Archives for July 2009

Lead Garden Ornament


The manufacture of garden ornament, vases and sculpture in many ways was a revolution of sorts.  Most garden ornaments of  antiquity were created at great expense and time, as in hand carved, or sculpted, one piece at a time. This meant great garden ornament was restricted to just a few patrons of the garden arts.  As lead is quite malleable, and melts readily,  it can be cast. This meant ornament could be cast in multiples, and a  favorite stone ornament could be reproduced at much less expense than hand-carved stone. Imaginative manufacturing techniques made lead ornament of all kinds readily available.  This drop dead gorgeous stone and lead garden ornament pictured above was designed by, and executed under the direction of Beatrix Farrand, and installed at one of her best known landscape projects, Dunbarton Oaks, in Washington DC, in the 1920’s. 

The Bulbeck foundry in England produces some of the finest lead garden sculpture, ornament and pots available anywhere in the world. The giant egg cup with acorn, oak, grape and rose motifs  is astonishingly beautiful.  It is a modern interpretation of an old lead planter from the National Trust gardens at Anglesey Abby. The Bulbeck square planter, with its delicate Florentine scrollwork decoration, clearly illustrates the degree of detail possible with lead casting.   Bulbeck lead is what I call the midnight blue four-door Ferrari coupe of garden ornament.  Lead panels out of the mold are rough beyond belief; the art here is in the hammering and finishing which produces the fine ornament you see here. The people who make these pots are artists; they literally sculpt these pots from a rough approximation of the finished piece.  Of more modest provenance and finish , the small plain lead egg cup pictured here is the work of the noted Canadian lead manufacturer, Richard Davies. His lead has some steel content; the difference in surface and color between the two manufacturers is evident.  Any or all of these pots would make much of a planting. 

713This lead running fox is the work of HCrowther Ltd, which has been manufacturing lead garden ornament  in London since 1908.  Their sculpture is particularly fine. This very appealing sculpture is as at home in a stone trough as it would be in the lawn.  My personal choice-set in a bed of European ginger.

This Crowther fountain is equally as striking.  An entire garden could be designed around it.  This fountain design has been in production many many years.  Lead, and classic lead design, weathers and ages in a garden so gracefully.

99This very old lead cistern carries the evidence of its age. The dealer in England from whom this piece was purchased thought it likely was at least two hundred years old.  Wave the history card in my face, and I am done in. 


Lead garden ornament has become incredibly expensive.  The lead itself has doubled in price in a very short time, and the process is dirty, dangerous, and laborious.  The steel furniture, spheres, and boxes pictured above have a  finish very reminiscent of lead. This finish has the added advantage of protecting the steel from rust.  Steel is strong enough for furniture.  Boxes and pots made of steel do not collapse from their own weight, as lead is prone to do.  But best of all, this beautiful look can be had for much less than lead. 

This old French iron snake urn has a new life, and a vastly different feeling than the rusty original.  Rarely would I touch the surface of an antique piece, but this piece was rusted beyond charming.  Removing the rust brought the snakes, and the beautiful shape of the urn, back to life.213
These acid washed steel boxes and galvanized planters are awaiting painted liners in the color of the client’s choice.  Steel combines well with other materials.

The galvanized sheet metal liner of this steel box has also been acid washed.  We can manufacture this large box very reasonably. I like good quality garden ornaments being available to lots of people.  Manufacturing in multiples, with less expensive materials, makes this possible.

Whether you choose lead or acid treated steel, it is indeed a very handsome look.


These clients live in a condominium, perched high above the existing grade of the land on three sides.  This does not necessarily limit their gardening-it just makes it more of a challenge.  Their front walk is actually a catwalk, as their property begins to fall away the minute you step off the driveway. 

212The walk culminates in a covered porch; the front door is at right angles to the walk, and not visible until you are right up there.  All of this makes the brick wall they see coming up the walk an important element in their landscape.  We started with pots, as there is no ground to plant in; this part looks great.  But I thought that wall needed what all walls seem to need-a sculpture, a painting, a mirror?   

312As my clients have quite a collection of art, they were receptive to the idea of a painting.  Paintings that survive the weather need to be made of different materials that what an artist ordinarily would choose.  I paint on extira board, which is used for making exterior signs. It does not absorb water, nor does it deteriorate outdoors.  Porter Paint is a 100% acrylic paint; it is color fast, very tough and hard, and sheds any weather. As this paint is actually exterior house paint, and does not have the body of artist’s colors, I decided I would pour the painting.  A beaker was the perfect tool.

414I poured the painting over the course of about 4 hours.  Some areas I wanted to blend colors.  In other areas, I wanted colors to sit distinctly side by side. All in all, I poured one and a quarter gallons of paint-a big fluid situation, to say the least.  I supported the extira board underneath on 8 quart cans of paint, so if the board sagged from the weight of the paint, it would be evenly supported.

512Within 3 days, the surface of the paint had skinned over sufficiently that I could stand it up to take a look.  While I was happy with the color and the shapes, I wanted more texture.  The painting would be viewed from some distance coming up the walk.  The near view, on the porch, would present a different look.   I wanted to address both views.

614Using a carpenter’s awl, I poked, scratched, lifted up and pushed around that partially dry paint.  The areas of paint I lifted off the surface, I stuffed with pieces of bamboo.  At this fairly wet stage, I needed to support the paint until it dried.  Once the paint was thoroughly dry, I stuffed those shapes with preserved reindeer moss.

Though I thought all the existing elements on the porch were good, it seemed like something was missing.  Treating this porch like a room made me think differently about furnishing it.  I prefer not to think of this as a painting.  It is a garden ornament, inspired by the picturesque landscapes in England of the 18th century.  Those landscapes were composed to look like landscape paintings. This painting is a version of those English landscapes, with a much more modern point of view.

