Cultivating humor

Creativity: Signs, statues and found objects bring whimsy to garden decoration

In The Garden

November 28, 1999|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Gardeners are beginning to see the humor in their gentle pastime. Folk art, found objects, silly signs, fashionably dressed statues, bizarre birdhouses and brazen Technicolor plant combinations are popping up in perfectly respectable gardens everywhere, just for the fun of it.

"It all stems from creativity -- and having the courage to do it," says Tovah Martin, who with Richard W. Brown has written "Garden Whimsy" (Houghton Mifflin, $30), a lighthearted look at humor in U.S. gardens. "We took ourselves seriously at first, when we were new gardeners. But as we became more comfortable with gardening, we could play the clown."

Martin advocates a "brave and perhaps slightly irreverent" interpretation of garden decoration, relying heavily on serendipity and the gardener's personality rather than on garden pieces manufactured for the mass market. As she did her research, she came upon a gardener who regards his cantaloupe-colored vintage pickup truck as a garden accessory, another whose strictly temporal sundial is made of cardboard and a third who put her decommissioned manhole covers back to work as stepping stones. It's all quietly tongue-in-cheek, Martin says, "so you just crack a grin as you're going around the garden."

Garden whimsy is often just a matter of using a familiar object in an unexpected way. At the Philadelphia Flower Show this year, a garden designer turned an old bathroom sink, complete with chrome fixtures, into a splashing fountain surrounded by pink roses. A gardener in San Antonio hung a bicycle -- painted purple -- on a courtyard wall and called it sculpture. In a San Francisco garden, bowling balls anchor the corners of flower beds.

People are putting antiques of every description out among the daisies these days. A flea-market connoisseur in Kansas City grows luminous purple clematis on a rusty old wire dress form. By the time the clematis finish blooming, the dress form is completely covered in a stylish cloak of green leaves.

In her own garden, Martin gave a climbing rose an ancient ladder to clamber up. "It's very goofy, and it's not a garden piece, but it works well to hold up the rose," she says. "It's just perfect."

Martin's large garden also contains an oversized antique toadstool decorated with glittery bits of tile and a few ornate old wheels going nowhere. In smaller gardens, she advises discretion -- one carefully chosen and well-placed touch of whimsy may be enough.

"You don't want your garden to look like a yard sale or the midway of a fair," she says. "You can't just keep being kooky."

Some of the subtlest garden jokes revolve around the plants themselves. It takes a certain amount of nerve and humor -- and the two are closely related -- to combine Day-Glo orange dahlias with shocking pink canna lilies, or Popsicle purple verbenas with chartreuse zinnias. But try it, Martin suggests. "Harmony can be boring," she says.

Topiary, while very formal, can inject a note of humor, too. Boxwoods and yews trimmed to resemble bumblebees, teapots, chessmen and thousands of other real or imaginary figures have fascinated gardeners for centuries.

In South Carolina, a gardener with a magical touch with hedge shears puts a modern spin on the topiary arts with wildly idiosyncratic geometric pieces and popular slogans, including "Peace," "Love" and "Diet Pepsi Uh-Huh" carved out in evergreen Yaupon holly in his front yard.

"Everybody searches for something that hits their funny bone," Martin says, and there's no telling what it might be. Garden whimsy is just as unpredictable as people are, and some people are funnier than others. You can't always expect the neighbors to get the same kick out of it as you do, especially if they have to go by the same old garden joke every day of their lives. Good garden whimsy is like a good garden; something new is always popping up.

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