before you take the head out of the mold, mix more Quikrete for the features, scooping the powder into the plastic tub and adding water to make a dry (not runny) mix, so the features will hold their shape. Now, Steve says, "make mud pies." He scoops up enough cement to make three 1-inch-thick mud pies, one for each ear tuft and one for the owl's beak.
Shape the cement mud pies into rough triangles and allow them to sit for a few minutes to stiffen up.
Scoop up two balls of cement, each about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Joggle one in each hand to form a ball. These will be the owl's eyes.
Take the head out of the mold and remove the plastic bag. Use your trowel to chisel the foam out of the eye sockets. Don't worry if little bits of foam remain stuck in the cement.
With your hands, smooth a thin layer of cement over the owl head to make a perfectly smooth surface. Rub some cement into the eye sockets, too, and brush lightly with a paintbrush.
Tip: Use the brick to steady the head.
Place one cement eyeball into a socket, then push a glass gemstone or marble down into the center of the eyeball. "It's like a Christmas cookie," Steve says. Tamp the gemstone in gently with the handle of the trowel, then use the end of the piece of galvanized pipe to make a ring around the gemstone iris.
Repeat the process for the other eye.
With the trowel, cut the beak to fit the space between the eyes. Pick it up with the trowel and place it on the owl's face. Press gently with your fingers to fill in the seams and cement it onto the head.
Note: Placing the beak is just a matter of finding the spot that looks best to you. There is no right or wrong size, shape, or placement.
Gently stand the owl head on your work surface. If you plan to put a small pot on the owl's head, set a pot there now to mark the space. Cut out the ear tufts with your trowel and place one of them on the owl's head.
Remove the flowerpot, and, using your fingers, smooth the cement to attach the ear to the head, working gently around all sides. Clean and smooth the joints with a dry paintbrush.
Set the pot back on top of the head while you position the other ear tuft; remove the pot and press the ear tuft into its place, smoothing the seam with your fingers. Test the space again to make sure the pot still fits.
Remove the pot and brush lightly over the whole surface of the owl's head with the dry paintbrush.
Let the sculpture sit for 24 hours.
Tip: Set the head in indirect light (not in the sun) to cure. Placing the pot on top will help protect the ears while the pot cures.