Does a well planted, well designed, garden need ornaments? You could say that gardens are pretty enough. In fact, we refer to aesthetically pleasing gardens as being “ornamental” in themselves. No artificial embellishment is required to fit the definition.
So, why do we adorn our yards with artistic decorative features? Are we, literally, gilding the lilies?
I do it in my yarden. You probably do, too. But do we, denizens of GardenRant, stoop to low brow kitsch? Nooo! We have “art” which serves as our “focal points!”
Let’s look at the different types and uses of garden decoration.
First, How Many Focal Points does a Garden Need?
A number of garden writers have weighed in on creating focal points in our gardens. The mention of plural “points” should not go unnoticed. It’s a rare plot which includes only a single vignette.
The use of multiple focal points can involve lots of tchotchkes (items of decorative value). I’m not one to pass up the opportunity to acquire, say, a copper rain chain, particularly if it does double-duty as décor and functional softening of falling water.
So do I have too many doo-dads strewn about? Da Missus cautions in the affirmative. But since the yard is my domain, except for the sporadic invasion of concrete bunnies, she politely reserves comment regarding my multiple garden scenes aided and abetted by decorative items.
Even so, I acknowledge that clutter can obscure the plants or elegant lines of a beautiful garden. Like most houses, my garden could probably benefit from a simplifying visit from Marie Kondo.
What’s Your Taste in Ornaments?
The choices you make in your garden are exempt from criticism excepting, of course, thoughtful suggestions from your spouse or partner. The rule of: “chacun à son goût applies. That is, each to his (or her) own taste. Caesar might have added: “De gustibus non est disputandum” . . . in matters of taste, there can be no disputes.
There are two types of garden décor – functional and non-functional. (There are also two types of people: Those who divide things into two types; and those who do not.) You almost certainly have some functional ornamentation . . . maybe a bird house or a pretty fence. These items are generally deemed safe from reproach. (Good to know if your reputation in the ’hood is already on the sketchy side.)
If we use Ionic columns, sundials, Greek vases, statuary or such, no eyebrows are likely to be raised. These are honored as classics. The prolific Victorian use of unclad nymphs in the landscape has been previously counted as “classical,” but I suspect it had more to do with the prurient interests of our male forebears than “art.”
Da Missus says it is time for us to re-balance classical sculpture in the garden. She recommends consideration of Michaelangelo’s “David” instead of feminine sylphs.
Art with a Capital “A”
Large installations of art have fans and usually they also have money. Your pocketbook and your “gout” may differ from others’.
Fountains, ponds, reflecting pools and, arguably, koi might be classified as ornamentation. I dunno. But I am certain of the appeal of water sprayed, rippled, falling, or calm. It’s a natural element, of course. However, unless you are very lucky, you must create it yourself in your garden. The gamut runs from the modest to the grand.
The fountains above at Longwood Gardens have been a hallmark attraction for the greater part of the last 100 years. They were revitalized recently for a mere $90 million. That, I think, defines “grand”!!!
When Plants are the Ornament
When it comes to plants used in ornamental ways, topiary comes to mind, though it’s not commonly observed this side of the pond. (Not talking about meatball boxwood here – that’s more a style of pruning than actual topiary.) But I wonder: Is topiary simple ornamentation or artful growing?
Other examples of artful growth include a barrel “spilling” a river of flowers and patterned flower beds. Picky readers may complain that using plants in a decorative manner isn’t “ornamentation” and they may be right. Even so: My blog post.
Japanese gardens deserve special mention. The elements of a traditional Japanese garden include all sorts of what we might call ornaments – representations of mountains and water, symbols indicating transition, and other artificial devices.
Take away those elements and you take away the Japanese garden. They are the sine non quon of this blending of art and garden. Color me jealous!
Rusticity is possibly the most common form of decorative arrangement, at least in informal gardens. I say that based on what I see on Pinterest (and I’m a Pinterest Slut with thousands of pins on Da Missus’ Pinterest board). The most popular ornamental image re-pinned by others from my portion of her board is of a ladder with potted plants on the rungs. Variations of this theme include watering cans with pouring crystal “drops,” painted bicycles with basket planters, and children’s wagons with pots and decorated birdhouses.
Ornaments as Guilty Pleasures
Another option is to use things you really like but are embarrassed to admit to liking. For example, if you’re driving a convertible, stopped at a stoplight, blasting “Baby Hit Me One More Time” by Britney and a car pulls up beside you, you might immediately turn down the sound. Or, if watching TV, you quickly change channels when someone walks in while you’re enjoying “Cops” (“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do . . .? (Ear Worm warning!)
