With volatility in the stock market, impasse in government and technological change affecting us from our morning wake-up apps to our midnight sleep number settings, our gardens are perhaps the one quiet place where we can be in full control of our lives.
Whether we live in a tract house or a country estate, a trailer or a condo with a patio, we can use antiques and collectibles outside to mold our outdoor world into a thing of beauty. Here are some of the popular antique garden trends as seen by retailers this year.
Most homes were designed with the front entrance visible from the street. Reinforce this by making sure the door is eye-catching and in clear view. Trim shrubs down and plant colorful annuals that frame the house and draw one’s attention from the street to the door.
Antiques to consider: a vintage Spanish brass door knocker ($150-$250), a U.S. Post Office drop-off letter box ($250-$350), a period porch light ($75-$400) and something funny. Nothing feels more welcoming to visitors than an object that makes them smile just before entering your home; for example, a brightly painted, cast-iron reclining frog in a bikini ($85); a chafing dish lid planted with succulents ($29) or a sign with a slogan. My favorite: “The philosopher who said that work well done never needs doing over, never weeded a garden.”
If you have a large, empty front lawn, consider objects that might fill the void, such as an old iron plow or a modern sculpture, or the later created out of the former. Buy the iron discs, fan blades and assorted gear wheels and then talk your local auto repair shop into welding them into manageable sections for you to assemble, pagoda-fashion, in your garden. A small leaded glass window ($100-$250) newly framed, fastened between two 4-by-4 posts and surrounded by well-tended shrubs and flowers will capture one’s attention, give sparkle to the grass and grant these attractive but hard-to-reuse objects new life.
An old wagon wheel is still a perfect greeter at the side of a driveway, especially when it blends with a ranch-style house and rail fence. Spoked wheels ($450 each) are harder to find these days intact. If unpainted or untreated, the wood rots. I recommend you mount the wheel on a concrete platform above the ground, instead of half-burying it.
A friend once told me she was invited to a fancy reception at a country home outside of Baltimore but got woefully lost and had to call for help. What she heard the hostess say was: “Turn into the drive just beyond the caldron on the lawn.” What the hostess actually said was: “Turn into the drive just beyond the Calder on the lawn.” A good sized caldron or rendering pot can still be had for around $300, but an original Alexander Calder (1898-1976) outdoor sculpture is beyond the scope of this article.
If you’re lucky to have a view in your backyard, design your garden to accentuate that view. A few well-placed objects on each side can lead your eye to a bucolic hillside or distant pond.
If you’re like most of us, however, and have to contend with the dreariness of some neighbors’ yards, construct a wooden fence, put up a brick wall or plant a tall hedge, which will define the garden and shield you from faded plastic play sets and trash can ghettos. Once the walls are up, it is indeed your space!
Select easy-to-care-for shrubs and perennials which won’t take over the yard but will provide a variety of different heights. Then, choose one perfect object to capture attention. A focal point is key to good landscape design. A non-vegetative element truly anchors the entire garden.
That object could be a 19th-century Japanese, hand-carved Yukimi snow lantern ($10,000) or grandfather’s whittled whirligig (priceless, except gramps probably would take a Benjamin for it!); a pair of Victorian Coade stone urns ($24,500, plus shipping) or two pink flamingos.
Authentic Japanese stone lanterns are usually constructed in sections that fit together and require a crane to lift them into position. They are solid rock and literally weigh a ton! So, if you don’t have a private road into your backyard for the installation equipment, consider something simpler.
Grandpa’s contribution has great merit. First, grandpas aren’t forever and you’ll think of him every time you see the bird’s wings move. Second, the bird’s wings move. Pinwheels, swirling coils, windmills and anemometers all provide regular movement, which adds interest to the garden and makes it seem even more alive. Grandpa’s handiwork is authentic folk art that is unique and could appreciate in value.
Coade stone was a type of matte-finish stoneware invented by Mrs. Eleanor Coade (1733-1821) of London, England. It contained crushed ceramic bits mixed into the clay before firing. Its color may be light yellow, gray or beige. It had a tremendous vogue in the building boom of 19th century England and was in commerce from 1769 to about 1840. Once a mold was created, it could be used many times to create highly detailed objects. Known at the time as artificial stone, it was significantly cheaper than hand-carved rock. The finished keystones, urns, figures and façades weathered well and are available through British dealers such as Summers Place Auctions Ltd. A famous Coade stone lion stands on a plinth guarding Westminster Bridge in London.
The original flamingos, on the other hand, landed on American lawns in 1957 and became as staple a feature as the ’57 Chevy Bel Air in the driveway. (Only 47,556 of these iconic cars were produced by GM. They range in price today from $5,000 to $89,000 or more.) The classic flamingos were designed by sculptor Don Featherstone using a photo from a National Geographic magazine as a model. Union Products of Leominster, Mass., made about 250,000 pairs a year until the company folded in 2007. A pair still in its 1980s-era box was listed at $175 on eBay. Authentic ones will have Don Featherstone’s signature on their bellies.
Focal points that take a more “green” position are sprouting up all across the country. An antique millstone, upturned and professionally mounted, makes a fantastic simple garden sculpture certain to capture the eye of all onlookers. Expect to pay around $175 for the stone, and considerably more for a secure pedestal and mount. Inventive carpenters are re-using all manner of architectural elements in their construction of bird houses and feeders. These can be had for $25 to $250. Wrought iron fence pieces or gates can be used as small trellises for climbing annuals such as sweet peas or nasturtiums. Expect to pay from $85 to $500.
