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FASHION : Learning How to Size Up the Neighbors by the Yard : Unlike indoor art, lawn ornaments let owners make a personal statement to the world without having to invite folks in.


There are many ways to take the measure of a person. We believe that one of the best means is through observation of that person's yard ornaments. It's only one criterion, but it works as well as most.

Think about it. How do you generally judge the taste and character of your neighbors? Perhaps through the tidiness of their grass? The use of an apostrophe in their signature doormat? Whether they plant weird vegetables like okra?

All of these are dubious gauges at best. Unless that neighbor makes a strong reactionary statement such as painting his rocks white, it's hard to know what's on his mind.

But not as hard as it used to be. For readily available in the marketplace is a truly exhaustive range of objects suitable for outdoor decoration. This repertoire, once limited to endearing rabbits, ducks and squirrels, now offers a way to make a statement to the world at large.

Some statements are clearer than others. In fact, some are unmistakable. There are messages spelled out in wrought iron to express strong sentiment to your fellows, such as "Flowers, a Gift of Beauty," or the more mundane, "Is MY dog on YOUR lawn?"

While these decorations leave little doubt as to the temper of the occupants, others require more examination.

Take cow replicas. Perhaps the ornamental cow is the ultimate patriotic symbol. The Holstein, after all, is an all-American animal that unfortunately the founding fathers overlooked when choosing a national symbol. They were in a hawkish mood at the time and threw support to the eagle. If we all write to our representatives in Congress and ask for their prompt action, this slight may be overcome. And cows would look great on flagpoles.

In contrast, deer statues might indicate a strongly liberal stance. Those who use deer as garden art probably abhor firearms, campaign for snail-darter habitat and use tofu as a dining mainstay.

Then there's the genre of damsels with loose clothing, often carrying water jars. These figures might at first suggest chauvinism, but on closer analysis could be Republican symbols, championing the work ethic and renouncing the indulgence of modern plumbing.

Other meaningful art includes frogs, which are probably bought by romantics, and oversized snails, which hint at passive-aggressiveness. Sea gulls, we suspect, are bought by transplanted Midwesterners. Who else would want one?

Seriously, collecting garden sculpture is a growing trend that cuts across socioeconomic lines and allows more self-expression than mere two-dimensional paintings can render. Besides, it's seen by more people and you don't have to invite them in.

If you are the type who wants to keep your attitude private, you can choose more universal symbols for your lawn, leaving neighborhood pundits confused as to your true sentiments.

Ducks are useful for this purpose. Also dogs. It's hard to make a statement with a dog statue, although some kind of irony can be expressed with a sculpted fire hydrant.

We learned at Green Thumb International in Ventura that hydrants are not a big seller, which we took as a positive indicator. Also, sales of Oriental pagodas, once a hot item, have fallen to a trickle. We'd like to point out that this coincides with the general decline of transcendental meditation, although no research has been reported on this theory.

Animals in general are the most popular sculptures at this westside outlet, but no figures are kept on sales by species. Gnomes and humans are slow.

Meanwhile, at Enchanted Way Nursery in Simi Valley, deer are the most requested sculpture, a fact that, according to our theory, flies in the face of the town's supposed conservatism.

"We sell tons of them," said Chuck Tarpley, nursery co-owner, "especially the new deer lines that are very realistic."

In Camarillo, at Green Meadow Nursery, yard-art animals are outsold by angels. Among animal forms, frogs may be the top seller, especially those that squirt water--and sunflowers have been a close runner-up for the past year.

In fact, we've noticed that sunflowers are fast becoming another universal symbol, like dogs, for those who wish their yards to be enigmatic. A few bronze or terra-cotta sunflowers should break up the monotony of your lawn while thwarting analysis of your political leanings.

Of course, this strategy is not guaranteed, because some of us are constantly working to break the code of yard-ornament symbology.

For instance, a family moved in next door to us with a set of decorations they promptly displayed on their lawn. These consist of a large stone turtle, a six-foot windmill and a pair of lovebirds fixed to a birdbath.

Just a random collection, you say? Hardly. We figure it endorses slow but steady material growth, committed self-reliance and free love. It is obvious to us that these neighbors are confirmed Libertarians.

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