A Garden Secret

See that ceramic planter, bronze fountain and cast-iron chair? They're all faux, lightweight and much less expensive than the real thing.

Focus On Outdoor Design

April 13, 2003|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Fountains, statuary, columns, and ornate settees once graced only the lawns and gardens of the rich and famous.

The rest of us were consigned to the nondescript birdbath or the plain-Jane terra-cotta pot.

But no more.

The knowledge and sophistication of the weekend gardener has grown, and so has the appetite for ornamentation. Gardeners have moved far beyond the little cement bunny rabbit or the "Mom's Garden" tablet.

Manufacturers and retail garden centers have responded with water features, furniture, sculpture and containers that are just the right size, price -- and weight -- for the suburban gardener.

And a surprising amount of it is fake.

Made of fiberglass or from polymers, these garden fixtures look like their bronze, stone or cast-iron relatives. But they are so light a woman can toss them into the back of her SUV and take them home.

For example, the largest stone jar fountains made of fiberglass by Oracle Fountains of Arizona weighs about 60 pounds, while the real thing might weigh about 800 pounds. They are so light, they can be shipped by UPS.

Weight is only one of the advantages of these faux fixtures There is a big price difference, too. Oracle's newest item, the bronze fountain, retails for about $700. If it were really bronze, the price might be closer to $5,000.

And the stunning appearance of these pots and fixtures place them a giant step ahead of their foam or plastic predecessors, which looked as cheap as they were.

For example, Oracle president Dan Harmony of Tucson explained, the fountain will develop a verdigris patina over time, just like the real thing, because powdered bronze is imbedded into the fiberglass surface about an eighth of an inch deep.

"We've made our good name in fountains by fooling the passers-by," he said.

To create the stone finish on a huge, jar-like fountain, crushed granite is imbedded in the surface. "It looks really good, and the touch is a winner," said Harmony, who has found that he can't keep up with demand.

His smallest and most popular fountain retails for about $250. That's not an unreasonable investment, he said, for the homeowner.

"We do sell to an upper end. But the garden market addresses, in general, somebody with some money they are willing to put into their house. They consider it a home improvement," he said.

"They can now afford something that is not as utilitarian-looking as concrete."

While Oracle's fountains are original in design, Roger Coles of Garden Art in Berlin, Conn., has pioneered a method of reproducing the lacey designs in antique cast-iron garden furniture in lighter, more durable, cast aluminum.

"It is much lighter, it won't rust, it doesn't heat up and it is not as brittle as cast iron," he said. "But the fact is, there is hardly any cast-iron furniture on the market anymore."

Crescent, of Miami, Fla., specializes in garden containers in a rainbow of colors, mimicking the Vietnamese glazed pots that are all the rage right now. The company features pots in bright blues, greens and yellows, but it has also reproduced rust, granite, terra cotta and marble -- even finishes that are already "weathered."

The pots are manufactured by spinning polyethylene in a mold and injecting color into it as it forms. "The color goes all the way through the pot, which is a very nice thing," says manager Paula Douer.

The rotational molding process also produces very high definition in the decorative relief on the pots.

Again, price and weight add to the appeal.

"We try to imitate high-end, expensive pottery," Douer said. "A [real terra-cotta] garland jar might go for $500. We can do it for $150.

"And when you purchase it, you don't have to think about arranging for someone to deliver it or install it. That makes it accessible."

Faux garden fixtures have another feature that has fueled a consumer demand that continues to delight manufacturers and distributors: They are virtually weather-proof.

Terra-cotta, clay, cement and concrete garden fixtures are vulnerable to the freeze-thaw cycle that can cause cracking. Not so fiberglass and polymer fixtures. Even glazed pottery, which Crescent has found a way to reproduce, can crack if the glaze chips and water seeps in.

Faux fixtures are virtually weather-proof. But so light -- and so sophisticated -- that homeowners can easily bring them indoors for display, an especially appealing aspect of the water features like the antique bronze wall fountain offered by Imports Exclusive of North Carolina, which has just introduced fiberglass to its line of pottery imported from Italy.

"The reason we chose to add something faux and have both is because we feel like more and more you are getting people who don't want to handle things too large, heavy and hard to move around," says president Randy Saunders.

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