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 do that, 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.
Ornaments are useful as well as attractive
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.
The month of March, before winter completely leaves us for its annual hiatus, seems 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.
An impact in winter, too
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 freezing temperatures, metal and wood are materials that can withstand freezing temperatures without much damage.
In cold climates, most of us enjoy our gardens in winter through the window, from the warmth of our houses. Spots in the garden that are viewed from oft-frequented places indoors — a kitchen window where you stand to do dishes, for instance — can benefit especially from ornaments that remain in place all year long.
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. [Top photo]
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! [See photo above left.] 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. [See third and fourth photos at left.]
Sitting on a pole about six feet high, it had no trouble keeping its head above the snow level, even in this record-breaking snowy winter.
In the photos here [click on the arrows at the right base of the first pictures to see additional photos], 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!
As the owner of A Shady Lady Garden Design, Amy Ziffer has been working with landscaping clients in western Connecticut since 1998. She’s a former editor at Fine Gardening magazine, a contributor to many magazines and books, and blogs at her own website. Her specialty is cold-climate ornamental gardening with a focus on the Northeast. In addition to liking horticulture, she’s fond of critters (wild and domestic), physics, math, and intense outdoor sports, especially in the cold and snow. Amy's previous post here at Diggin' It was Celebrating Small Flowers.