The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Lawn Ornaments – Chic or Shabby

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

How many gnomes is enough? Can a garden be too accessorized? We all have our limits. Mine is when I can't see the plants for the plastic. Our fascination with adding more than plants to landscapes is nothing new. Now, however, we are tempted with an endless volume and variety of lawn ornaments.

The quintessential American lawn ornament is the pink flamingo. This bird has had a raucous history spanning almost 100 years. In its life span it has been adored as an irreverent symbol of mainstream establishment, but also banished from some communities as being too tacky.

So why pink flamingoes? It all started in Florida in the 1920's. Hialeah Race track had imported live Caribbean flamingoes to add some tropical ambiance. In the 20's Florida and race tracks were playgrounds for the rich. Soon bronze, metal, and wooden flamingoes materialized as status symbols on the northern landscapes of the wealthy. The bird's appearance boldly stated to all passersby that the residents had been to a Florida resort. For thirty years flamingo lawn ornaments were the property of the rich.

In 1956 newly graduated art student Don Featherstone was using his talents sculpting ducks and cows to fashion molds to pump out the animal's plastic counterparts at the Union Products plant in Massachusetts. In 1957 Featherstone designed a plastic version of the popular flamingoes by studying National Geographic magazine photographs. And as Featherstone joked in a National Public Radio interview in 2006 he brought "poor taste to the poor". The true Featherstone flamingoes are signed by Don in a spot familiar only to other flamingoes. Featherstone eventually bought the company responsible for all kinds of lawn ornaments from gnomes to penguins. By the time Union Products plant closed in 2006 they had sold more than 20 million Featherstone pink flamingoes in the 50 years of their reign as the icon of kitsch.

I don't profess to be an art expert, but I have seen many well-accessorized and not-so-well accessorized landscapes. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you add more stuff to your landscape.

Does it match the architectural design of the home? Statues of partially clad women holding Grecian urns may not feel at home adorning the landscape of a ranch style house. Giving the gals cowboy hats doesn't help.

Does it say what you want it to say to your visitors? For example: "I'm a Cubs fan." "I'm a Cardinal fan." Or very popular ornaments on Florida front lawns "I'm from Michigan, but I got tired of shoveling all the snow and moved to Florida."

Is it in proportion to the landscape? Take cues from local gardens with art such as Allerton Park in Monticello or Wandell Sculpture Garden in Urbana.

Will it likely be used by the neighborhood as a landmark? For example will the neighbors give directions to their home by their proximity to your giant Statue of Liberty?

Does it make sense where it is? Lawn ornaments should not be used to hide a power box unless it makes sense to have the ornament there without the offending structure. Accessorize an eye sore and all you get is an accessorized eye sore.

Can a garden be too accessorized? If it brings you joy and doesn't offend the neighbors too much, I say go for it. We all need more reasons to smile.

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