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Schoolyard Art: Making Shrubs Shape Up
Using the electric hedge trimmers, OHS groundskeeper Fred Ditko clips a boxwood shrub he carved into a pig next to the schools Ag department. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

A gas-powered hedge trimmer, a hand-held hedge trimmer, and grass shears are his tools.

Shrubs are his canvas.

Oakdale High School groundskeeper Fred Ditko has turned his imagination into reality, bringing to life the images he sees hidden in cookie-cutter shaped plants and letting their real personality take shape through their new form as topiaries.

“Most of these plants have been here probably 40 years,” he said. “I look at the plant, see if there’s a familiar shape and I try to work it from there… Most topiaries are started off with a mesh frame and they create the shape and make the plant grow into the shape. Some of these have taken me two years to get there.”

Ditko, a resident of Riverbank, has been at OHS since he became an employee of the Oakdale Joint Unified School District six years ago, moving here with his wife from the Bay Area.

There are two other maintenance workers at OHS who tend to the school’s sports facilities, and Ditko takes care of everything else, such as the trees, grass, shrubs, sprinkler repairs and such on the rest of the campus. He works the shrub carving in during his spare time and is glad his supervisor, Dan Casey, OJUSD’s Director of Maintenance and Operations, lets him do it. When asked if he minded that Ditko started carving the shrubs into shapes, Casey’s reply was “heck no.”

“With employees, it’s always that little extra they do, and with Fred it’s that extra,” he said. “His work is always done and always done superbly. I knew it wouldn’t interfere with Fred’s work.”

Now there’s a pig-shaped shrub by the OHS Ag department, a snail and a turtle near the band room, and a hippopotamus in the courtyard area.

“The first time I saw (his work), it was the pig,” Casey said. “I thought, ‘that is so cool, Fred.’”

All the shrubs were previously trimmed in the typical round, ball shape. All of them, except for the hippo, are boxwoods, which are the standard plants used to make topiaries. The hippo is a different shrub called a cotoneaster and it fills up with small red berries in the fall.

Ditko clips the shrubs every three to four weeks and their shape requires constant attention, as well as some self-control with the hedge trimmers. With the pig, he said it took at least six months to grow the tail.

Ditko said he’d never done topiaries before but he had a landscaping business in the past.

“I’ve always been a gardener,” he said.

The hippo was the first shrub he started shaping. He started on it about three years ago.

“I thought, ‘gee, I wonder if I can get a face out of this,’” he recalled. “Then I started doing the others. It took about two years to get the face.”

The entire shrub is a larger-than-life-size hippo head.

“This (shrub) was a rambling mess,” Ditko said. “I just put it into a round shape and then started working on it. It’s nifty with berries because it turns red this time of year. The only problem with this plant is it has thorns, so when you trim it up it’s no fun.”

He believes it’ll take approximately another year for the hippo’s shape to be truly complete. He also noted that one side of it is larger than the other so he has to trim the large side down more frequently to achieve some balance.

The turtle’s shape is slowly coming along. Ditko is waiting for the branches in the shell area to grow taller. He expects the shell area to take another six months to a year to get the shell high enough to properly round it to make the turtle look right. He started working on the shrub for the turtle when an old, nearby cypress tree was removed and parts of it fell onto the bush, distorting its shape. The neighboring snail has a rounded, turned head and sports two antennas.

Ditko said that the hard part about these creative projects is that most of the plants are so old and a couple of the bushes on campus are actually tree suckers.

“You have to have some knowledge of the plants and how they grow,” he said. “Some lend themselves better than others, depending on the branches and leaves.”

Frequently, the students watch Ditko as he does his carving on the topiary shrubs while they’re on their lunch in the courtyard and sometimes he asks them if they can see what animal the shrub looks like.

“We’ve gotten good feedback from the kids,” Ditko said. “…It’s fun and I think the kids know I enjoy it. I try to show the kids you can have fun on your job. You can be serious but still have some fun with it.

“Not only is this my job, it’s always been my hobby and one of my passions,” he added.

Casey reported that one of the OHS staff members told him that she felt like she was in Disneyland with the topiary bushes around campus.

There are currently just the four topiary bushes on the OHS campus but Ditko said he didn’t have any other creatures in mind yet. He said a shrub has to strike his imagination and he has to have the time to devote to it. Casey said that he recently saw another shrub on the campus with an unnatural hole carved in it, so he thinks Ditko is at work on something new.