Principles for Using Unique Garden Ornaments

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

| April/May 2004

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.

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