810The close view I like.  All the elements are different, but they look good together.  The Italian terra cotta plaque is so much more important visually  than when it had no company.

From further away, the painting pulls the colors and shapes of the distant landscape onto the porch.   It was actually great fun to make, should you have a spot, and an inclination to paint.

The Meadow Next Door

115Every year I plant the front of the store differently; this year I wanted the planting to feel like a meadow.  The big bed of violet colored verbena bonariensis and white cosmos is almost always in motion.  The marguerite daisies and petunias in the roof boxes are thriving,  sheltered by a hedge of Nero di Toscano kale that will be the star of the show by fall. The kale does for the daisies what the boxwood does for the verbena; their respective relationships are good ones.


We will be inundated with verbena seedlings next spring, but how I love how it looks right now.   It needs no staking, is drought tolerant, and doesn’t want much in the way of nutrition.  This is one of those large growing annuals that do not show well in flats, so few nurseries grow it.  I have always loved white cosmos-just not their ungainly habit of growth.  Sonata cosmos is a dwarf version, perfect for giving me color at another level.


We have a meadow of another sort growing in the lot next door – in which I had no hand. The property was once home to a dilapidated and abandoned concrete factory; the county tore it down. Though the property was offered for sale, unbeknownst to me, at a tax sale, and sold, it has been sitting unattended for many years.  The county is looking to recover the 90,000.00 it spent taking the factory down, and thus would be reluctant to approve a variance to build anything on a property that is too narrow to built on without that bill getting paid.  So it sits.

412However, as any gardener knows, nature never sits. Someone once put it to me like so-nature abhors a vacuum.  So this property is in phase one of its ecological evolution; disturbed ground is first colonized by grasses and other tenacious and vigorous plants, popularly known as weeds.

However, I think this weeded lot has plenty going for it.  There are not so many species growing here, and they all seem to share the space equitably.  The cream color of foliage gone dry, the dots of purple from the centaura and the white of annual clover is a beautiful color and texture mix.  A breeze makes it all the more beautiful.  The ground is completely covered with one big natural plant combination.  The appearance of this  meadow changes so much, given the weather, or the quality of the light.

612 Queen Anne’s Lace is one of my favorite flowers.  I buy bunches of it at market this time of year.  Its tap-rooted vigor makes it a poor choice for a cultivated garden, but it vastly dignifies the look of vacant lots like this one.  Its more civilized cousin, amni majus,  can be grown in a garden to great effect; it is grown routinely for the cut flower trade.  However, I am perfectly happy with this distant and unruly relative.

710Chicory is the devil to get rid of; it is perfectly capable of worming its way through a crack in a concrete road.  It is the most beautiful blue, a color not often seen in Michigan gardens.

88The mix of  colors, the uniformly wispy textures, the motion of it all – breathtaking. There are garden flowers that have a meadow-like habit-panic grass, hyssop, bee balm, boltonia and so on-but there is no scripted garden  that looks quite like this one.

A Wonder-Room

So once you suspend your disbelief, and get used to a shell tower rising 14 feet of the floor of the porch, framed by a ceiling of moss, what happens in that porch?  This porch used to be an exterior quarry tile terrace; someone before me enclosed it.  Thus I have an indoor downspout; what magic to hear that water rushing off the roof and down, inside.   Cabinets of curiousity, or wonder-rooms, have for centuries housed antiquities, examples of natural history, works of art, and relics, keepsakes and mementos.  Souvenirs, if you will.  My shell tower was about to get a room full.

210An old French wire  garden table and chairs provide seating.  A pastel self- portrait I did 30 years ago shares the wall space with specimens of butterflies, bugs and moths. Objects of meaning to me – as in, the clay bust I made of Julius Caesar in the third grade, letters from my Mom while I was in college, a collection of early twentieth century American fish plates-all the quirky things that have held my interest or been significant to me at one time or another, have a home together.  The souvenirs of my life. Though the word souvenir now brings to mind postcards or paperweights from some tourist attraction, that was not always the case. The word souvenir, translated literally from the French, means “the act of remembering”, or “that which serves as a reminder”.  There are times in my garden when the season or the light or the rain is just right such that memories will come strongly to mind.

This antique 19th century French orrery evokes some  of my most treasured memories as a garden maker.  An orrery is a model of the planets and moons, with the sun represented at the center.  It was a birthday gift from a client  whom I have had not just known 25 years, but with whom I’ve had a serious and significant relationship for that long.  I have many memories of designing, working, interacting-even fighting with her, over her landscape and garden.  Any one of many memories might pop up; this is an object with an aura, an atmosphere far beyond the solar system it represented in the 1830’s.

79At the time of its making, only seven planets were known.  Though it is a beautiful relic from a culture and time vastly different than mine, it is a reminder that one’s world is only as large as one sees to making it. 

611The sun, represented with a human face sporting a wry, quizzical , perhaps world weary expression, is as much a fine piece of art as it is some unknown person’s memory and concept of the natural world.

The face of the sun reminds me much of this face.  I bought this watercolor mostly as it reminded me of my Mom-the scientist, the naturalist, the photographer, the gardener.  She was at the center of my universe for a very long time, doing a great job of seeing that all my planets and moons continued to revolve as long as I needed that.  Now I have an orrery that reminds me that I am able to keep revolving, and discovering in great part from the sponsorship of others.  From them, I know as long as I am able to do, I should.

So as long as I am able, I will.  This room is a record of that.  On occasion I visit,  so I  remember this.