Few gardeners will share the same taste in garden ornaments. Only a handful of people I know would allow a gnome or plastic flamingo though the garden gate — even for irony’s sake. Some of us like utilitarian birdbaths that plug in to prevent the water from freezing during the winter; others prefer traditional concrete pedestals, shallow ceramic bowls, or giant leaf impressions cast in cement. Some of us like religious statuary, and others of us think rain barrels are beautiful as well as functional. But regardless of taste (I’ve been told mine’s all in my mouth) and highly personal preferences, most of us include a few solid objects of one sort or another in our garden. And even if we never gave a thought about why we were compelled to place them where we did, I can think of at least two excellent reasons.
I would think of my garden as ornamental with or without objets d’art. Even though I aim and claim to provide habitat for all manner of wildlife, almost every plant I grow has attributes I find aesthetically pleasing. Not only does swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) attract butterflies and bees but its clusters of white (‘Ice Ballet’) or bubblegum pink lunar-lander flowers are exquisite. I think the huge moleskin-soft pinwheel leaves of rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’), the golden tresses of Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and the soaring height, grey-green oak leaves and feathery plumes of plume poppy (Maclaeya cordata) are beyond beautiful. Even the vegetables I choose to cultivate are lovely to behold.
The trouble is, there’s so much to look at in my garden that my eyes crave hints as to direction: what should I look at first? Every garden wants focal points to draw us from one view to another. Some plants, like those with red flowers or enormous foliage are capable of serious pull. But a solid object will do the same, maybe more effectively. Because, whether it’s a chair, a planted container, a beach stone, or a building, it remains stationary as the bees buzz, butterflies flicker, birds zip, woodchucks trundle, and when the rain pours and wind blows (hurricanes notwithstanding).
In fact, I believe that places of stillness are integral to our enjoyment of the garden and exactly why solid objects work so well to draw our gaze. We’re desperate for calm in a world of perpetual motion. Or is it just me?
The house and its outbuildings are, of course, the garden’s largest solid objects and ornaments. I’m not crazy for the looks of my house but usually find myself gazing towards the prettier garage or shed instead anyway. I especially like the view of my garden against the backdrop of the garage, my carpenter’s shop, at twilight when golden inside lights are on and he’s concentrating on something at the bench. I am also one of those gardeners who give rain barrels pride of place and use containers, planted or not, as view finders and focal points.
My garden has been so kinetic lately though….yours too? I found it necessary to add to my ornament collection, which I freely admit includes both a plastic flamingo and a gnome. I reintroduced a set of chairs, spray painted blue, to my backyard border view along with a gifted religious statue made of concrete that invokes Zen-like serenity. For my front yard garden I found a hollow metal sphere, slightly larger than a bowling ball, that in its previous life marked a mooring. Now, exactly when I need a moment of calm, my eyes know right where to linger before bouncing around to check everything else out.
Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum and author of “Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter” (Timber Press). Follow Blithewold’s garden blog at blog.blithewold.org.