Gazing Balls or Globes
These vintage, hand-blown orbs of mirrored glass set on top of a stand have a long and colorful history. The first gazing balls appeared in the 12th century emerging from Venetian glass factories. Glass balls were hung near cottage doors to keep the evil spirits away. The Victorians loved them and often referred to them as Butler Globes. Because they reflect at an angle, the help could see if the hostess and guests needed attention without hovering.
When a gazing globe was placed in the center of the intersection of two garden paths, lovers on a bench could keep an eye out for an approaching chaperon. They look best when they are resting on a base higher than the surrounding greenery and visible from several different points. As they reflect the sky and garden around them, they capture movement, which draws one’s eye to them.
Antique gazing balls ($85-$120) are readily available. The older ones often need to be re-silvered inside so they reflect attractively. Antique pedestals are a greater find and will easily hold a newly minted globe. Keep the outside surface polished for optimum effect.
An ancient way of telling the time of day, the “dial” traditionally has Roman numerals in reverse order from a clock face. The pointer should indicate due south. Although the numbers are rarely accurate, the instrument will tell you precisely when the sun is at its highest point in the sky which, of course, is mid-day. Antique Victorian sundials can start around $400 but vary depending on age, design, material and condition.
A more sophisticated instrument than a sundial, an armillary is that arrow pointing to the sky with the bands of metal encircling it, mounted on a pedestal. Each metal ring takes a different measurement. It was used to indicate the earth’s orbit in relation to celestial objects, the most basic of which was earth’s orbit around the sun. When installed correctly, the arrow’s shadow indicates the equinoxes. These are more intricate than a sundial and the prices start around $800.
A certain find at every angle in a formal garden, an urn is simply a large flower pot. They have drain holes and can be planted or left as ornamentation. A matching pair on either side of a staircase invites all to move to the next level. They provide height to your plantings so that low-growing blossoms (petunias, lobelia, portulaca) can decorate higher up.
Some oriental ceramic storage jars were meant to hold water so they lack drain holes and look their best off to the side and filled to the brim with a few discreet petals floating on top.
Garden decor inevitably reflects the owner’s taste and pocketbook, but nothing more so than representational figures. Marble, granite, bronze, ceramic, cast iron, concrete, wood, aluminum, lead and plastic have all been used to capture that certain someone … or something. Each of these mediums has pros and cons when placed outdoors, which you should investigate before you invest significant money.
Statues are tied to specific artistic styles. Mixing Greek figures with garden gnomes or Amish silhouettes with iron mermaids will create a distracting jumble. Keep ornaments uniform and appropriate for the space and style of the house and yard. A painted “grannie fanny” looks cute at the edge of an ever-changing vegetable garden where a concrete Aphrodite would look ridiculous and always be in the way.
Stately Chinese fu dogs gaze terrifically from either side of an entry gate. Authentic ones are male and female with the male’s front paw resting on a ball and the female’s hidden by a puppy. They won’t improve chain link.
If you happen to like a variety of things in your yard (or family politics dictate you find a place for that goose in a nun’s habit that Aunt Fifi bought you for your birthday last summer), isolate them in a sunny nook separated by fast-growing, vibrantly colored zinnias. Fountains
Originally powered by channeled natural streams, fountains can be ornate monuments or simple troughs. Movement aerates the water and keeps it clear of surface algae. Few of us have access to babbling brooks and few of those that do have diverted the streams on their property to flow through a water feature. We depend on motorized pumps to make the water pour, spout or spray. Installation takes some ingenuity as the cord and on-and-off switch need to be hidden.
When choosing a water feature, keep in mind the sound the fountain will generate. In small, high-walled gardens, a stream cascading over a cliff into the pool below can be deafening. The noise of constant running water always sends me off to jiggle the handle of the nearest toilet. Most people are happier with a soft trickle. Check out Japanese bamboo fountains. Centuries of work have perfected the sound of serenity.
Happily, small solar cells placed on a nearby roof are now available to provide the power needed to operate a small pump. Premade fountains abound but consider constructing your own from an old wooden pail rigged to the top of a wine barrel, a copper pitcher pouring into an antique tub, or a stack of graduated concrete shells. My taste runs toward a sunken plastic pond surrounded by river rocks and a quiet flow emanating mysteriously from under one of the larger rocks, like a natural spring. That’s a perfect spot for an antique saint, fairy or mushroom!
One Final Note
“Good dealers should have a no-questions-asked return policy. They know what they’re selling and want their customers to be happy,” said Jerry Janssen of Orientations in Monterey, Calif. Opened a few years ago in the historic Marsh’s Oriental Store, this magnificently remodeled establishment places its objects for sale in an awe-inspiring atmosphere. It has both Chinese and Japanese outdoor gardens. Janssen’s 40 years of experience selling and buying Oriental antiquities has given him a unique position to offer advice to buyers. “It’s like real estate or anything you’re investing money in. Open your eyes. Don’t shop price; shop the item. You should love the piece before you buy it.”
That said, use your garden to help you define what you find beautiful, restive and amusing. Antique stores offer an incredible variety of merchandise, ready to use again for their original purpose or for some new application. Just sit in your garden and contemplate what object it might need: Victorian signed Kramer Brothers rose pattern cast-iron bench, $1,200 to $1,800; Adirondack solid wood chair ($350), or a weathered concrete toad stool ($50).
Joseph Truskot is a collector and freelance writer based in Salinas, Calif.
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