Why do artful objects—such as sculptures, architectural artifacts, and birdbaths—have such an impact in the landscape? Like adding jewelry to a little black dress, or a few bright pillows to a tired sofa, art and ornamentation improve the garden’s composition.
Garden decor should provide delight, but it shouldn’t compete with your plants. A well-placed sculpture adds to, rather than detracts from, the border’s appearance. Precious objects displayed side by side with foliage and flowers—or partially hidden among the stems and branches of a favorite plant—give a garden its personality. They also communicate volumes about the gardener’s own tastes and style.
While there is no right or wrong in something as subjective as choosing artwork for your garden, the general rules of scale and proportion, placement and balance, and harmonious composition are useful guidelines.
Scale and proportion
Think of scale as the “heft” of materials, shapes, and forms, especially as your garden relates to your home. Evaluate your home’s architecture and use it as a guide to selecting related artwork and ornaments. For example, a Victorian-style home is often feminine in feeling, finished with delicate millwork and highly detailed trim. A contemporary home may be more geometric and massive, with a presence that overwhelms the landscape. A one-story brick ranch house is low to the ground, evoking the idea of midcentury modernity.
Each of these styles requires compatible ornamentation in the garden. A trellis with 2-inch by 2-inch latticework is fitting for a Victorian entry garden, while a beefy arbor with 6-inch by 6-inch posts makes sense for a contemporary home.
Don’t choose garden art that gets dwarfed by the scale of your home. Follow the landscape’s cues, such as the height of the residence or mature trees, rather than sticking close to “human scale.” When selecting columns, urns, and trellises, think big—remember, the sky is your limitless ceiling and large-scale pieces can hold their own in the garden.
I learned this lesson recently when a designer helped me sketch out a rose arbor that I wanted to attach to the side of my house.
I envisioned the top of the arbor fitting beneath the first-story windows, which are about 10 feet off the ground. In my drawings, the structure looked squat and oddly suited for the space. The designer encouraged me to raise the top of the arbor to rest above the windows, adding a decorative panel that emulates my home’s Arts-and-Crafts architecture and ties home and garden together.
Proportion is a close relative to scale. A single cherub appears lonely and out of proportion in a woodland garden, but a pair of cherubs, perched on twin rocks at different levels, conveys a definite sense of presence. If you absolutely love an antique birdcage, but it’s too small for your perennial border, place it on a 2-foot concrete pedestal. Or use a favorite technique of interior designers: Group like-minded smaller objects together to fill a larger space. This works well with pots, plaques, or a collection of unusual watering cans.
Placement and Balance
Where you place artwork says volumes about its role in the landscape. A blue-glazed, Ali Baba-sized urn might be fine at the bottom of your porch steps, but looks fantastic when placed in a border at the perimeter of your garden, juxtaposed against a golden-foliaged tree or shrub.
As you stand in the garden, use your eye as a guide. What earns your notice? Is it a bare spot underneath a 15-foot-tall Japanese maple? Why not place an Asian-inspired lantern at its base, or a dish rock to capture rainfall and reflect the sky?
As in fashion and fine art, balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, depending upon the mood and style of your garden. Formal gardens usually call for symmetrical touches. Flank the beginning of a pathway with two columns, inviting visitors to further explore the garden’s delights. Center formally placed fountains or sculptures in the lawn, rather than tucking them to the side.
Informal gardens have a carefree nature that allows for asymmetrical balance. This technique is rooted in the fine-art concept of the French Third, also called the Golden Mean, in which an artist would divide a canvas into the foreground, the horizon, and the sky (each section filling approximately one-third of the painting).
In your garden, place artwork with a ratio of one-third to two-thirds. Once you’ve divided a vignette into these proportions, you’ll see that the fanciful obelisk should be placed in the one-third side, offsetting an equally important grouping of perennials or flowering shrubs on the two-thirds side. As with anything creative, this approach is subjective. It’s what your eye sees and what pleases you that matters.
This section could also be titled “It’s my style and I’m sticking to it.” As you adorn the garden with nonplant objects, unify your selections. Choose materials, finishes, and objects that relate to your home’s style and to each other. This approach takes discipline, because we gardeners are easily wooed by beautiful objects.
I know one gardener who buys only containers finished in turquoise-colored glaze, which reflects the verdigris patina of the weathered copper pieces in her Victorian-style garden. Similarly, the creator of a tropical garden filled with oversized phormiums and cannas is drawn to rusted iron and natural terra cotta. From finial-topped trellises in rusted iron to a birdbath and paving stones in terra cotta, her gardening accessories work well together—and with her garden’s style.
Extend this harmony to plant choices, making sure the artwork you select looks compatible with nearby plants. I noticed an inspiring example of this on a recent garden tour. Nesting among a mass planting of black mondo grasses (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) was a 10-inch silver gazing ball. Everyone who noticed this little composition stopped to snap a photo and comment on its brilliance. The plant-artwork pairing was graphic and metallic and unforgettable.
Returning to the idea of accessorizing that little black dress, I recall something a professor said in one of my fashion design courses in college: Once you think you’ve designed the perfect outfit, take one thing away.
Smart design calls for a dose of restraint. Like removing the extra bracelet so the necklace and earrings draw attention to your face, take a walk through your garden and look for clutter you can eliminate. Where can you take away a distracting piece of art and instead let the surrounding plantings sing their song?
Strive to add extraordinary pieces to your garden and take away objects that don’t distinguish themselves. There certainly is room for kitsch—
I experience joy each time I see the student-made ceramic “totem” I purchased at my son’s school auction. But it’s placed in the kitchen garden, which is the ideal spot for a playful, childlike piece of artwork.
Give your garden an air of sophistication, a sense of harmony, and a touch of restraint. Allow some objects to take center stage, with others in a supporting role. Well-placed objects will enhance your garden’s beauty and reflect your personal style.
Debra Prinzing is a regular contributor to Gardening How-To’s “Site Specific” department and the author of The Abundant Garden (Cool Springs Press, 2005).
photography by Barbara Denk