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.

Made in Michigan

My exasperation with UPS shipping regulations partially fueled my decision to make garden ornament.  They have a 105 inch rule: the length of a box, plus the diameter of its width, cannot exceed 105 inches.  What vine trellis is tall enough at 105 inches? What plant stake is tall enough?  Anything bigger has to be shipped motor freight, at much greater expense.  The other part of my decision was feeling like the design of such structures was not the best-could a tuteur not be beautiful with nothing on it?  Or holiday lights on it for the winter? Why are all plant supports invariably straight sided?  Most of the plants I think need support are small coming out of the ground, and floppy at the top.  Why are plant stakes only 4 feet tall, with no length to put below ground for stability?  steel7

Why are they straight poles-with no arc that mimics the natural growth of a plant? A pole in the ground twists with the wind; why don’t plant stakes have prongs at the bottom?

steel8Why do plant stakes come to a point that could poke you,  if you aren’t watching what you are doing? Why aren’t the tuteurs beautiful shapes??�
Some clematis grow to 10 feet,others much taller.  Peonies need a different size suport system than a cherry tomato. Asparagus in my garden needs three rings, not two.  My local clients, not needing UPS shipping, get properly scaled plant climbers and towers that fit their plants.  And tuteurs that I think are beautiful and sculptural in their own right. �
Rectangular boxes can be a perfect shape for certain locations.  But ready made ones are always too long, or too short, or too tall, or too low.  Designing ornament allows me to have control over that oft forgotten landscape element with regard to a specific space or garden.
Steel and weather makes for a bad mix-unless you have a penchant for rust.  A case in point, the Mackinac Bridge which spans the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan , is perpetually being painted.  Every day, every year.  The paint is a rust inhibitor, not a rust proofing.  Rust can weaken steel-not a good thing for a bridge 5 miles long. The worst effects of rust in a garden is stains on your khakis, or your limestone caps.  So our first step towards a virtually maintenance free finish on steel is to haul our things to a galvanizing plant.  Each item is attached with hooks to a rack; this assembly is then lowered into a bath of molten zinc.  Thus the term “hot dip ” galvanizing.
The galvanizing is protection only insofar at the item is completely immersed, so it coats every surface entirely.  We have our tricks for spot finishing those areas that sometimes get left uncoated.  This is the stage that gleams bright, and looks brand spanking new.   Our final coat involves acid; this treatment turns the silver to a streaky black-gray color, very reminiscent of lead.  This color helps fit the object into the landscape-as if it had always been there.�

The Music of the Spheres

sphereThough I am fond of almost every geometric shape, I am especially enamored of spheres.  Spheres in any material or arrangement.
I manufacture large garden spheres, thanks to the conceptual and fabrication talents of one Buck Moffat.  An architect for 30 years, he now fabricates pergolas, boxes, furniture-and these spheres, from welded steel.  We galvanize and acid-wash the raw steel, which produces a finish not unlike the look of lead.
This finish is as close to permanent and maintenance-free of any exterior finish on steel that I have seen.  Although I recognize that anything to do with gardening, or life for that matter, requires maintenance, I like these things that quietly and effective resist the elements.
Designing and fabricating these spheres was his idea.  Only after he built the first one, did he do a CAD drawing of it.  Its a gift, to be able to conceptualize like this. He’s a person who loves old industrial steel in any form-bridges, buildings, gears and the like.  He thinks the old factories along the Rouge River in Detroit are gorgeous. One of his favorite possessions is a collection of the fabrication drawings for the Eiffel Tower.
It’s quite a feat, building these spheres.  The strap steel is rolled, hoisted up on a bridge crane, then each strap is placed on a specially made jig- in order to spin the steel ribs in the round without having to lift  them.   Each juncture is hand riveted, so the finished shape is precisely spherical.  They have mass and presence with no mass.  They describe a  specific volume of air. They are all the more compelling for what isn’t there.  I have seen them roll off in a wind.
The rod steel spheres approximate a perfect sphere in a believable way, and are less labor intensive to construct. We hang them from trees, set them in very large containers, or simply roll them onto a lawn. Most large spheres I see are constructed in two hemispheres. This just isn’t the same, as a sphere all of a piece.�
Jonathon Hofley owns the Michigan Gardener Magazine, and Motor City Publishing;  he has done all of my advertising and PR for many years.  He kindly agreed to photograph the spheres for me in the tall grass which came with the property where Buck makes these spheres;  thanks, Jonathon.sphere7

Like a good landscape, these spheres look all the better for the environment in which they are placed .sphere8

That garden sculpture can energize a landscape space with a particular point of view is a given. But I hear music when I look at these spheres.