Principles for Using Unique Garden Ornaments

Create identity in your garden by focusing on pieces and placement that set the mood.

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For many people cultivating a small space, the idea of using ornament can be intimidating. All too often it is associated with an aristocratic past that seems to have little relevance to the way we garden in the egalitarian present.

But such a conclusion would be mistaken, for effective ornament can be as simple as a single, well-placed ceramic pot, the witty embellishment of a potting shed or a scattering of colored stones around the foot of a tree. The principles that govern their use are eternals, as applicable in the smallest of spaces as in the vast acres of a country house garden.

1. The first principle of ornament is that it should bestow a style and identity on a garden. It is like an apt quotation pinpointing exactly what your garden means to you and what you wish it to tell the visitor.

It almost goes without saying that any ornament immediately draws the eye. Occasionally a natural feature, such as a tree or a piece of topiary, can fulfill the same function, but when it does this, it is precisely because it is acting as a permanent ornament. The fact that vision can be controlled by ornament — hastened, slowed down or stopped, somewhat like responding to traffic signals — is worth using to advantage. Pairs of almost anything (piers with urns atop them, for instance) warn visitors that they are about to move out of one area into another, whether or not through a formal entrance. Smaller or more detailed ornaments, particularly those meant to be seen close-up, such as an inscribed stone, may cause the viewer to stop in contemplation for a moment. Other ornaments, seen first at a distance, lure the eye and foot to travel from one spot to another, aided by another weapon in the armory of the garden designer — the path.

2. Sight lines — the lines along which the eye is drawn — can take two forms. They can be direct, taking you to the ornament by means of a straight path flanked by clipped hedges, an avenue of interlaced trees or a pair of borders. Alternatively, the treatment can be more relaxed, with a path, flanked by asymmetric planting, that meanders toward the ornament, affording occasional glimpses of it from afar to lead the viewer on. The aim of both is the same: to control the way the eye perceives the ornament and how visitors wend their way toward it.

Some of the most versatile minor ornaments are those that are moveable. The range is limitless, from simple trompe l’oeil cutouts to tablescapes — assemblages of favorite objects — all of which can be rearranged to compose a different picture according to your inclination.

It is, of course, possible to base a whole garden on small incidents, but it is usually only successful if these are strongly linked through a theme, style or color. A plethora of small ornaments, unless carefully orchestrated and controlled, can quickly fragment into an accumulation of meaningless clutter, giving confusing and contradictory signals.

3. Never forget that ornaments differ from the other elements in a garden’s composition in that they do not change with the seasons. Most are in situ for all 12 months of the year, and you will be looking at them in winter, spring, summer and autumn; under snow, covered in frost, lashed by rain and scorched by sun; when the garden is at its most floriferous; and when the branches of the trees and shrubs are bare.

4. Long-term maintenance is another factor to consider. You can leave reconstituted stone out in all weather to accumulate moss and lichen. However, that is not the case with marble or softer stone. These and any good antique pieces need to be bagged for the winter to protect them from the effects of frost. Water penetrating stone or marble and freezing can result in the damage or complete destruction of an ornament. Stone is also subject to atmospheric pollution. Even in the country, a pristine piece can turn literally soot black within a few years.

One of the important supporting roles ornament can play is to detract from or dress up less attractive features. If you position a colorful, comfortable bench at the end of a path, for example, the eye will be drawn straight to it, cheerfully sliding by any number of deficiencies in a flower border along the way. Or, with an arresting object placed at the garden’s boundary, you often can deflect the eye from traveling beyond it to something awful.

In looking at all these hard-surface ornaments, do not forget the role of living ones. Topiary occupies a unique role in the garden, for it belongs equally to the world of plants and to that of ornament. Clipped and trained evergreens can be transformed into walls, arches, pilasters, obelisks, columns and even sculptures. Anyone who wishes to understand the role of ornament also should have an understanding and knowledge of the art of topiary.

I end with a note on planting because all too often the use of ornament in all its various guises can result in a small garden becoming a concrete jungle, a deadening accumulation of hard surfaces with trophies of ailing plants in containers. At its best ornament is something far different. Ideally, it should be a perfect marriage with the world of tamed nature that is the garden. This is what was achieved through the centuries in the great gardens we still visit with awe and wonder today. The equilibrium calls for constant vigilance because trees and shrubs grow and the composition constantly changes through the years. What seemed at the outset a bold hard-surface statement can, within a few years, shrink to insignificance engulfed in foliage unless it is kept firmly under control by pruning, clipping and training. Planting and ornament should march together in tandem from the outset.


Reprinted with permission from the book Ornament in the Small Garden by Roy Strong. Copyright 2002 by Frances Lincoln Ltd. Retail price $24.95. Published in North America by Firefly Books Ltd.