My guilty pleasure is silver gazing balls. I’m part crow . . . attracted to shiny/sparkly things . . . but with refined tastes. I like the polished balls nestled among foliage where they reflect their surroundings.
Then, there are:
Do you have guilty pleasures in garden ornamentation? If so, you can explain them away by telling visitors that “They were a gift from my favorite niece.” It also helps If you have a niece.
So Readers, do you have any non-functional ornamentation in your patch of paradise? Spill!
- Japanese garden
- Gnome: Pexels – Mathias Reding
- Buddhas: Pexels – Vivien
- Flamingo: Pexels – Guilliaume Meurice
Large wire cloche to protect a prized hydrangea from deer. I’ll need a bigger cloche.
“I’ll need a bigger cloche” said any gardener anywhere….Love those!!
John, another great read! Slyly humorous yet full of good info. to share. I’m in a townhouse now so we are limited by HOA regs but I will confess to adaptive re-use. I mean, what else would we do with our old broken mugs? Saving the earth one piece of re-used stuff at a time.
Flamingoes, no thank you. Little concrete bunnies? You betcha.
Thanks for a very fun post. Keep writing for GR, please.
Linus, I live inside city limits. Otherwise, I’d be tempted to introduce some sudden lead poisoning to the rats with antlers (deer). I have to use 8 foot deer fencing. There is nothing “ornamental” about it.
John, this is one of the most enjoyable Comments read on GR in quite a while. You’ve furthered the sense of community with these exchanges. Good on ya!
I have plastic pink flamingos from the original manufacturer. My dad was a chemist specializing in plastics and bought these for me. Also, after seeing Nick Cave’s art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, I added a wind spinner. There is a large heron made of rusty metal that is quite striking, a gift from my SO, as well as a rusty metal cat and a colorful butterfly. And I am making some ceramic pieces to hang on the privacy fence. The birdhouses and feeders are mostly functional.
Wind spinner, birdbath, glass flowers made from old cups and saucers!
A very good friend gave me a “Metalbirds” of a Carolina wren, as I often have them nesting on my patio. It makes me happy every time I look at it. Most everything else is functional, although a millstone from my hometown is only hosting moss and a levee stone from St. Louis is a lovely reminder of another dear friend.
Excellent discussion of garden art! I confess to three musical frogs, several pollinator-shaped metal stepping pads and a few wind chimey things that hang about. Oddly, all were gifts. I don’t recall ever buying garden art for myself, though I always seem to buy more plants than I should.
Sung to the “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: “Three musical frogs; two stepping pads; and a wind chimey thing hanging about.”
Whut??? “Buying more plants than you should?” There’s a club for that. It’s called “Everybody”. We meet at Lowes every weekend!
Thanks, Jenny, for coming out to play!
I love my bottle tree. Some may say it is a non functional garden decoration but here in the southern US folklore says that bottle trees trap evil spirits at night. The spirits get stuck and can’t find their way out. In the morning when the sun rises the spirits are destroy by the rays of the sun.
Oh I have a blue bottle tree but the bottles are plastic! I like the idea of trapping & solarizing evil spirits – thanks!
I started tastefully with One millstone. The spouse snuck in some hood ornaments. I retaliated with a stone bench. He added some rusted metal industrial tools. I added some rusted gears. He added an anchor. I added some more gears. I was gifted an old tombstone. He added the bird bath and fountain – okay, so those are functional. I found some architectural fragments! What will we do next???
I have a number of garden art pieces, and worry if I go over to the kitchy side. But I am one to do my own thing! I do have a blue bottle tree, which I love, a penny ball that I made, and some Talavera pottery and butterflies.
Along with my various garden “ornaments”, I threw a couple bags of marbles along the gravel on the garden path. They add sparkle without being a tripping hazard, and sort of pick up the theme from the gazing ball. I did lose some to my grandsons who insisted on playing with them.
Hey hey have yall seen GLOWING marbles??? Ok…here goes, metal sunflowers (THAT do a fantastic job at keeping mister amazon driver from cutting the corners of my driveway) glass mushrooms that used to have a working solar collector and would light up at night ( got rid of all those landscape lighting thingies from walmart tho…too cheesy and they add to landfill crap and support the Chinese)…windmills out tha pa tootie because my husband got a little crazy one Christmas ordering from Wind and Weather catalog..plenty of Buddha heads, a “David” head, a hollowed out greek woman head, two lions that match the ones at the NYC library, a miniature “southwest” cactus garden with a teeny turquoise patio set,2 large fountains, a pair of Foo Dogs at the front door, a large willow expanding pyramid thingie , a very large stained glass panel with a butterfly on it, a wrought iron basket bicycle several bird baths and free standing bluebird condos…6 half “Jack Daniels barrels for my hoses…….um I think that is about it….so um well, boring to read the list but I guess that answers the question…then again I do have 3 acres…maybe I need to Marie Kondo some of it eh?……
I enjoy my wind spinners, garden chimes of metal, one of seashells and one of bamboo,,,bird houses, three red colored metal trellises, a fountain or two and a hanging Portuguese hand painted platter tied to a vertical wire fence… Bibby! Fun article John!
