GARDEN ART: Found Items

Do you find that there are some things in your life that you just can’t let go of? I’m not being esoteric here. I mean “things”. Like “stuff”. Maybe it’s an old chair with busted springs or a jewelry box you’ve had as long as you can remember. Maybe it’s even jewelry. We all have treasures that aren’t so much treasures as much as they are objects that have inspired and created memories for us.

For me it was some of my grandmother’s old teacups. She was a bold, brassy British woman that stood at a towering 4’9”. She was bossy, and silly, and would break out into a song and dance, whenever the mood struck her—an ‘old ditty’ always at the ready. In her twilight years, as she became more subdued, it seemed that the only thing that brought her comfort was a nice, hot cup of tea. I inherited several of her cups and although I never became much of a tea drinker myself, I simply couldn’t let them go.

One day I was trying in earnest to cull our overflowing boxes of “things”. So many tea cups and not a cupboard to put them in. I noticed that I had a few small succulents that hadn’t been planted yet when it dawned on me. They were just the perfect size! I didn’t need to throw out the memories. I simply needed to redefine them to fit into my world. Now they’re not just Nanna’s old things, they’re a wonderful memory of a great lady, brightening my kitchen window.

And we can do so much more!

THE INSPIRATION

We often think of the garden as a serious place. A proper place. It is a place for well curated plants, clipped just so. There is nice furniture, that belongs on a patio. It is to be enjoyed in the proper way (you can add a stuffy British accent there for effect if you like).

As a professional landscape designer, I will say “Yes, but…” This may all true but if you want to really transform a garden, make it into not only a beautiful horticultural experience, but a deeply personal space to be enjoyed, I’d like to give you permission—no, I’d like to strongly encourage you—to color outside of the lines a little.

Years ago when my son was very small, we used to go to the newly opened Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, a lively and creative space for children to learn and play. I had started my own landscape design business about 3 or 4 years prior, and was still looking for my voice in the field of design.

One day at the museum, my son and I were playing around in the amphitheater—he was working on climbing from one tier to another as I sat on a curved concrete bench watching. Suddenly and simultaneously, both of our attention became hyper-focused on the concrete itself. He began grasping and prying at what turned out to be little Hot Wheels cars embedded in the concrete.

I was intrigued. I had heard of people using different types of rocks and pebbles in concrete but this was entirely different. And what a great idea! Why not add something unique into the concrete to make it personal? Records, Leggos. How about the favorite dish set that was ruined when a couple were broken? Or, throw in some nails and wood screws. Suddenly, what was plain, dull concrete becomes an element of focus and a personal reflection of the owner. So many possibilities.

Courtesy of Kidspace Children’s Museum

APPLICATION

Even if you’re not working on a project that includes concrete, you can still insert a little something unique—a little “you”—into the garden. A good friend has bowling balls in his garden! When he and his wife bought their house there were a few in the garden, not so much a design choice. Perhaps an, “I don’t know what to do with these things” situation. Rolling forward a few years, they added one or two more, and soon a friend, children’s singer-songwriter Dave Kinnoin became smitten with the idea of it. Soon he was a bowling ball benefactor, even penning a short poem about his contribution and taping it to the ball. They now have 25 in the garden. How great is that?! Bowling balls can be plain or exotic and beautiful, but the story and the memories attached to them add untold depth and enjoyment to their whole garden.

Bowling balls and teacups are a great start and here are more examples to consider:

  • Motorcycle helmets (clear out the foam padding first)
  • An old tube t.v. (convert into a planter by removing the glass screen and innards)
  • A chair where the seat has been replaced with plants
  • An old tool box turned planter
  • A converted vanity
  • A wheelbarrow
  • Empty wine bottles, different colors
  • An old guitar, piano or other hallow musical instrument

Pro-design tips and cautions

Before you start putting stuff out in the garden, willy nilly, let’s go over a few pointers in design and logistics:

DESIGN

  • Place small items in areas along a walking path with very low growing plants so they will be discovered.
  • Larger items have a little more flexibility and can be placed in and amid plants that have varying sizes.
  • If the item is tall or angular it will work nicely with weepy and flowing types of plants.
  • Be judicious on the quantity of items you use. One, odd item in the garden will seem like an accident. Two items, well, I’m sort of opposed to even numbers (too matchy-matchy). Three or five is great when you triangulate them through the garden.
  • Don’t add too many pieces (“too many” will depend on the size of your garden, so use your best judgement). The idea is to have a garden which expresses a playfulness and whimsy, not one that looks like an outside junk yard.

LOGISTICS

  • Plastic will degrade, fade, and turn into powder. Don’t use it!
  • Wood, if you want the object to stay in it’s present condition, should be treated and protected first. Sometimes, however, the process of decay and weathering over time, is part of it’s unique beauty. Just know that wood directly on soil or directly exposed to water, snow or sun will decay more rapidly. You can place wooden objects on some kind of paver to keep it off the soil, just be sure to level and compact the soil first to avoid uneven and unwanted settling.
  • Metal is great but know its properties. Copper looks better and better over time as it patinas (green staining). Steel will rust. Stainless steel will remain unchanged.
  • Ceramic and glass is fine.

Wrapping up

Keep in mind once these found and unique treasures are incorporated into the garden space, they become part of the cacophony of the garden. That is to say they must be cared for, just as you would care for the plants. Make sure to occasionally go out and check in on these items. Look for things like mud splatter, bird droppings or plants that have grown over and obscured them from view. To reiterate, we want them to look intentional, not discarded.

I believe that a garden is an expression of who you are as a person. Whether I’m playing around in my own garden or designing for someone else, part of my “process” is to really get into the head of who’s garden I’m working on and to bring their unique personality and perspective into their outdoor living room. In this way, the garden is a place to feel at home, and a place to share with others a small piece of who you are.

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