Garden Gnomes and Other Outdoor Ornaments

Ornaments can spruce up your outdoor space and add a touch of class — or whimsy

Disclaimer: I don’t own a garden gnome, and I don’t want a gnome. My taste runs more toward bits of architectural salvage. Turn me loose at a place like Olde Good Things, and stand back for budget-wreckage.

But as we are entering the primo “not a lot to do for the plants, let’s go garden shopping!” season, you may run into some gnomes, so this seems like a good time to say that while some people dismiss them out of hand, they deserve a little more respect.

Three reasons to think well of gnomes: Their history dates to the Renaissance, if you permit the most generous interpretation. There is such a thing as a (reasonably) attractive one. And you have to give some credit to a garden ornament that is frequently stolen — for two entirely different reasons.

The antique ones get taken for money, same as any other antique, but these little garden guardians also get “liberated” by pranksters who have no interest whatsoever in selling them.

The practice is known as gnoming, and many who do it continue the joke by positioning the gnome in a forest or field or, after many photographically documented travels, returning it to the original owner. (Perhaps fittingly, the traveling gnome phenomenon itself got hijacked, for what turned out to be a very popular ad campaign, by the website Travelocity, which has now incorporated gnome imagery into its very brand identity.)

On the down side, this practice makes any gnome owner vulnerable, because it’s impossible to prevent theft by choosing a specimen so tacky nobody else would want it. On the up side, needing to keep it close to the house is a perfect excuse to go for the top of the line and buy something authentic.

In the world of gnomes, “authenticity” has two equally valid definitions: appearance and provenance (aka origin).

Appearance: Because there are so few limits to what classifies an ornament as a gnome, your new friend will be legit regardless of what he’s made of or his country of origin, as long as he is…

Indeed a he, more or less bearded but with at least some facial hair, wearing a pointy red hat that’s slightly bent forward or to one side. Shirt styles vary, as does the presence of a vest or a leather apron, but trousers are almost always dark: brown, blue or black. He may be working — most commonly with garden or mining tools, to reflect his history as a guardian of these places — or he may be relaxing, usually with a pipe, although a fishing rod is not impossible.

Provenance: Until recently, gnomes didn’t read, so a brand-new gnome with a book in his hand is too modern to be authentic if you go by appearance. But any new gnome is authentic in provenance if he is made by Griebel, a company often credited with moving gnomes into the garden mainstream, back in the 1890s. (The U.S. outlet for this brand of legitimacy is Zwergli. Visit them credit card in hand and the deed is done.)

(MORE: How 500 Square Feet of Earth Changed My Life)

Garden Ornaments

Shopping for other garden ornaments is a lot more difficult, largely because there are so many nifty choices. By definition, an ornament is extra. Its only function is to enhance the garden’s beauty, and most gardens are too small and crowded to be improved by more than two or three items like statues, gazing balls and rusted tractor seats.

Ornamental is a different story — plenty of shopping room there. The function of a bench, for instance, is to be sat upon, but that doesn’t mean said bench can’t be lovely. A plant trainer can be a graceful sculpture instead of a simple teepee. Here, too, decor can be overdone, but as long as it doesn’t upstage the plants it will work out fine.

In practice, this frequently means an object has a weathered or weathered-looking surface, which brings us to …

How to Avoid Fake Garden Antiques

Thanks to a slew of modern technologies, forgers can copy old objets with greater fidelity than ever before. They’re experts at distressing paint, rusting iron, pitting stone and artfully breaking off just a tiny bit of marble drapery.

There are two easy ways to avoid being duped. One is to deliberately shop for reproductions and read labels carefully. The other is to simply assume something isn’t the real deal unless it comes from a specialist dealer. An honest seller who doesn’t know much about garden antiques can be fooled almost as easily as a rank amateur.

Buying Antique Reproductions

Composites used to make replicas of carved stone antiquities have been around in one formula or another since the mid-18th century, so plenty of “reproductions” are now antiques themselves. Those don’t count. I’m talking about modern copies. They come in a wide range of qualities, from the most convincing, like high-end dealer Barbara Israel’s offerings, which closely resemble true antiques, to much less expensive (but OK-looking, especially from a distance) copies of the sort offered by companies like Charleston Gardens.

(MORE: Lighting the Night Garden)

Maintaining a Healthy Skepticism

As I am not rich, skepticism is my general shopping attitude, and the one I employed to get a good deal on my pair of big cast-iron urns. They looked elderly enough to fit right in from the day I bought them, yet they aren’t antique. And although they weren’t cheap, they were less than a third of the cost of an identical pair I’d seen earlier and passed by, suspecting they were no more “19th-century” than I was.

My reasons for suspicion: They had traces of paint, but their “patterns of wear” weren’t patterns wear would create. The protected iron beneath the bowls was just as worn as the exposed rims. Even more convincing (if less forensic), they’re a classic model widely sold in reproduction form.

I’ve seen a lot of urns over the years because I love to browse at garden antique stores, but if I didn’t have this experience I could look for matches online, starting with well-stocked eBay sellers like From Europe to You, where questionable items are identified as “Victorian style.”

A lot of the good stuff is signed, which is very helpful when you’re trying to verify authenticity. Signed pieces can be copied as easily as anything else, but it’s a lot faster to find specifics like “zinc statue, Milliot” than generics that exist in thousands like “cast stone column.”

Another tipoff to potential fraud: When you see what appears to be the same piece offered over and over by different sellers for wildly different prices, variously labeled “antique,” “vintage,” “estate” or “old,” you know something’s fishy. (And watch out for antique fishbowl holders, by the way. From the number I’ve seen recently, they seem to be having a moment.)

These warnings may make it sound quite difficult to buy good garden antiques if you aren’t blessed with deep pockets. It is. But that’s what makes shopping for them so much fun: You can look and look and look some more, learning useful things about design and having pleasant fantasies about garden improvement, all without spending a penny that might better be devoted to a handsome new tree.

Leslie Land
By Leslie Land
Leslie Land began her career as one the original chefs at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif., but she is best known for writing books and articles about gardening, food and cooking, and for her co-starring role in the book and PBS TV series, The 3000 Mile Garden. Her syndicated cooking column, Good Food, ran for more than 20 years in newspapers from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and for seven years she wrote the Garden Q&A column for The New York Times. After retiring from the Times, she established a virtual magazine, inkitchenandgarden.com, where she wrote about gardening, food and agriculture, among other things, and indulged her inner publisher by giving space to guest posts from Eric Larson, the Manager of Yale's Marsh Botanic Garden, and from her husband, Bill Bakaitis, an expert mycologist and outdoorsman.

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