I have a “ghost quintet “ – 5 seatless metal chairs around a metal music stand tucked in my shade garden underneath the crabapple trees.
Are they playing John Cage’s 4’33”?
Lol, too much fun!
tchotchkes, assorted small ones, inherited garden gnome from a dear departed friend she bought in Germany decades ago.
Saint Francis 18″, the little girl statue 24″ from the movie Midnight in the garden of good and evil. (Love Savannah!)
A few garden globes.
Half dozen life size metal pink flamingos.
Too many small to enormous (20 gallon ?) frost tolerant blue ceramic containers (100+ ?)
Too many small tables with small plants on them that would be overrun in the garden beds.
Too many hanging glass globe solar lanterns with firefly string lights in them.
WAY too many wind chimes in wood, capiz, glass, metal and ceramic.
Too many double Shepard’s hooks to hang everything that’s not in the trees.
Suburban 60 x 100 lot.
Might be a bit much but I love all of it.
Back yard is a shady jungle, 30′ round patio and tall trees with privacy azaleas, shrubs, ferns and ground covers, no grass.
Front yard is 2 large beds with dogwood trees, large shrubs and ferns and just a front strip of grass to frame the beds.
Most of the tchotchkes are in amongst the foliage.
I guess I’m rustic chic. Mainly because I’m cheap. I inherited all this stuff from my family who never threw anything away, family motto ” you might need that”. Wood crates, bushel baskets, etc. And my son brought me random railroad stuff. So it’s more industrial chic. Old brick pavers and sandstone. Arcosante wind chime. And the rusty barbwire ball I actually spent money for.
How about the painted garden poles? Anyone have those? I’m thinking of one for a “pop of color” for dingy spots in between blooms.Move it around where needed as I’ve never been able to get that continuous bloom thing.
I absolutely want a painted garden pole! Probably still a few years out from it (newish garden), but I’ll get there. And much as my husband will protest it, a Peace Pole. I gave up on the idea of a chalkboard surface on the front wall (would have put up new drawing/words as I felt the need) due to his distaste for it, but I’ll have my poles!
I am so gratified by the many responses . . . particularly when readers respond to other readers! I love seeing the dialogue. And, the confessions of our “art”. And, learning about the lore of bottle trees. And, learning what Arcosanti wind chimes are. And, learning how to fend off wandering Amazon delivery drivers. And, and, and . .
Love it all!
Thank you, all!
What? You don’t know what ArcoSanti bells are? LOL. I forgot to mention those…I have about 7 or so but really they are cool but kinda too heavy to ring much…..oh well….We visited the forge in schottsdale one year…so cool! (I mean HOT!)…..
My late mother, who never bought me a gift that wasn’t functional, gave me a concrete dragon for my birthday one year, which I adore. After she passed, I found she had purchased a 12″ toad for her own garden, which now has a place of honor in mine. I also won the strange ceramic cat from a family white elephant exchange, that make me laugh every time I see it tucked into the sedum. Several windchimes that get taken down when the wind blows enough to make them annoying. And a steel pheasant made by a 4Her I know that won’t stand straight on its post to save my soul, so it flies at an angle. All fun things that just make me smile. And isn’t that what everything in your garden should do? 🙂
Yup. Exactly! (That, and look pretty for two weeks every year 🙂
We have rocks collected from our travels – some quite large, some just pebbles added to the collection. Shiny marbles and matte sea glass go in the pebble collection too. I have a gargoyle who’s been gnawing on the same bone for decades in 3 different gardens, and a collection of St Fiacre (the patron saint of gardeners, not Francis) statues, broken pots still too beautiful to toss so they are incorporated into edging. Maybe my oddest piece of garden art is the driver’s side door to a 1972 Datsun pickup, oxidized red paint and all. My husband smashed its passenger-side counterpart into a light pole when the truck’s brakes locked up on fog-slick highway years ago. He salvaged what he could for use in other trucks (yes, plural) or to barter with fellow Datsun enthusiasts for necessities. But I got the door, with the window half down. It hangs on my back fence. I also have a Datsun tailgate (oxidized blue) that I plan to make into a bench some day.
Didn’t you get the bench seat out of the cab? Perfect beer-drinking bench for any patio or garden shed, lol! 🙂
The bench seat went into the replacement truck, whose seat was torn up. Yes, it would have been perfect!
