A Classic Revival

The urn -- beloved by Greeks, Romans and Victorians -- is sought after once again

August 01, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

On the cusp of a new millennium, an ancient idea in gardening is back in vogue.

Urns -- most recently ever-present in Victorian gardens or conservatories -- are everywhere. The classic Greco-Roman shape, with a pedestal base and bowl or vase-shaped top, is still a graceful touch in almost any garden, large or small.

"Classic styling goes with everything," said Melissa Darnay, marketing manager at American Designer Pottery. The Dallas-based company has recently introduced a line of urns that are made, not of the traditional metal or stone, but of synthetic material that weighs only a tenth as much. And it can withstand winter weather.

Light weight and affordable prices -- from under $20 for small sizes to about $200 for large ones -- mean urns are suitable for every garden, not just for the grounds of stately homes where teams of gardeners do the heavy lifting.

"Our pottery weighs 2 pounds to about 7 pounds," Darnay said. At that weight, even when the urns are full of dirt, it usually takes only one person to move them.

Urns provide both portability and height, and can allow you to put plants in a new area. Darnay said people are using urns on porches, decks, patios and other places where you can't plant in ground. In addition, they can be used indoors, as planters or containers for decorative objects, soaps or bath towels.

"There's a certain simple elegance" to classic styling, said Mary Filipelli, a sales associate at Smith & Hawken in Mount Washington, which sells upscale gardening equipment, plants and casual clothing. "Decorating styles these days use an eclectic mix of good design from all periods."

Her store carries urns in real cast stone and terra cotta, in sizes ranging from 9 inches high to 2 1/2 feet. Prices range from $28 for a small metal urn to $465 for a large hand-cast stone bowl on a pedestal.

Marianne Auerweck, who runs the Garden Nanny landscape service in Hamilton, said urns -- like gazing balls, benches, and statuary -- can draw the eye away from something less attractive nearby, such as a fence or garbage-can enclosure. "It provides a focal point," she said.

In addition, she said, they're great places to experiment, and because you can use both trailing plants, such as ivy, and tall plants, such as grasses, you can give height or depth to some spot in the garden. Urns, she said, "are whole little gardens in themselves."

Urns are "very, very popular," said Maureen Reed, assistant manager of Frank's Nursery and Crafts in Catonsville, of the lightweight urns. Frank's carries 15 or 20 different styles in finishes from verdigris to stone to terra cotta. Prices range from about $19 to about $80. This is the first year they've had them, Reed said, and they are selling briskly.

It's not the first time that classic styles have been revived. The revival accompanied the rise of neoclassicism in the late 18th century, when designers such as Robert Adam began to use Greek and Roman motifs in architectural detail. Toward the end of the 18th century, the new nation of the United States embraced classical motifs as a way to distance itself from imperial Europe and associate itself with classical democracy. Toward the end of the 19th century, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann's excavations of Troy and Mycenae created a new, if highly romanticized, interest in classical artifacts.

But by the 1920s, modernism was all the rage, and urns and other ancient trappings were consigned to the dustheap.

Classicism, however, refuses to die, because it is, in fact, beautiful. It's all about symmetry and precision, intricate detail and purity of line.

"Classic style can really emphasize the elegance of the garden," said Filipelli.

Putting urns to good use

Here are some tips on gardening -- and decorating -- with urns:

* Use urns to expand gardening space in small areas such as terraces or porches.

* Because urns can be moved around, you can experiment with plants to see where they do well before you commit garden space to them.

* Any kind of plant can go in an urn. Maureen Reed, of Frank's Nursery & Crafts, said a lot of customers are planting vivid annuals in urns. Mary Filipelli, of Smith & Hawken, suggested classic plants, such as double ball topiary and ivy.

Marianne Auerweck, of the Garden Nanny, said urns look great with three-story height arrangements. Use a tall plant in the middle or back, such as dracaena or an ornamental grass; then a medium-height plant, such as geraniums or coleus. For the "bottom story," use trailing plants such as ivy, vinca or sweet potato vine.

* If you bring urns planted with topiary or evergreens inside for the winter, surround the base with poinsettias for the holidays.

* Urns offer a classic touch indoors too. Melissa Darnay, of American Designer Pottery, said they make great containers for rolled-up towels in a bathroom, or could hold umbrellas inside an entryway. Small urns can hold decorative soaps.

* Urns make great party accessories. Use a large urn to hold ice and beverages, or use a small one to hold silverware. Or fill the urn with sand and place votive candles on top of the sand.

-- Karol V. Menzie

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