Shades Of Gray


We are firmly entrenched in the gray zone now.  It’s February in Michigan.  Just about everything is one shade of gray or another.  The gray skies,  dirty snow, salted surfaces and relentless cold-an off key ode to gloom.  The trunks of the trees, the bare branches and the remains of the perennial garden have taken on that gray cast.  Relentless rain and fog for days gave way to temperatures in the teens.  I have leaks in the roof at Branch.  The backflow preventer at Detroit Garden Works failed-the leaking water was masked by the rain.  Now that it is 14 degrees, that water is transformed into a mountain of ice.  I can see every breath I take-great.  We lost power at home-what can be done for that?  We went to bed at 8:45pm, under a mountain of blankets.  The digital clock I have had since I was 19 was dead by morning.  The dogs want no part of going outside unless, much to my annoyance, I go with them.  This is by way of explaining that I have no gray walls, furniture or towels.  No gray car.  No gray boots, scarves, socks, dresses or sweaters.  But how this galvanized metal tray looks against the concrete floor in the shop-not bad.


Lead is another word for gray, as in the phrase “leaden skies”.  Lead garden ornaments are among the earliest ever made.  It is remarkable how many from centuries ago still survive.  Lead is a soft, very dense and heavy metal.  You can dent it with a pencil.  Not the least of its attributes is its longevity.  Many garden ornaments eventually succumb to the weather.  Wood rots.  Iron rusts.  Concrete cracks.  Lead however,  is forever.  This cistern is several centuries old, and bears many scars-the story of which I will never know.  But it still holds water-perfectly.


Lead has a very low melting point, making it an ideal metal for casting.  Lead toys were once common.  But now that the health hazards of breathing lead dust or ingesting lead are well known, its manufacture and use is confined to architectural materials and garden ornament.


This picture is a detail from a lead square from Bulbeck.  Bulbeck Foundry in England manufactures very fine quality lead objects.  Contemporary lead ornament is incredibly expensive.  The price of the raw metal is astronomical now; I rarely buy lead for the garden anymore-the price is too dear.  I have a small collection of lead ornament-my supply has been steadily dwindling.  The day I have no lead to offer will be a sad day indeed.  This particular shade of gray is softly beautiful.  A lead pot is an elegant and permanent addition to the garden.


Galvanized metal-just what does this mean, exactly?  Steel and iron rust from contact with the air, and with water.  Rust eats away at the metal.  Eventually, unprotected steel will disintegrate.  Galvanizing is a process by which a coating of zinc is applied to steel.  Galvanized metal has a characteristic gray color.  Galvanizing is a process commonly applied to buckets, farm tools, screws, troughs, screens, and garbage cans.  Farming and industrial objects were coated with zinc to make them more weather worthy.  I have seen countertops made from solid zinc.  While solid zinc sheeting is very expensive, this metal is inert and non-toxic.  Zinc coated buckets and troughs are reasonable in price and quite durable.


That gray color that is galvanized gray acquires a beatiful patina as it ages.  Rob is fond of those utilitarian objects that pertain to industry or agriculture that might find a new home in the garden.  Farm buckets planted with herbs enchant him in the same way as a galvanized trench drain might be repurposed as a garden shelf.  This old galvanized table top reveals its age.  Those places where the galvanizing has worn through are rusting.


Galvanized metal containers that have been always used indoors can be easily moved outdoors.  We have repurposed both steel chocolate vats and industrial tubs for the garden.  A galvanized container planted for the season is at home in the country as it is the most contemporary of settings.  This galvanized bakery box could hold tools, or be planted. I could see it filled with water, and home to a lotus. This shade of gray has possibilities.


I have a collection of galvanized metal flower buckets-they are very useful when I am conditioning flowers for a wedding or event.  This vintage bucket, graced with a brass tag identifying its origin, is a beautiful object in and of itself.  A collection of these buckets-yes, he spoke for all of them. Though I am not a fan of gray February days, gray as in galvanized is a good looking gray.


Every gardener is interested in ornament for the garden that is rugged, and easy to look after.  Galvanized metal is virtually maintenance free.  A large galvanized tub is relatively light weight-compared to lead, concrete or stone.  If I plant such a tub, I drill a number of holes in the bottom for drainage.  The zinc coating may eventually wear through to the base metal.  Some of the sheet metal window boxes at the shop will need replacing this year, as the zinc is worn through, and the steel is rusting out.  But those boxes were inexpensive to purchase, and lasted 15 years.


The bottom of this large vintage galvanized tub has a beautifully aged surface.  It is large enough to provide a home for a sizeable herb or flower garden.  Hung on a wall, it would be a visual discussion of what can be beautiful about gray.



Near To The Last Of The Lead

I sold this lead fountain cistern 3 days ago.  Stunning-isn’t it?  I so clearly remember a constellation of feelings regarding its purchase, some years ago.  I was afraid to commit so hefty a chunk of my budget to one ornament.  I was equally afraid not to commit to it; I am in the business of making first class garden ornament available to my clients.  Some first class ornament involves only a great eye, and not so much money.  But lead garden ornament, both new and antique, is very expensive.  You may think that committing to a very expensive garden ornament takes nerve.  Truth be told, I would not describe myself as nervy.  I try to focus on what I cannot live without. Lead in the garden-this I would want.       

Lead in the garden has long history.  English lead ornament has a  long long history-this I respect.  Lead is poured into molds, and cooled. An artist takes the castings from a raw set of molds, and hammers and sculpts the lead into the finished ornament.  A large lead egg cup may take 60 hours of hand work to finish. The finished ornament is very heavy; lead is the densest of all the elements.  It is equally as soft. This makes it difficult to transport, and easy to damage.  Yet lead is the ideal material for a garden ornament; it is all but impervious to weather and maintenance-free.  

The English company known as Bulbeck produces very fine lead garden ornament.  Pots, sculptures, fountains and cisterns.  Hugo flew over, and paid a visit to us some years ago-he was so pleased that an American garden store was featuring his work. I have four of his lead egg cups available now.  They are based on pots from the National Trust garden Anglesey Abbey, and feature four medallions-pears, oak, roses and grapes.  I doubt I will be able to buy more, once these four egg cups are sold.  The cost of lead has increased so dramatically in the past few years, as has the cost of transport.     

 Eighteenth century lead ornament has inspired many of the pieces produced at the Bulkbeck foundry-and no wonder.  The production of lead garden ornament and architectural pieces was a flourishing business during that period.  Only a few companies deal in lead now; I hope their business stays strong.  It has been my pleasure to design and plant around lead ornament; to follow are a few pictures.   

 plain Bulbeck egg cup

lead tapers with grape garlands

lead fountain ornament

lead round from Kenneth Lynch

English lead box with lion medallions

English lead square with rose medallions

English lead square with contemporary zinc planters

Canadian lead egg cup

tapered English lead planter

This 17th century English lead cistern is near to the last of my lead.  I am looking here at the very best reason I have to find more lead ornament-there is nothing else quite like it.

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.