Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Garden Gnomes: Cute or Tacky?

A recent trip to the garden center has got me thinking about garden ornaments in 
general, and garden gnomes in particular.

Classical statues.....

Christian Saints, Buddha's...

wood sprites, leprechauns, and fairies...


birdhouses... what isn't available to decorate your garden? But it begs the question: Are garden ornaments tasteful additions to the garden or something to be avoided? 

Should garden ornaments be divided into categories: good, the bad and the ugly?  And what defines the line between tacky verses a tasteful?

My mother, who taught me about gardening, was a purist. In her mind, the only thing that belonged in a garden was nature. Maybe because, as an artist, I appreciate creativity and personal expression, I tend to have a far more open attitude toward garden ornamentation.

I sometimes find that public gardens, which make limited use of decoration, to be as impersonal as a hotel room. On the other hand, I absolutely recognize that opening the floor to a full range of self-expression does not always generate results that are going to be pleasing to everyone. Beauty is, after all in, the eye of the beholder. To drive this point home, just think of the defiant homeowner who paints a typically neutral garage door a bright shade of orange or puts a family of plastic deer on the front lawn. It is self-expression that can leave the rest of us wincing!

Let's go back to my question about the line between tasteful and tacky. I don't know about you, but I tend to think that the most aesthetically pleasing garden ornaments are made with natural looking materials like wood, plaster, concrete or stone. They do not seem to be out of step with their natural surroundings and compliment the landscape best.

The garden center, with its shelves lined with row upon row of brightly colored, plastic-looking garden gnomes, is obviously counting on the fact that not everyone would agree with me.

The recent release of the animated movie, Gnomeo and Juliet has given the humble garden gnome the shiny new luster of fashionability. ( If you haven't seen the movie, and I must confess I haven't, the movie mixes a cornucopia of musical numbers and 3-D animation into a play on the tragic Shakespearean love story of Romeo and Juliet.)

Are garden gnomes now so "out" that they are now "in"? 

Do these cute, plastic figures deserve more of a place in the garden this coming summer, as the well-stocked shelves of gnomes at the garden center suggest?

In the end, I think it comes down to a matter of what you are trying to accomplish. 

To illustrate this point, I can think of a front yard we occasionally pass on the road north of our home here in Huttonville. This particular homeowner has a sizable collection of realistic, but plastic Canadian geese. Depending on the time of year, he sets his flock up to tell a whimsical story. For instance, at the beginning of the school year, the geese can be seen seated in such a way as to mimic a school classroom. Humorous? Yes. Tasteful? Not really, but then, I don't think that "good taste" was ever the intention.

It's your turn to weigh-in on garden gnomes. Are they cute or just plain tacky?


  1. I loved this post. You've presented your ideas tastefully and illustrated your points very well.

    I have personally never liked garden gnomes and my husband has a long-harboured loathing of them! I am, however, smitten with anything in the classical genre, but I also like some folly (eg fairies). I would never blindly follow fashion and rush out to buy whatever is the trend of the moment.

    I do, however, think the way each of us chooses to express ourselves in our gardens is entirely up to us. It's one of the places where we should be free to express ourselves without interference, regardless of trends. We all have the right to create our very own sanctuary and, what appeals to some, probably won't appeal to all, but it certainly makes for an interesting and varied world.

    I guess there are those who'd be able to pull off a perfectly charming result, even with plastic garden gnomes :)

    Your post has inspired me to blog about a garden we saw and stopped to photograph. In my opinion, it's an excellent example of over-doing things, but I'm sure the owners wouldn't agree with me and they probably love seeing it every day!

  2. I think the question is the answer: "cute or tacky", and it's all about perspective and personal tastes. Just like certain plants and gardens in general. Look at some of the display gardens at garden/flower shows -- some of them are horrid in my view, but others love the cute factor.

    When the ornament to plant ratio gets too high though (approaches or surpasses 1 to 1) that's when you really have a problem.

  3. Hi again, Jennifer!

    You inspired me to do a post on the garden I mentioned...take a peek, if you have time ;)

    Des xo

  4. I like your presentation of the subject. As you say, it really is in the eye of the beholder. Our front garden in the recent past was filled with annuals in the Summer, I liked it at the time and so did many people. It is a little more mellow now, probably compliments our more mature years a little better. I like garden ornaments and have the more classic styles although there is a bit of tat here and there,as for painted gnomes, no thank you!

  5. Well, I have seen 'Gnomeo and Juliet' and I think that has made gnomes very much 'in'. None in my garden (yet!) but I'm doing a post on a garden with gnomes later this week and I think it depends upon the perspective, and what you're trying to accomplish. Still, I wonder if all those gnomes on the shelves will be adopted!

  6. I love the Travelocity gnome! I will actually watch those commercials. But when it comes to putting it in my garden, I pass. I opt for stone statuary or something Zen - like my Buddha.

  7. As a designer, I am confronted with this problem often, even to the tune of a $25,000 piece of tacky. Not a gnome, but tacky none the less. So with a big smile and acceptance, I position the said tacky 'art' in such a way to not draw major attention to it. I landscape it into submission.

    I have written professionally on this subject and when I do, I must make a stand for good garden design.

    Everyone knows I paint gnomes and write on them on my blog and think they are a humorous topic, but never, ever are they put in a garden I design, even my own. When I write about them on the blog I take the stand of to each his own.

    And, I have a few German gnomes that live indoors, so my house is not gnome free. Lucky I speak a little German, because you should hear what they say about me when they think I can not understand!

