Most gardeners start out as plant addicts, and that’s a shoe that fits squarely on my foot. But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to appreciate that gardens are about a lot more than plants. They are about a whole gestalt, something greater than the sum of its parts. The best gardens are an outgrowth of their creator, reflecting many facets of the gardener’s life and aesthetic.
But truth be told, plants have a limited ability to express so much, especially here in the North where many of them vanish from sight for months out of the year. That’s why I subscribe to the idea that no ornamental garden is complete without some, well, ornament.
By virtue of the contrast they make with their living surroundings, inanimate objects draw attention to themselves in the garden. They can mark a crossing, an edge, or the end of a long vista, reinforcing the geometry of a layout. They can be eye candy for a visitor resting on a bench or in a gazebo. A truly stunning objet might be the centerpiece of the whole garden, the thing that all the plants are there to adorn.
Whatever the size and style of your garden, it would probably benefit from some artfully positioned sculpture, bench, bird bath, fountain or urn. (Click on these terms to see some online sources with particularly good or particularly large selections.)
The month of March, before winter completely leaves us for its annual hiatus, seemed like a particularly apt time to reflect on how garden ornaments can contribute to the year-round interest of outdoor spaces.
In a town a few miles from me, there’s a particularly beautiful garden that’s in its prime. Its owners truly love their landscape, and the same extremely talented gardener has tended it for 25 years. This concentration of energy and time shows everywhere you look. I photographed this garden throughout 2010. On some recent trips there to capture it with snow’s decorative accent, I was struck by how strong an impact was made by a few small ornaments that could safely be left outside through the winter months.
Whereas pottery generally has to be protected from very low temperatures, metal and wood are materials that can withstand freezing without much damage. In cold climates, most of us enjoy our winter gardens through the window, from the warmth of our houses. Spots in the garden that are viewed from oft-frequented places—a kitchen window where you stand to do dishes, for instance—can benefit especially from ornaments that remain in place year round.
The property I photographed has just such a spot. Windows in some heavily used rooms overlook a beautiful, geometric herb garden whose centerpiece is a metal armillary sphere. On the winter day I visited, precious little of the garden’s geometry was evident—it was covered in several feet of snow. But there was the tenacious armillary sphere! Snow had drifted all around it, obscuring other features of the space, but it stalwartly marked what I knew to be the center of the garden, like a sentinel seeming to promise that it was looking out for things until better weather arrived.
Similarly, I was charmed by the way a dusting of fresh snow lay on a birdhouse that’s positioned at the end of a view down the length of the house. It marks a boundary, enlivening what would otherwise be a rather dark, featureless screen of tall evergreens. Sitting on a pole about six feet high, it had no trouble keeping its head above the snow level, even in this record-breakingly snowy winter.
In the photos here, you can see what both of these ornaments look like in summer and winter. You’ll just have to take my word for it that they made all the difference in the memorability of the snow-gripped landscape.
When you venture out into your own garden this spring, think about what sort of ornament delights you and where an objet of your desire might go to complete some garden vignette. I’ll bet that round about this time next year you’ll be glad you did!