Garden Ornament, Old and New

Barbara A. Brand
Adams County Master Gardener

Now that our gardens are put to bed for the winter, and before the seed catalogs begin to stuff our mailboxes, this is a good time for us to look for unique ways to enhance our gardens. Those garden catalogs in your mail will provide lots of temptation for adding ornaments to your garden, but here are some more ideas, both old and new, for adding a unique, personal touch to your garden environment.

For many centuries, gardens have been more than utilitarian, or a feature necessary for daily subsistence. Gardens are also havens and places for rest and meditation, artistic expression, and relaxation. Ornaments in the garden can play an important role in defining the garden's underlying importance in your life.

A place for personal expression

Examples: Sculptures, artwork, tiles, stepping stones, mobiles

For centuries, gardens have been used as galleries for displaying collections of sculptures and other artwork. The best known of these are sculpture gardens, where the works of internationally known masters are exhibited, such as the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, and the sculpture gardens of the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Replicas of Greek and Roman statues were very popular with wealthy collectors in the 18th century, and are seen in many public and private gardens throughout Europe. One of the most charming sculpture gardens I have visited is Brookgreen Gardens near Charleston, SC, which displays a large collection of 19th and 20th century sculpture on over 50 acres of gardens and natural settings.

In your own garden, there are many ways you can express your artistic taste, whether these ornaments are your own work, or made by others. They can be whimsical creations, ethnic designs, antiques, or anything else that strikes your fancy. Keep an eye out for unusual items whenever you travel, or visit craft shows, yard sales, and antiques shops. Use them to decorate a garden bed, enhance a vista, or display your favorite ironwork or collection of handcrafted tiles.

But even if you don't have a collection to show off, one or two small objects can add a delightful creative element to your garden. Instead of using stone slabs as stepping stones, use cast stones which can be made in many shapes and sizes, with designs or inscriptions that have personal meaning. You may even find kits to make these stones yourself. Small mobiles that are supported by thin metal stakes are increasingly popular, and may feature birds, butterflies, flowers and insects. Peaking out from underneath a shrub or border, you might add a sleeping cat, a small rabbit, a frog or a turtle, made from a variety of materials. Such ornaments are meant to enhance your garden, not distract from the natural beauty of your surroundings. Let your imagine be your guide - BUT -- don't overdo it!

A place for rest and renewal

Examples: Shrines, statues, inscriptions, wind chimes, gazing balls, sundials

Since medieval times, the garden has been a place for personal enrichment. Monastery gardens were more than a source of food and medicine, they were a place for contemplation, using statuary and symbolism to direct a person's thoughts and prayers. Japanese gardens, as well, have long been designed with the purpose of providing a restful environment for meditation and the enjoyment of nature. In addition, gardens are often created as part of memorials and monuments to commemorate historic people and events. The joining of natural beauty and manmade ornaments can help to focus our attention on things other than ourselves.

Today's gardens may include a variety of ornaments to enhance the sense of peace and quiet inherent in a natural setting. Statues of St. Francis, patron saint of animals, and St. Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners, are often added to gardens as a way of connecting to a religious heritage. Japanese garden features include stone lanterns and shrines. Wind chimes can focus our attention on quiet breezes flowing through the trees, in addition to masking the noise and clamor of any modern-day environment.

For thousands of years, sundials have been placed in gardens, and their presence is both useful for telling time, and inspirational, often including an inscription admonishing the viewer, "Tempus fugit" (Time is fleeting). You can find sundials in a number of shapes and styles -- and they can still be used to tell the time! In the 19th century there was another popular garden ornament, called a "gazing ball," which is enjoying renewed popularity today. This is a glass globe lined with silver, so that its mirror-like surface allows a panoramic view of the trees, birds, and clouds in the sky overhead.

Many modern gardeners will agree that the garden environment is the ideal place to be "taken out of yourself," and to become closer to nature's bounty and beauty.

A place for fun and relaxation

Examples: Gazebos, patios, benches, ponds, play areas, birdhouses, birdbaths

Gardens are perfect places for entertaining family and friends, reading, listening to or playing music, observing wildlife, and dining "al fresco." Gazebos - small, covered structures with rustic furnishings and located in a quiet spot -- have enhanced gardens since the 18th century, and are still available from many sources. In the 20th century, patios became popular in middle class homes, and featured paving materials such as brick, stone, tile, cement, or any combination of these. And today, few new houses are built without a raised deck.

Bird watching, a favorite pastime all year long, has prompted a dizzying array of birdhouses, feeders and birdbaths in many sizes, styles, and materials to ornament your garden. Depending upon the size of your property (and your budget), you may want to add a pond or a small water feature to your garden. This will bring more than just birds and other wildlife to your garden, but also allow an ideal place for a sitting area so that you can enjoy observing and communing with a variety of wildlife.

No matter the size of your property, you can create your own outdoor area for dining, play, or relaxation. Any open area in your garden can hold a table and chairs, with or without an umbrella. A bench, hammock, or old-fashioned slider in the garden is just right for reading alone, or for chatting with a friend. If space is available and you have a flat area in your lawn, this is the perfect location to play badminton, croquet, or even horseshoes (which usually requires a permanent installation) - any excuse for people of all ages to play in the fresh air, out-of-doors!

A place for YOU

Ornaments in your garden can be a personal expression of what your garden means to you. The role of the garden in your life may be therapeutic, peaceful, useful, or merely decorative. The ornaments and objects you select to enhance your garden say a lot about you, and they may also provide you with many reminders of the beauty and benefits of our natural world.

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