How to Use Art and Ornament in the Garden

Funky, formal or cottage style



Alice King uses sculptures and wall hangings to personalize her garden.

Photography by Emily Clay

A garden is like a work of art, and just like a painting, it consists of shapes, forms, color and textures. As a well-chosen painting can do wonders for a living room wall, a well-selected object or ornament can work miracles for a garden. While plants and hardscapes are the main components of the garden, art and ornament can add interesting focal points and, if successful, all of these elements will work in harmony to create a wonderful garden. Just as a focal point draws the eye in a painting, garden art and ornaments draw the eye in a garden. These elements in the garden can add interest, color and direction and even draw attention away from a displeasing aspect of the garden such as the air conditioning unit or utility pole.

Garden Ornament or Art?
Beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder when it comes to garden art. There is certainly no clear definition of what exactly is garden art or ornament, but typically, it is any non-plant element in the garden. This could include urns, fountains, wall plaques, “found objects,” finials, benches, statues and more. A garden should be decorated in the same way a house is decorated, as a personal reflection of the garden and gardener. There are some basic guidelines that help determine if a certain object or piece of art will be a successful addition.

One very important thing to remember is less can sometimes be more. Don’t introduce too many objects or ornaments into the landscape all at once. Take time to choose beautiful and meaningful objects and add them bit by bit. Too many accessories can make the garden appear cluttered and can take away from each piece’s importance. Better to have one beautiful and special ornament than to have too many.

The Style of Art or Ornament
Gardens should be in harmony with the style and architecture of the home, and any decorations should be in harmony with the style of the garden, whether it’s funky, formal or cottage style. There is certainly more freedom in choices for the funky garden compared to the formal garden, but do avoid “cute” objects that will distract from the elegance and harmony of the well-designed garden.

Ornaments for a funky garden could include whirligigs, which add movement and color to the landscape. Unique planters made from “found objects” such as old wagons or wheelbarrows are an interesting way to decorate garden beds. A topiary monkey figure covered with fig ivy and hanging from a tree branch adds whimsy. Installing a spotlight to shine on the monkey at night extends the enjoyment of this fun and lighthearted addition.

Formal gardens lend themselves to more classical art and ornament, such as statues of the four seasons, matching finials on gateposts or an antique armillary on a beautiful base. One fabulous object to use in a formal setting is a carved marble fruit basket, which can be used on gateposts, on steps leading to a higher or lower area of the garden or on an outside table for a permanent bouquet. Most formal gardens are laid out symmetrically, so pairs of any ornament are always more effective.

A cottage garden has a more casual ambience, and the decorative elements should reflect that. A cottage garden could be decorated with a lovely old, rusted chandelier hanging from a tree branch. A peeling window frame re-fitted with an outdoor mirror and hung on a fence can act as a backdrop to a planting bed to make the area seem larger, or it can enhance a sitting area in the garden. Small colorful glass balls can be floated in a birdbath or fountain to add color and movement. A collection of birdhouses on different posts of different heights is a wonderful addition to any garden and is very effective in a cottage style garden.

Where to Place Art and Ornament in the Garden
There are many different approaches in deciding where to place an art object or ornament in the garden. Is the ornament to be a main focal point, or will it be a hidden treasure that is discovered while wandering through the garden? Most garden art or ornaments will stand out better if they are placed in front of a living wall of plants. A marble or concrete sculpture will be more attractive and more noticeable in the garden if it is positioned in front of a hedge of dark green shrubs than if it were standing in front of a light colored stucco wall. Another interesting way to use garden ornaments, such as birdhouses or birdbaths, is to position them on different sides of a path at consistent intervals to serve as a guide for visitors. Statues or large urns lined up like soldiers on either side of a stand of grass or at the end of an axis are a classic and effective way to create a wonderful focal point in a formal garden.

Scale and Proportion
One of the most important things to remember when choosing art and ornaments for the garden is to keep in mind the scale of the object in relationship to the size of the garden. A 14-foot statue of Zeus would look out of place in a townhouse garden just as a 12-inch wall fountain would look too small attached to a 12-foot wall. A good way to test the size relationship is to cut out a piece of cardboard approximately the size of the desired object and place it in different locations in the garden. If the cardboard cutout looks in proportion, then the artwork or decorative element will too. This is much easier than lugging a statue around the garden.

Garden Art Adds Color and Interest All Year Long
Garden art adds color and interest to the garden all year, so once the style of the garden has been established and the plant material is in place and thriving, start looking for interesting artistic objects and elements to add. Scout antiques shows and auctions for unusual and aged ornaments. Go to estate sales and buy right out of the garden for instant patina. Be imaginative and use treasures in unusual ways. All of these elements will make the garden more personal and more a reflection of you and your style.

To-Do List for October – A Busy Time in the Garden
Plant perennials, biennials and hardy annuals.
Pansies and violas can be planted now. Fertilize with a slow release fertilizer at time of planting.
Ornamental cabbage and kale can be planted now.
Sow wildflower seeds.
Begin planting spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths and anemones and crocus.
Plant parsley and perennial herbs such as sage, thyme and rosemary.
Ideal time to plant large shrubs and trees.
Begin root pruning of any trees or shrubs you plan to move later in the season.
Divide and relocate any crowded or over-grown perennials.
Take cuttings of geraniums to carry over the winter. The stems should be cut about 5 to 6 inches, treated with a rooting hormone and planted in sand. Keep moist and in a temperate location.
Begin to prepare house plants for their return to the house. Check for pests and treat. Put them in a shadier location to acclimate them to the lower light of the house.
Collect any dried hydrangeas from the bush and enjoy inside during the fall and winter.
Enjoy the wonderful fragrance of the tea olives this time of year.

Mary T. Dial, a Master Gardener and owner of The Itinerant Gardener, has been gardening in the Midlands since 1994.