The Jury Gospel on Garden Ornamentation

Garden ornamentation is a matter of personal taste. It is a pretty clear statement about the owner, just as the interior of somebody’s home gives a very good indication of the personalities and interests of those who live there.

I talked about my conversation with the landscaper in a recent column where he gave me food for thought on relationships of space and gardens. Another comment he made also made me stop and think. Waving an arm airily down a potential vista, he threw off the comment, “and you need a focal point at the end. A plant will not give a strong enough focal point.”

Hmmm. I know what he means. It is hard to get a plant which makes a strong visual statement twelve months of the year. But we struggle here with dropping inorganic focal points into our garden.

We have had many conversations about sculpture in gardens. There are a number of gardens around the country which feature sculpture and some where an annual exhibition of sculpture is a major visitor drawcard. A piece of sculpture can certainly provide an instant focal point and there are any number of splendid garden photographs which focus on examples of this.

It is just not a look we favour personally. A splendid piece of sculpture shouts “Look at me! Look at me!” The garden and the plants become support players to this new star. We are happy to see the garden as the stage, but prefer special plants to be the stars. Ornamentation we see as part of the stage setting or, to extend the theatre analogy, as taking on a cameo character role. So we are more likely to drop it discreetly into the undergrowth so it is a surprise discovery.

It is, as I started, all a matter of personal taste.

Mark’s rule of thumb is that any garden feature should have a logical sense to it and an appropriate identity. So a gazebo or summerhouse should be in a place where the owner is most likely to use it which may not be where the designer might think it will look best as a feature. Similarly, seats should be in the best locations for sitting which is not necessarily the same thing as being in the best locations as focal points. For the same reason, Mark opposes using ornamentation which is a direct copy of overseas styles in our garden. Too derivative. So we will not be getting Italianate statues, Asian figurines or Grecian urns. He wants carefully chosen pieces which are relevant to us and to the country we live in. So we remain steadfastly in the “less is more” school of garden ornamentation at this time.

Readers who have the October issue of the New Zealand Gardener to hand might have noticed the photo feature entitled “Pastoral Artistry”. I really like the large black spider’s web with paua shellls shown in a Paekakariki garden. It was created from a coil of black rope found washed up on the local beach and is now a garden feature well anchored in its local environment. I also like the windy wandy bullrush sculptures shown, just as I have always admired the nikau sculptures outside Wellington City Council even if the other half’s response was to ask why I might want bronze nikaus when we have plenty of the real thing.

But no matter where your personal taste lies, there are some standard guidelines for the use of ornamentation in gardens. Placement – if you are going to create a feature or a focal point it needs to be in a position that justifies being highlighted. And the object that is the feature also needs to justify its existence by being worthy of being made into a star attraction.

Stark white and bright colours look best in cutting edge, new or hard edged gardens. They just look garish in older, softer gardens whereas they can look dramatic in more contemporary settings.

Wit and whimsy are great if they are one-off, original wit and whimsy. Take a look at Paloma Garden in Wanganui for genuinely creative wit and whimsy. But anything mass produced, by definition, is not original and is unlikely to be creative. You can not expect to buy quirkiness at the Warehouse.

Ornamentation used to be the preserve of the well heeled and rank and file garden owners simply could not afford it thirty years ago. Now every man and their dog has big pots everywhere, repro classical sculptures and garden seats – some more stylish than others. In this embarrassment of riches, it is really hard to predict what will become the valued antiques of the future, but we would hazard a guess that in New Zealand gardens, it will be ornamentation that reflects our own country and style, not that copied from overseas.