Some Thoughts on Garden Ornament

Nothing announces the mood or atmosphere of a garden more so than Garden Ornament.  Sure, you can plant an Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ and a carpet of black mondo grass, but it’s really the stone lantern that declares:

“This Japanese Garden.  Please now be feeling sense of reverence and quiet awe.”

In the case of one of my neighbors, it’s the red Victorian gazing ball held aloft on the ears of three stone rabbits that announces:


I love all kinds of garden ornament, from dignified to kitsch, which is why I face a dilemma.  Since garden ornament tends to set the tone of the garden more so than any other individual garden element, there should be some sort of consistency among the pieces chosen.  An overall statement should be made.

Personally, I’m torn about which direction I want to go with ornament in my garden.  On the one hand, as I get older I find myself drawn to more dignified, classic pieces.  I love the idea of a stone column in my garden, surrounded by ferns and set off by evergreens…soothing, dignified, timeless.

But I also like this:

Gnome-B-Gone, by Fred Conlon

I mean, I know my garden is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, but I don’t want it to appear completely bipolar.

Luckily, there are some pieces of garden ornament that are more neutral and can fit into any scheme.  Most pots, for example, don’t hit you over the head with their personalities; they’re like the Zeligs of the garden and can blend into cottagy, modern, whimsical, or classic schemes.

This is why pots are all I have at the moment.  Pots and a couple of metal dragonflies hovering among my perennials. 

Perhaps my difficulty with garden ornament speaks to a larger problem with my sense of self.  My garden doesn’t really know what it is, therefore, perhaps I don’t really know who I am.  Should I wear floral scarves or chunky metal watches?  Should I try to do more serious writing or should I learn carpentry? Should I take a stand more often or just laugh stuff off and go with the flow?

Am I a stone column or a Gnome-B-Gone?

35 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Garden Ornament

  1. I’m prancing, I’m prancing!

    Semi-seriously, though, what’s wrong with combining the two extremes and celebrating your bi-polarity?! Gnome-B-Gone placed reverently on top of stone pillar.

    Or, if you really feel the need to separate your polarities, the classical touches in one area (i.e. the front) and the whimsical in the back.

    Why am I elaborating so much??? Because I’m dealing with the same quandary myself, of course. I pick up garden art wherever I find a piece that “speaks” to me, which means I have a wide variety (many waiting to be placed), ranging from an iron silhouette of a wild woman and little bugs made out of old spark plugs to a classical cement Greek column and a large rock slab approximately the size of a tombstone with “Walk with quiet certainty…” engraved upon it. Even with 10 acres to play with, I find it hard to figure out how to place everything appropriately.

    • Ha! I’m glad I’m not the only one with this issue. It seems that with 10 acres you could put some good distance between those items that were really different in style. For example, the visitor would chuckle over the spark plug bugs, but by the time they had walked for 20 minutes to your “walk with quiet certainty” stone, the whimsy would have rubbed off and they’d be feeling somber again and thus, ready to absorb its earnest message.

  2. It’s very nice to find others in the same style mess as myself. I ADORE the gnome-b-gone but also gravitate to the classic and simple. Good luck is all I can say!

  3. I’m personally very modern-classic-cottage-minimal-refined-kitchsy. But for some reason, I find it hard to find the right ornaments to EXPRESS myself. Probably the litter of toddler toys, plastic pots I’ve yet to clean up, and various shovels and spoons I dig with BEST expresses my style. And that awesome Gnome. I’m definitely getting that Gnome . . .

  4. My collection of garden ornaments is….. eclectic. I refuse to apologize. They matches my eclectic collection of plants.. I don’t have a color scheme or a garden theme. I just have a garden. Fine with me.

    • Good for you, Cindy. “Eclectic” is a great catch-all design word, isn’t it? It also applies to so many other things in my life: my taste in books, my group of friends, my housekeeping style, etc. I certainly prefer “eclectic” to “inconsistent”, “ragtag”, or “WTF”!

  5. Gnome-B-Gone is freakin’ adorable. I have a real passion for concrete statuary so must rein myself in from buying too much. I finally simplified my garden art by sticking with a dog theme. Here’s a typical example:

    Its certainly possible to have both a classic and whimsical style. One way to have both is to keep the classical piece as center pieces as you described with your column surrounded by ferns. Then take those cute whimsical pieces and hide them in the shrubbery. Garden visitors can get a chuckle when they spy them through a crack in the plant but your overall classical theme will be preserved. Or section off a portion specifically for the whimsy such as with a mad hatter’s tea party. Anyway, I often shop the house before I go to the store to buy anything if I need a focal point object for the garden. I’ve come up with some pretty neat ideas that way.

    • Thanks for the image, Felicia. He looks just like my dog when he was a puppy. Yes, I like the idea of tucking little metal monsters amongst the shrubs. Long-term, I think that might give me even more pleasure than the somber stone column.

  6. I guess my preference would be for Inhibited Whimsy. The classic look to me would just feel out of place in my garden, which is pretty informal. On the other hand, I’m not a prancer. Bad knees, for one thing. So I could go with the Gnome-B-Gone, but not a gnome or pink flamingo. What I actually have is a metal dragonfly made from an old wrench, a concrete rooster, and some flowers made of metal tubing and stained glass. But I’m always on the look-out for something new.

  7. I’m inclined to think that eclectic is the only proper style for an American garden. Gardens should have a sense of place. True Japanese or English gardens are akin to zoo specimens here. They are interesting to look at, but they don’t belong here. The ornament should be eclectic as well, and reflect all the gardener’s interests and facets.

