The wizards at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival get ready for aspiring garden magicians

Athey might say at Epcot, "The show must grow on."

For weeks, Disney gardeners have been orchestrating a symphony of blooms and flowers that will be seen by more than 1 million visitors during the seven-week Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which opened Friday.

They've planted more than 1 million bedding plants, designed five themed gardens and constructed more than 80 topiaries.

Along the way, the Disney team has confronted many of the same issues you face in your back yard, just on a bigger scale -- and with some notable differences.

For one thing, Disney gardeners do much of their work at night or in the early morning to avoid interrupting visitors' vacations. And, of course, they have resources that most home gardeners can only dream of.

For this year's festival, they've poured temporary concrete patios and walkways, and with the help of festival partner Home Depot, they've built an outdoor living area, complete with patio, play area and pond.

And then there is the scale of the event. Disney's horticulture department operates 26 greenhouses with 3 1/2 acres of growing space. These buildings are where Disney works its landscape magic, where it creates luxurious hanging baskets and where the topiaries are transformed from steel skeletons to almost lifelike creatures.

Five of these greenhouses have been taken over by the event. And two weeks before the curtain went up, they were hives of activity as gardeners put the finishing touches on their work, stuffing last-minute topiaries, creating flower balls and watering the flower towers that would bring so much color to Innoventions Plaza.

Yet it was clear also that much of the work already had been done: The plants and the flowers for the fragrance garden were established in their pots, with the vanilla orchids protected by nets of black landscape fabric. The floating gardens were assembled, waiting only for their  plants, and in the topiary shed, finished creatures waited for their ride to the park.

Cascading color

Besides being an impressive display of large-scale garden know-how, these greenhouses are full of tips for home gardeners. As Eric Darden, horticulture manager for the show, says, "There isn't much we do that a home gardener couldn't do."

To make a hanging ball of flowers, for example, Darden says to begin with a simple sphagnum moss basket and a wire container. Fill the basket with potting soil and plant it with six flowering annuals, such as begonias, chenille, lantana or sweet potato.

To round out the ball, use a metal spike to punch six holes in a circle through the sides of the moss liner and "plug" six more bedding plants into the liner. The plants will root into the soil and fill in, hiding the entire basket under a blanket of flowers. Water daily.

Flower towers, too, are deceptively easy. During the festival, these 10-foot obelisks of impatiens bring color and life to Innoventions Plaza. They are Disney's solution to creating a garden on a hot, unbroken expanse of concrete where there is no irrigation or even dirt.

At home, Darden says, you can make your own smaller flower tower with a series of graduated planter saucers and a bag of potting soil. Fill each tray with firmly packed soil and simply stack them. Plant your annuals in the exposed dirt rings of every planter. Water the stack daily, and once the plants are established, you'll have an impressive spike of color.

Tops in topiaries

Of course, not everything Disney does would translate so easily to the home garden.

One area where Disney's gardeners shine is the creation of topiaries. Character topiaries have a long history on Disney properties; in fact, the idea goes back to Walt. Today, Disney is producing some of the finest, most ingenious topiaries around. This year, Disney has themed its festival around the concept of "Magical Gatherings." To fit this theme, gardeners have created a magical topiary gathering of their own at the entrance to Epcot.

Character topiaries, including Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy, are featured at Epcot's entrance reclining on a floral bed, while Tinker Bell presides over the group from the crest of a 25-foot topiary pedestal. Goofy, at 14 feet tall, is the largest character topiary created by Disney.

Modern Disney topiaries are ingenious marriages of imagination, botany and welded steel. The shed where they are created, full of half-completed topiaries, feels like a cross between the early Terminator movies and the inside of Roger Rabbit's head.

To make a topiary, Disney artists first create a welded steel cage that looks vaguely skeletal. The inside of the cage is threaded with quarter-inch soaker hose, making it possible to water the topiary slowly, during the heat of the day, and without wasting a drop. The cage is then stuffed tightly with sphagnum moss, which is held in place with black plastic deer fencing.

Once the framework is built, the plants are "plugged" into the topiary with a special metal tool that is used to poke a hole in the tight moss.

The plant choices are inspired: Disney gardeners will use anything that works. A lion's mane might be made from long grass. Mickey's shorts are created from red begonias. Contrasting fur might be composed of three closely related kinds of ficus, and fungus and lichens show up in black and white and mossy green.

For a large topiary dragon, which will "float" above the water outside Epcot's China pavilion and spew steam, the entire coat of scales and spines is made of different varieties of bromeliads.

The goal, of course, is the same one you would have during a backyard wedding: It's all about the "big show." And like many home gardeners, even the experts at Disney -- who preside over a multimillion-dollar operation that involves hundreds of people -- get a little nervous before the curtain goes up.

"This is high-pressure horticulture," Darden says shortly before the show's opening as he pushes open a hidden gate and steps from Disney's "backstage" to the ornately manicured grounds of Epcot, "because everything has to be perfect, and we're open every day."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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