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The artful garden: Decorating our outdoor spaces

With winter fast approaching and this year’s garden put to bed, our thoughts turn towards our gardens of the future. As with our homes, every garden must meet certain functional needs, such as providing easy access from driveway to doorway. But also, like our homes, all gardens give us personal space to indulge and please our aesthetic sensibilities.
When contemplating a new garden — or changing an existing one — our first consideration will be its spatial design. A compelling spatial design — like a well-designed floor plan — knits all the different piece-parts together — flowerbeds, lawn, patio and driveway — into a functional and yet aesthetically pleasing whole. From here our thoughts turn to plant choices, and how the different colors, shapes, and textures can be arranged for best effect.
But what about decorating our gardens with artwork and artifacts? This is like adding pictures to the walls of our homes, and the perfect way to imprint our unique personalities on our outdoor spaces.
The possibilities for an artful garden are endless, as well as extremely personal: one person’s delight may leave the next person cold. Sometimes, as a way to expand our horizons, it helps to see examples in a beautiful public space. Or perhaps you find a lovely handcrafted item that ignites your imagination. With these thoughts in mind, let me share a few recent experiences with you.
Mesmerizing, glamorous glass
Two weeks ago I spent a wonderful day with my daughter and two granddaughters, meandering around the huge public gardens in the heart of downtown Denver. The 23-acre Denver Botanic Gardens actually encompass numerous smaller interlocking garden spaces, like gardens-within-a-garden, with individual themes such as woodland, prairie, or mountain, and each on a scale that we, as ordinary gardeners, can embrace.
The Denver Botanic Gardens are always a treat, but this time they were extra special because they were hosting a display by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, as part of his Garden Cycle series. While many of his sculptures are clearly scaled for large public spaces, similar smaller items that are locally sourced could readily enhance a private garden.
Strolling past purple asters, golden rudbeckia and multi-hued dahlias in the ever-popular O’Fallon Perennial Walk, visitors of all ages literally squealed with delight as they caught sight of spirited hand-blown glass creations snuggled in amongst the flowers. I understand Mr. Chihuly planned his exhibit to complement the local colors and textures, something any gardener contemplating brightly colored decorations would be well advised to do.
 As we wandered through each garden-within-a-garden we encountered all manner of beautiful glass sculptures in vibrant colors — reds, purples, yellows, oranges — each designed to enhance its unique space. An array of vermillion spires dominated the fall prairie grasses; a wooden boat overflowed with multi-hued glass spheres; yellow and green cactus sprouted in the Monet pool; and a blue-ice tower watched over the Sacred Earth garden. And finally, to complete our day, we discovered the “jewel in the crown,” an enormous glittering ball of twisted strands of orange and yellow glass called the Summer Sun, that towered above the children as they rolled from top to bottom of a vast grassy amphitheater.
You can see photographs of these and other sculptures from Chihuly’s Denver exhibit on my North Country Reflections website.
That exhibit will end on Nov. 30, and Chihuly’s staff will carefully dismantle each piece for shipment, either back to his Seattle studio or for the next Garden Cycle show, which opens Dec. 6 at Florida’s Fairchild Botanic Gardens (just south of Miami). Snowbirds, take note: If you will be in Florida this winter, be sure to plan a visit.
Gentle, soothing clay
For millennia people have created clay items both for function and for beauty and, even today, clay objects in our gardens impart a feeling of timelessness.
In skilled hands clay can be worked in so many ways and with innumerable interpretations, whether at a potter’s wheel or, for very different results, through free-form modeling.
Over the years I have acquired four beautiful large clay pots, each an individual, in colors ranging from clear blue to oatmeal beige. All were created by master potter Robert Compton of Bristol, who primarily works with a potter’s wheel.
Every spring I fill my pots with spouting tuberous begonias augmented with some contrasting coleus. Then, to catch the eye of garden visitors, I carefully position each pot in the garden where it will be slightly elevated.
But do not limit your ideas to symmetrically thrown pots. To my mind, modeled clay figures, especially those in human form, always feel at home in the garden. The trick is to set them off with a few simple plants, as with the delightful small figure shown in the picture amongst some feather-reed grass and Queen Anne’s Lace, that we spotted at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens near Worcester, Mass.
And finally my newest piece of garden art is a fanciful ceramic wall planter with a gently smiling face framed by leafy hair. Next summer I will mount her beside our front door to greet each and every visitor. Like my pots, she was locally made, in this case by Brandon ceramic sculptor Susan Smith-Hunter. You can find more of Susan’s delightful ceramic faces at the Brandon Artist’s Guild.
Elegant, sophisticated metalwork
Garden metalwork comes in various forms, such as a beautiful scrolled gate, a classic curved trellis or a contemporary stand-alone sculpture.
All work well in the summer garden, either at the end of a path or amongst the flowers. And unlike clay and glass, which must come indoors for the winter, metal objects can remain outside year round, certainly an added point in their favor!
Several years ago now I had the opportunity to purchase several pieces created from recycled materials by Burlington metal sculptor Bill Heise, including three unique birds and a whimsical figure known as the “Spirit Keeper.” This picture shows one of our Bill Heise birds set off against his white surroundings on a January afternoon, sipping snow out of his birdbath.
Gardens are personal spaces
Your garden is as personal as your house. It is your own private place where you can express your creativity and let your imagination run, not only with your plants, but also through your choices of decoration and embellishment. Your choices will undoubtedly be completely different from mine. And winter is the perfect time to daydream about your endless possibilities!
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.
“SIPPING SNOW ON a winter’s afternoon,” a sculpture in Judith’s garden created from recycled metal by the late Bill Heise of Burlington. Photo by Richard Conrad

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