  8. To each his own. Obviously not for a formal garden but for the light at heart.

  9. Sadly there are those who refuse to stick to gnomes - I had a good giggle at a couple who had purchased some lovely classical naked ladies, only to paint them up with purple bikinis.

    I believe in a few ornamental additions - especially in our climate - just a few more bits of bones in the garden.

  10. Have you been to Yard Art's blog? She puts her own spin on this topic. I don't have gnomes, but I cannot say my garden is strictly only plants. Just mostly.

  11. I get a smile out of some garden Art!An old rusty bike or a chair planted with flowers are pleasing. Personally like gnomes, however I do object to plastic or silk flowers in a garden.......

  12. Thanks everyone for your great comments. I am really glad there is a diverse range of opinions expressed here on the subject of garden gnomes.

  13. This is definitely a gnome free zone, but I was somewhat traumatized by garden gnomes as a child, and still am not particularly fond of them. I think I fall into the 'some ornamentation is fine' category, but very much lean toward natural materials, nothing garish. I had to laugh though, I wonder where all those plastic painted gnomes on the shelf will end up ;)

  14. Fun post! I am a believer that everything has a place and there is a place for everything! I am not a lover of the gnome, however in my young kids potting gardens they look right at home! I to also love a little bit of salvaged art and my weathered bird houses, something that says it has always been here and grown with my garden! So the tackiest spotting was a neighbors garden full of silk flowers, really people you think you can fool us with your year round tulips and sunflowers...lol!

  15. I don't have any but I do think they're kind of cute. Last year, I put mirrors in my garden. I don't know why I did that. Probably read it on a blog somewhere. Anyhoo that looked really cool..

  16. No gnomes for me! I do like concrete and metal decor in the garden. I even bought a gazing ball this year and said I never would.


  17. The gnomes and tchotchkes in my garden are whimsical, tasteful and each has a story of the giver, the occasion, or its provenance. The gnomes and junk in other peoples' gardens are just tacky. That's how you can tell the difference.

  18. Hi I came over from Desiree's blog. To be honest I have seen it done tastefully and cute and unfortunatly tacky also. I guess it just really depends on your taste. I think if it's your yard do as you please and if people don't like it they should turn their heads away.

  19. I love love love garden art in all shapes and sizes. Most I wouldn't put in my own garden but I love that there are people who step outside the norm and feel free to put whatever the heck they want in their own yards. Despite the many rules and stratas suburbia seems to have invented I still think your property is your own and to heck with the neighbours. Go out and have some fun.

  20. This is such an interesting post! Of course it's all a matter of taste but I like a garden to look natural so for me plastic is out. All I have in my garden apart from plants is a simple wooden bench and a stone birdbath-that way the plants get to be the stars of the show :)
    But I do smile when I see gardens full of gnomes and ornaments, people should be able to express their own taste in their own property!

  21. Some interesting and funny comments here. As a lover of fine art it is difficult to bring myself down to the level of gnomes. Concrete mushrooms, yes, gnomes, no.

  22. I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, when it comes to yard art.

  23. Gnomes and what-nots add whimsy, fun and joy for the personal gardener. That is my take.

    So if you enjoy your gnomes and toilet seats and have the bravery to show show them... well then we appreciators are right there to support you.

    As lovely as classical gardens are, most people do not have have them.

  24. HI! I'm stopping by from Desiree's post. The jury is still out on the garden gnome. I can't decide if they are freaky or cute. I like to have a little bit of whimsey in my garden. Right now, I just have a fairy or two, and a couple bunnies. (I'm a new follower.)

  25. For someone who can only garden on a balcony in the depths of urbancoresville, I'm pretty nervy to comment... but am insanely firm on the idea that my perfect gardens contain only growing or rotting things. No doodads! You "might" persuade me to consider something made from clay (unglazed) or "maybe" convince me to toss the idea around of including a simple-something made from bended willow or twig. I loved the Gnome in Amelie but he was a traveller after all.

  26. While I appreciate some whimsy in the garden, I must admit I am probably closer to your mother's opinion about keeping it natural.
    My mother put some of those eyes, nose and mouth things on one of her trees.....ugh.
    All that being said, I used to have an old red wagon in my garden in Virginia, always wanted to use it as a planter. Forgot to bring it with me when we moved... :-(

  27. Personally, I think cheap plastic gnomes are tacky, but I admire someone who's willing to stay true to themselves and decide to stick one in their yard, the hell with the rest of us! A friend once asked if I thought her house was well decorated. I told her my opinion didn't matter since I didn't live there. If she walked in and felt happy, that's all that mattered. I told her to carpet the ceiling, if she wanted! It worked for Elvis!! I'm adding some homemade mosaics to my garden this summer. I'm sure I'll meet someone who finds them inferior, etc. I don't care. It's not their garden!!!! Do what brings you joy and to thine own self be true!!!

  28. Great post Jennifer! One of my garden mentors said to avoid garden ornaments at all cost. I stuck by that advice for a long time but have now deviated from it. I like vintage pieces (and birdhouses) in my garden so gnomes don't do it for me. I see many on garden tours tho so I know other people love them.
    Good luck with your new veggie beds too. I can't imagine you not being able to grow anything ~ your garden is so beautiful.

  29. No doubt in my mind - tacky! But we all need a touch of tacky to keep ourselves from becoming too uppity! Nevertheless, I will find my tacky somewhere else; no gnomes for me - until I have a grandchild who gives me one for my birthday. THAT gnome would be proudly displayed in a place of prominence!

  30. My personal motto is "Bad taste is better than no taste". The gnomes can stay, just not in my yard.


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