I share the same guilty pleasure of those silver gazing balls. Love how they spark the light in the shade gardens. With the added bonus of being metal, they are invincible to random kickballs and zooming pups! Old rusty things – like pitchforks and rake heads, gears, pump heads, an armillary and a “David” head too. Hypertufa balls and planting troughs. Dragonfly stakes and a bottle tree.
I love garden art and have plenty of it tucked here and there. On vacation in NH years ago, I saw a large concrete frog wearing a vest propping open the door of a shop. I had to have it. Buying it and smuggling it home was no small feat. I knew my husband would have a fit. Or a stroke. I hid Froggy in the pantry with the curtain covering him for about two weeks, trying to figure out where to put him, until one day, I heard hubby in the pantry rifling around, and he exclaimed, “what is this abomination??” Froggy is in the front garden and in my humble opinion looks just smashing nestled in among an ornamental grass, a large Amsonia (Storm Cloud, which I am in love with), and some coneflowers. He no longer looks gigantic as the plants around him matured. Oh, and I have to say, that gnome in the pic is the sexiest gnome I’ve ever seen.
Covid and a cancelled fourth trip to China spurred a flurry of hunkering down and focusing in on our 1/8 acre urban garden a stone’s throw from the center of town. Growing in disparate chunks under a grove of volunteer hackberries over several years, an overriding “master plan” has emerged sufficient to make it seem like it actually once existed. Entering through a low and charming Chinese roofed gate that in its former life was my kids’ (now all 35 plus) swing set, you are greeted by two vertical red banners in Mandarin, one a welcome, the other an important message to “watch your head”. Forewarned, hopefully, and uninjured you pass by the wicker seating and small round table topped with a cast iron manhole cover, a single note wind chime (former sink drain), and cast iron candle stands, and are led onto a short humpbacked bridge over, in Spring, a brook of Virginia bluebells. On your right is suspended a large iron sphere of interlaced barrel hoops, and radiating a dead branch, uh, branchburst. A sharp eye might notice the bridge once had a life, the other way round, as a hammock stand. Now you are in the Covid parlor proper, centered on a fire pit, around which is a long bamboo framed, canvas topped lean-to with comfortable furniture, a number of cable spools used as apartment tables 40 years ago in leaner times, a 500 gallon tool shed with a serious Jules Verne vibe (once an irrigation tank), a red canoe on horses waiting long enough for repairs (30 years), that it has attained well-deserved status as sculpture, and so much more. Leading out to the vegetable patch is a wire arbor (bent cattle panel) thatched with someone else’s year end cutback of neatly bundled Miscanthus, now overgrown with Virginia creeper, and soon to turn a beautiful red. Underneath, half-hidden in the thatch and at eye level hangs a spooky African mask. In hindsight, I suppose there was a master plan of sorts – have fun, use up old crap, and don’t spend money.
I have a solitary ornament/ cum landmark. A giant red sphere (which was an arial visibility marker now found art object) nestled between two twisted juniper trees.
Passers-by either love it or wonder why it’s there. The later being the dull type.
If it’s a ’57 Chevy pick up that’s been in the yard over 26 years does it count as garden art . . . or is it considered functional as attested by the dogs who use it as a bed and/or observatory?
A white stone wide vase on a matching 30″ tall pedestal; two Woodstock wind chimes, one deep toned; one blue glass Japanese wind bell; two bronze mallard ducks; one bronze-toned metal wind spinner; two stone cats (one sleeping, one stretching); a small cast-stone Japanese lantern; a cast stone Inuksuk; and a bronze crane named Denny.
Do obelisks that support climbers count as ornaments, or as plant supports? If as ornaments, then I have a set of three. IMHO they are supports because for at least half the year the frame is obscured by the plants.
Dear Chatsworth Madame:
I wasn’t sure myself regarding obelisks being functional or ornamental. I think “functional”, though, for the same reason you cited. But I ended up side-stepping the issue by just not using them as a specific example in the article
Anyone have any opinions specific to the “rusty ornament” genre that seems to be so trendy? I went through a phase several years ago and bought several birds-and-blooms styles from an Etsy shop, but over time I came to like them less and less. I do have a small one, made by a metalsmith in Australia from Corten steel which is about 3x thicker than what’s typically available. (Forgot to include it in the above list) Corten steel also ages to a brown color rather than the orange that other types of steel acquires; it also lasts a lot longer. Eventually I dumped the earlier ones and just have the one small Corten piece, only about 6″ high and tucked in amongst some ferns.
But other than that, I’m not a fan of the rusty look. Truth be told, I’m looking forward to when my piece shifts from orange to brown, lol