    • Deirdre, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Japanese or English gardens “don’t belong” here, but I do agree that the best gardens are the ones that capture some sort of wider spirit of the land. And I, too, prefer imperfect originality over perfect imitation.

      • One can certainly take inspiration from foreign styles, but one should reinterpret them. One can emulate the simplicity of materials (with local materials, please, rather than bamboo), the asymmetrical balance, the sense of peace, and of a landscape in miniature, but a Japanese garden plunked down in Kansas is going to feel out of place. So does an English landscape in Las Vegas. Cassandra Danz did a very telling comparison in her book, Mrs. Greenthumbs Plows Ahead, of Chatsworth in England and the Chavitski’s tract house on Long island. Both had lawn fit to graze sheep on, manicured shrubs, and sculpture, but the effect was NOT the same. I would really like to see more development of regional styles that fit the surrounding landscapes.

        Decoration in my garden tends to have hidden functions. The copper coil I filled with different colored glass balls (glass is very NW) weighs down a young branch so it blocks my view of the neighbors’ garbage cans when I sit on the porch (people kept asking about the mesh bag of rocks I was using). The cement toad on the north side of the house acts a hose guide, so the hose doesn’t knock over my trilliums. The big rocks in the SE corner will hopefully slow down the next car that takes the curve too fast before it hits the house. Other, smaller, rocks are weighing down the root zones of baby trees (I’m not big on staking). There are additional rocks just to make the others feel at home. My iridescent, white gazing globe brings light to deep shade. Various period andirons my husband collected call attention to gates and path entrances. The andirons on the outside of the chimney are there just because it amused me to put them there.

        • Thanks for the great response, Deirdre. I like your approach of putting your garden ornament to work with more practical purposes beyond just aesthetics. Thanks also for the book reference. The comparison between the English and Long Island gardens sounds fascinating!

  8. I have a very faded pink flamingo left by the previous owners. Oddly, but happily, it seems to deter herons from raiding our pond. I also have rocks that I love and defunct tools, such as saw blades that our neighbor chucked over the hedge. Weird, maybe, but me.

    • That’s cool that your flamingo does double duty as a pest repellent. I have a fiberglass owl that I set up next to our pool which was supposed to deter the grackles from hanging out on our pool deck and crapping all over it. But it doesn’t work.

  9. I think that you have enough room to satisfactorily place a few from each extreme and not necessarily have them interfere or clash with each other unless you place them in such a way that you have obviously chosen to celebrate the clash. Folks with minimal garden space, or maybe just a deck garden may have more of a challenge. Personally I’m good with both and think that they both would work in your garden – but not both around the same turn.

  10. My landlord and I are currently engaged in a war of ornaments. I don’t mind them, as long as their appropriate. He thinks that a 6′ tall abstract metal sculpture of a woman (that looks like a small cow bell sitting upside down on top of a giant cowbell) paired with a crappy old (and stained) white plastic bird bath are perfectly appropriate for the english perennial border that I’m working on on the south side of our apartment building. Never mind the fact that it’s the south side of the building so the sculpture gets so hot that it burns all the plants surrounding it and it’s ugly as sin, but the damn thing also won’t stay upright! It keeps crushing my poor hibiscus and tobacco plants. I keep moving the things and he complains and puts them back. ::sigh:: He’s really giving garden ornament a bad name.

  11. One last comment. Once upon a time, Miss Manners wrote that a house decorated in perfect taste down to the smallest bibelot was in terrible taste. It indicated the owner was a heartless, social climber. A properly decorated home had a few items that could ONLY have been chosen for sentimental reasons. I think the same could be said of gardens. Maybe the chubby dog statute Mr. Hallerlake gave me for my birthday isn’t high art, but it gets a prominent place all the same. Would you think worse of a beautifully designed and maintained Asian garden because it had mosaic stepping stones the grandchildren made in it?

  12. Having sprayed my whole property and house with Monster Spray before we moved in, I have no need of a Gnome-B-Gone, as it appears gnomes were additionally warded off by the treatment. I will be building a small footbridge over a dry streambed/drainage channel I made, however, and will likely have to look into troll prevention of some sort, or goats. Gruff ones. Unfortunately, garden ornamentation would be illegal on my restricted and oh-so-sensitive soil, but I DO have some native Cascade Mountain jadeite boulders down near the wetland that are miraculously in the shape of a frog and a turtle, respectively. Frank Lloyd Wright said that a house ‘should be of the hill, not on it.’ Being a gardener means you are uniquely qualified to re-make your ‘hill’ so it is more ‘of’ your home, if necessary. I say column and gnomescare both, perhaps put a garden gnome opposite the gnome-b-gone with a clear sightline between the two. Nature’s little dramas can be so entertaining.

  13. My problem is that I know exactly what I want my garden to be, and what ornamentation is necessary to complete it. My wife, though, won’t let me put in that life-sized Tyrannosaurus sculpture in the back yard, because she fusses about silly things like “property values” and “giving the neighbors heart attacks when they walk down the alley”. Sheesh.

    • That’s hilarious. What is it about men and tacky, oversized ornamentation? My husband has movie poster of the “Attack of the 40-foot Woman” or something hanging proudly in his office. I think he’d enjoy the dinosaur, too.

      • Should I mention the Nanotyrannus in my bathroom? In my defense, my wife is the one who wanted to put it there, just so people would walk in and live out one of Bill Cosby’s pieces of wisdom: “First you say it, then you do it.”

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