Go Ahead, Ruin The Neighborhood

Actually, garden 'junk' is becoming quite the fashion

The modest flock of pink plastic flamingos that graces Mary Randolph Carter's garden is just the perfect touch, she believes.

And they're in good company - leaky, dented watering cans, chipped, ceramic gnomes, and a rusty toy tractor all bring a certain cachet to her yard.

"Junk transcends all style," says Mrs. Carter. "People are really shocked at how plain-old junk can make a garden come alive and give it character. And since junk is cheap, you can be as creative as you want without spending lots of money."

Carter, known to her friends as the "Queen of Junk," is a self-professed scavenger of the worthless and discarded. When she's not working her real job as vice president of advertising at Polo/Ralph Lauren, she can be found poking around flea markets, garage sales, and thrift shops throughout the country.

She is also the author of "Garden Junk" (Penguin, $29.95), a collection of photographs she has taken of her gardens and farm in up-state New York as well as other people's junk. The book reveals the price of almost every piece of bric-a-brac, as well as providing hints on how to track down and arrange these garden treasures.

"It's surprising how something so eccentric and wild, or so mundane and ordinary can breathe new life into a garden environment," she says. "You just have to keep an open mind."

Although Carter has gained a lot of attention for her eclectic style, she isn't alone in her quest for junk. Across America, bargain hunters are scurrying to salvage shops and flea markets in search of just the perfect piece of trash to give their garden personality.

Cindy Broderick, owner of Cindy's Antiques in Amenia, N.Y., says junking has never been so popular. She says people are increasingly being attracted to flea markets and rummage shops because department store prices are outrageous. People get satisfaction from recycling something used without having to buy it new, she says.

"It's amazing what 10 bucks spent at a resale store can do for a garden. The hot sellers these days are cracked urns and clay pots - anything people can plant flowers in. Sculptures and statues and old wagon wheels are also very popular," Mrs. Broderick says. "I guess people are trying to capture a rustic look."

Carter began "junking" 10 years ago when she found collecting antiques became too expensive. She turned to collecting what she terms, "cheap treasures."

One of her favorites is a 1950s umbrella-stand lawn table that she says she overpaid $30 for. It has a flimsy top and the red and green layers of paint are flaking. Another one of her darlings is a child-size pedal tractor she picked up for another $30 at a flea market. She says it reminded her of her childhood. It's yellow and covered with rust and rests among the weeds next to her garden hutte, a dilapidated barn that has been transformed into a porch-like sitting area.

Carter isn't quick to admit there's anything too tacky to put in her garden, although she says "a beat-up '78 Cadillac on cement cinder blocks" would probably upset the neighbors. "If it makes your heart beat, go for it. Have the guts to be different," she says. "If it's done tactfully, then, even if other people don't like it, it's a part of your style. And, of course, you have to have a sense of humor."

Marie Coleman, owner of the Banyan Tree resale shop in Largo, Fla., also thinks a sense of humor is a must when decorating a garden with anything some might consider tacky or out of the ordinary.

In Florida, where the plastic pink flamingo remains prince of poor taste, Mrs. Coleman says nothing anyone could put in their yard would surprise her. And she's seen it all - from fake wishing wells to year-round nativity and reindeer scenes. However, she advises "less is best."

"I've seen people overdo it by putting too many things in their yards. It just looks too tacky. People should to try to accentuate their gardens and yards with subtle things like birdbaths or old red wagons with flowers planted in them. In fact, anything you can plant flowers in is great."

For Carter, the technical aspects of gardening aren't as exciting as the hunt for things to decorate with. She claims to have been too shy to bargain the first few times she went junking. Now, however, she says she becomes an aggressive haggler when she sees something she "can't live without."

"No one should be intimidated to bargain when they go junking. It's expected. People look at you funny when you don't do it," she says. Even shop owners say bargaining comes with the territory. "People think of it as a challenge. They see something they want, and if it's $10, they'll offer $6," Coleman says. "Bargaining can be fun, for the customers and the store owners."

For those hesitant to follow Carter's lead, she offers advice: "Never stop to think, 'Do I have a place for this?' Just go for it. You're the curator of your own garden exhibition."

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