In The Garden
Friday, December 7, 2001

By Suzanne Tswei

Beth Balao of Home Depot Garden Department works her magic on a living flower arrangement.

Living centerpieces

Home Depot's Beth Balao enthralls
customers with her arrangements of
orchids, ferns -- or whatever plant
they like -- on a hapu'u log

In her former career, Beth Balao was the confidential secretary to the secretary of foreign affairs of the Philippines. Her diplomatic position allowed her to peruse for-your-eyes-only government documents and rub elbows with the mighty.

But she's the last person to tell you about her past. It takes persistent questioning before she'll admit to a life that seemed to have come out of the movies.

Balao gets a compliment for her handiwork by customers Sheila Academia and Rick Academia of Palolo.

Balao doesn't miss the glamour of a diplomat's life one bit. "Too much brain work," she said, and she wanted something entirely different when she retired after 15 years of foreign service.

She responded to an ad two years ago seeking a sales associate for the first Home Depot store in Hawaii and asked to work in the garden department. It may seem like a humble job, but to Balao it was the perfect fit.

She grew up in poverty in the Philippines. Her father died when she was 6, and the family of five children lived on her mother's meager income and vegetables from the family garden.

"We grew only things we could eat. Everything was practical. There was nothing as pretty as an orchid," Balao said.

The Iwilei store's large selection of plants -- everything from native Hawaiian plants to orchids -- affords her the luxury of creating living arrangements for special occasions which have earned her a legion of fans.

Lindsey Pollock will give a demonstration on making Hawaiian Christmas angels.

Balao's strawberry pots filled with small flowering plants and herbs for Mother's Day sold out in a flash. At Thanksgiving there was a line waiting for her living centerpieces made with hapu'u logs.

"I think we sold 50 in a couple of days. If I could have made more, we would have sold them," said Balao, who is in demand as customers learn about her through word-of-mouth clamor for Christmas centerpieces.

"People really like those centerpieces because they are very reasonably priced -- you only pay for the plants and materials, you don't pay anything for my service -- and you can pick out the plants you like," Balao said.

Beth Balao puts a finishing touch on her flower arrangements at Home Depot.

Balao usually tries to make a bunch for sale for Fridays and the weekends. They are displayed on a big table in the garden department near the entrance to the store. If you want to pick out your own plants, the best time to catch Balao is in the evenings.

She needs about 30 minutes to put together one centerpiece. But if there are customers before you, you will have to wait. Call the store, 521-7355, for her schedule.

The centerpieces cost about $23 for a half-foot hapu'u planted with two orchids and a fern or another foliage plant. For a 1-foot hapu'u with more plants, the cost is about $35. The prices vary depending on the materials.

"It can be as simple as you want or as elaborate as you want. The customer is the boss," Balao said. She advises using plants with similar requirements in each arrangement.

If customers want to bring in small figurines, such as a snowman or ceramic animals, and other decorations to personalize the centerpieces, Balao will add them without an additional charge.

The living centerpieces will last long past the holidays, and indefinitely if they receive proper care. Balao said centerpieces should be placed on a waterproof surface, such as a dish. Water and fertilize the centerpieces regularly, but don't overdo it, and the plants will prosper on the hapu'u log.

Lindsey Pollock, former senior vice president of marketing for Hawaiian Airlines, also has a second career with plants. He creates angels, wreaths and centerpieces from dried and fresh foliage and flowers.

Another of Lindsey Pollock's with dried foliage and flower angels. He will demonstrate this craft at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach.

Pollock has been using proteas, banana leaves, coconut fiber and other materials for his craft for more than 20 years. He used to give the decorations as gifts to families and friends, but his hobby has grown into a small business in recent years.

Pollock will share his craft in public demonstrations next week at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, which has a 12-foot-high Christmas tree decorated with his handmade angels.

Pollock will demonstrate how to make angels on Tuesday, wreaths on Wednesday and centerpieces on Thursday. The demonstrations will take place 10 to 11:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby. His creations also will be for sale. The angels range from $15 to $25, and wreaths and centerpieces are about $25 to $75. Call 921-9711 for more information.

If you enjoyed "Midsummer Night's Gleam" at Foster Garden, you'll like Wahiawa Botanical Garden's "Singin' in the Rainforest" even better.

The evening garden outing from 4 to 8 p.m. tomorrow will include an illuminated garden, keiki activities, games, entertainment and Christmas caroling. The event is free, and the public is encouraged to bring picnics.

Call 621-2386 for more information.

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Suzanne Tswei's gardening column runs Saturdays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin,
500 Ala Moana, Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI, 96813
or email

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