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For The Garden

Garden Ornaments

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: January, 2013, Page 46
Photos by David B. Moore

This weathered-concrete cherub statue from The Embellished House adds graceful form and a sense of history amid sprawling lantana.

History, Highlights and Helpful Hints

The earliest humans tilled soil for practical reasons, but along with the dawn of civilized society came the practice of planting trees, flowers and plants just for the aesthetic sake of it. Adding attractive objects to these organized outdoor spaces was an important part of this new age in gardening.

The tradition of tucking ornamental sculpture among a garden’s greenery dates as far back as the ancient Egyptians. The Greeks, Spanish and French picked up on it, too; but it’s the Romans who are credited with bringing ornamental gardening and landscape design to new heights. Wealthy landowners organized nature into tranquil respites from the everyday, and placed statues and fountains throughout their gardens to make a statement about their wealth and stature, and to amuse visitors. Ancient Romans strolling through a garden might pause to share deep thoughts near a statue of a philosopher. Or, just as likely, their togas might get drenched by fountains rigged to send a jet of water their way.

Today, no matter what kind of garden you have—large or small, formal or wild—a well-placed statue, urn or sundial can elevate your enjoyment of it.

“When you bring ornamental sculpture into the landscape, you add another layer of interest,” says Tim Harris, co-owner of Relics. “If you place a cherub at the end of a long, narrow area, for example, it adds charm and draws you out into the space.”

Concrete pinecone finials stand out against a backdrop of bougainvillea.
Garden ornaments allow homeowners to express their personality outside, much as art and accessories do indoors. Such embellishments can be used to add color and character, provide a focal point or even distract the eye from something unsightly. Ultimately, ornamental objects can be whatever the gardener wants them to be—everything from a new stone bench to a gnarled piece of wood. But for those trying to replicate classic Mediterranean-style gardens, there are some helpful guidelines to follow.

“The importance of art and sculpture in a Santa Barbara-style landscape should never be underestimated, as it provides the crucial focal point or necessary balance in the design,” says Phoenix landscape architect Greg Trutza. “This style is characterized by the opulent Spanish and Italian gardens of the past where axial symmetry and formal touches were prized. I particularly like where the appropriately placed ornament sets the tone for intimate or romantic spaces.”

Ornaments such as this cast-iron wall fountain from The Embellished House, can provide beauty and atmosphere even when space is limited.
Classic forms
Trutza suggests oversized pots, oil jars, urns, pedestals and columns for adding a Mediterranean touch to the landscape. Other classic ornaments, such as obelisks, armillaries, urns, statues, finials and fountains, lend unique flavor from the past.

An obelisk is a four-sided column that tapers to a point resembling a pyramid (similar to the Washington Monument). In ancient Egypt, obelisks symbolized the sun god Ra, who was believed to live within. It is also said that the shadows cast by obelisks served as rudimentary sundials, indicating midday, as well as the longest and shortest days of the year. The Romans became enchanted with the form and erected a great many obelisks in cities and gardens. Armillary spheres are ancient astronomical instruments made up of multiple rings representing the universe. They are available today with various numbers of rings and in simpler forms that serve as sundials. The sundials most familiar to modern-day gardeners cast shadows onto a flat surface. Far less complex than the armillary, sundials are easy to set up to tell time, provided the hours have been precisely marked. For accuracy, place the sundial so that the gnomon—the projecting piece that casts the shadow—is pointing true north, or set up the sundial at noon, and position it so that the shadow falls on 12, or XII.

In ancient Greece and Rome, urns were functional items, used to store grains, wine and the ashes of the dearly departed. The idea of using these once-utilitarian items in the garden started during the Renaissance. Although graceful and eye-catching on their own, urns can be filled with flowers, succulents or other plantings. Harris says urns are best appreciated at eye level. “It’s all about the profile,” he explains. “If they’re placed so you’re looking at them from above, all you see is a bowl.” Perched on a column or pedestal, however, the graceful silhouette and any relief detailing are on display.

Ornaments such as this boy with a flute from The Embellished House, can provide beauty and atmosphere even when space is limited.
Statuary can depict a human figure from head to toe or, as with a bust, just the head and shoulders. Classic choices might include Venus, the goddess of love, beauty, fertility and prosperity; Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest, wine and ecstasy; or Michelangelo’s David. Angels are also good options and are said to inspire serenity. Baby angels, or cherubs, tend to evoke a playful mood.

Finials, which were popular during the early Renaissance, are available in a variety of shapes, including spheres, pineapples, pinecones and acorns. For such a simple, seemingly harmless shape, spheres, or ball finials, have a grisly past. Some noble households began to display ball finials in their gardens to emulate the (thankfully) long-gone practice of impaling the heads of rebellious peasants on stakes and displaying them for all to see. Pineapples also were impaled on stakes or fence posts; but in this case, it was to signal to passersby that the seafaring head of the household was home. Since then, pineapples have been widely regarded as a symbol of hospitality. Pinecones symbolize enlightenment and spiritual consciousness, while acorns signify strength, power and perseverance.

Fountains add instant ambience and interest to a landscape, even if they don’t replicate the zany giochi d’acqua (water games) of the ancient Romans. Guests can sit high and dry and still enjoy the soothing sounds of burbling water. Birdbaths, too, often have interesting shapes and attract wildlife to a space. To draw more birds to a birdbath, place the bath near shrubs and trees, which will provide cover and perches for feathered friends.

When looking for garden ornaments, the material is as important as the form. Stone, cast concrete, limestone, terra cotta, iron, copper and bronze can all withstand the elements, but each will bear the marks of sun, wind and rain differently over time.

“Look for items that will have durability and a patina and things that represent the age,” Harris advises. “Older pieces add an air of authenticity, but too much is just too much. You have to know when to stop. Keep the background neutral and toned down so these special pieces can stand out.”

Across cultures and religions, lions symbolize strength and are considered to be guardians and protectors. This resin version is from The Embellished House.
Dos and Don’ts
Landscape designer Jeff Berghoff offers the following advice on choosing and placing garden ornaments:

Select pieces that create continuity between the garden and the architecture of the home.

Be careful not to let the items become too matchy-matchy or too perfectly themed. This is your home, not Disneyland or a museum.

Place ornaments in the garden that create a destination, such as a fountain or birdbath, that draws you out there and connects you to the space.

Don’t tchotchke up a garden or make it feel cluttered. The trees and plants carry most of the visual impact. Restraint is important.

When it comes to integrating ornamental items into a yard, ask yourself, “What are the vistas?” and “What are the views?” For example, if you come through the front door and the direct line of view is the garden, should something be there to draw the eye out or anchor the space?

Collect pieces from your travels and let them tell a story.

Don’t forget to properly light items so that you can enjoy them at night. It also makes your home feel larger because you can see beyond the space you’re in. 

Where to Buy:
Relics, The Embellished House, On the Veranda, Baker Nursery

From left: A concrete head such as this one from The Embellished House can be placed amid greenery or displayed atop a pedestal, shelf or table. •  A rusted steel armillary sphere mounted on a stone column directs the eye toward a rose garden.

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