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Well Cultivated

Garden ornaments can range from classical cherubs and urns to the witty and whimsical, such as discarded rowboats, buckets or a chandelier. Set your imagination free, and let your tastes be served.

July 10, 1999|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cicely Fierson isn't looking for a major addition. No grandiose statue mingling with the tall trees or an imposing trellis wrapped in vines.

She just wants a little something placed in the corner of her backyard garden. And Fierson said she'll pass on those mirrored orbs-on-a-pedestal she sees in nurseries everywhere.

"They seem a bit tacky to me," sniffed Fierson, of Irvine. "I like ornaments, but they have to be kind of discreet, not too showoffy."

Fierson's feelings aside, the popularity of mirrored balls underscores a renewed interest in garden ornaments. Gardeners are enhancing their environments by adding sculptures, fountains, decorative chairs and other stone, clay, wood, metal--and even plastic--objects to the mix.

Some have taken the relatively undemanding route by sticking a ready-made birdbath out among the shrubs. Others lean toward the ambitious, creating elaborate Japanese-themed areas or filling the yard with expensive sculptures, perhaps inspired by old Italian gardens. Then there's the more goofy minded. Don't forget pink flamingos.

Fierson, who calls herself a dedicated but "basically a hodgepodge" gardener, wants to dive in but isn't sure where to start. Her backyard "is very pretty, but it's a little dull in places," she said. "The question is what to do? Do I just put anything back there and wait for grass to grow [around it]?"

A new book may help. Martha Baker's "Garden Ornaments" (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1999; $40) covers a lot of terrain, from determining which type of garden you want to make to what kind of ornaments that will do it.

The first step, according to Baker, is realizing that a garden is just a garden, but an ornamental garden is an extension of the home and should almost feel like a room that just happens to be outside.

"The components [the plants and artifacts of a garden] should be handled in the same way as the corresponding decorative elements of an interior space," Baker writes. "That is, it should create a specific mood or style that is aesthetically pleasing [and] be an extension of the home."

She points out that this "garden as room" notion is nothing new. Baker notes that the first examples showed up in the complex gardens royal Egyptians favored as far back as 3000 BC. In Europe, the wealthy in most countries--especially Italy, England and France (think of Versailles, Baker says)--built open-air spaces renowned for their design and ornamentation.

To create your own environment, Baker offers several styles. Among them are the classical, the waterside, the gallery and the whimsical garden. To begin, gather "elements," as she calls them, that reflect each. Baker has dozens of suggestions:

* The classical look (which Baker describes as epitomizing "restraint, balance, order and symmetry") can begin with a wooden garden bench, a few antique urns, an obelisk or two and maybe a stone lion. As with all the styles, experiment with object placement until they're appealing.

* For the waterside garden, search for metal candle lanterns, sphere-shaped planters, steel chairs and anything with a nautical look. Maybe toss a rusted anchor into the fray.

* To get the gallery look, which is the most sculptural, you might have to reach deep into the wallet or purse. Any statue will do, but also look for Grecian-style urns, cast-iron chairs and put in a garden gate to set it all off.

* The whimsical garden might be the easiest, especially when cash is scarce. Baker says imagination is key, so you might want to look in the garage for fanciful discards. She gives examples of a weathered rowboat stuck among the ivy, a tipped bucket with flowers planted to seem like they've spilled on the grass and even a chandelier hung from a tree over a table.

"Ornaments for a whimsical garden might be witty sculptures ranging from fabulous to folk," she writes. "They can be garden-variety furnishings set up in clever ways or in unexpected places--or 'found' pieces borrowed from non-garden environments."

This approach made perfect sense to Fierson, who said her pack-rat instincts have filled her garage. "You know, I can do that one," she said. She just starts sifting through it, "and if something looks garden-worthy," she might put it out there.

Katharine Wilbon had the same idea. Wilbon explained that she already has a few more typical objects (a terra-cotta cherub, a plaster birdbath) in her Seal Beach garden but was thinking of taking a wilder, even sillier, path.

"Why not a kid's wagon or something like that?" Wilbon wondered. "I suppose you could get away with anything if it seemed right to you."

Besides the garage--and, of course, garden shops and nurseries--Baker says that antique dealers, estate and yard sales, and thrift shops can be good spots for ornaments. And she suggests another, less obvious source--city hall, especially if you live near a town doing renovations.

"You might call your local parks commission to see if it has old iron fencing, benches, fountains and the like left over from recent projects," Baker says. "Be sure to choose pieces you will enjoy looking at for a long time to come."

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