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Garden Edition: April 2001

by Linda Coyner

The forecast for the garden this year calls for a serious invasion. It's expected to be widespread, affecting the whole country. But this invasion is not the military kind. And, fortunately, it poses no danger to plants save the possibility of crowding them. The main danger, I'm afraid, is to your pocketbook. The invader? The garden ornament: oversized insects on stakes, sundial, birdhouse, statue, gazing ball, chimes, shepherd's hook with hanging plant, cherubs, molded stepping stones, and fountains.

For some, the garden ornament that comes to mind first is the plastic pink flamingo, which is ranked alongside the tire planter. I must confess a fondness for the former. In fact, when I moved to Florida I brought a weathered pair from my Chappaqua, NY, garden. And since being down here, I've spotted them only once in front of a retail nursery, despite the notion that they're the Florida state bird.

Actually, some creative arm-twisting by local charities involving flamingos has become something of a Southern tradition. One morning you wake to find a flock in your front yard. The flock doesn't move until a certain charity receives your donation. Of course, the folks who don't mind pink plastic fowl in their front yard just sit back and enjoy the show until the flock (read charity) moves on.

The ornament in vogue today is the gazing globe. It's called many names--lawn ball, garden globe, dream ball, butler ball, witch's ball, good luck ball, patio globe. These colorful spheres are featured in garden catalogs, mounded in bowls in decorator show houses and photographed as room accents in glossy shelter magazines. Critics say it looks like nothing more than a huge Christmas ornament, which, admittedly it can, if used in the wrong setting, just like any other ornament.

The globes' uses are limited only to the imagination. They preside over a flower bed, mark the center of an herb garden, anchor the end of a pathway or find them perched on specially made pedestals, Doric columns, metal stands, or on top of birdbath pedestals. A pedestal is not strictly necessary, but most gazing globes have a short stem that the pedestal hides, and raising a globe off the ground allows it to capture more light and reflect more of the shapes and colors around it. Some globes are meant to hang from a tree; others, float on a slender pole above the flower bed in a copper harness the shape of a giant butterfly or flower or bird. Tuck globes in urns or flower pots, especially painted flower pots.

I especially like to see different sized globes floating in ponds and fountains, or even nestled among in the plants on the ground. The sight of a gazing ball conjures up visions of a prim and proper Victorian garden, but they've been around much longer, their roots having been traced to gardens in Italy, Germany, France, and England as early as the 13th century. A globe could be thought to ward off ill will by reflecting evil back to the would-be evildoer or it could draw good fortune. In some cases globes were hung outside a house to invite fruitfulness and fertility. During a wedding, glass balls were thrown against the wall of the bride's house to wish her good fortune when moving into a new home.

The English are said to have kept them indoors to protect the house from witches. The mirrored surface was supposed to ward off the witches by horrifying them with their reflection. Practical use was also made of the globes' reflective quality: discreetly chaperoning young couples strolling in the garden, allowing young girls in the garden to admire themselves, or like a scarecrow, protecting certain birds by scaring off birds of prey.

The strangest explanation for gazing balls comes from a web site that attributes them to an underground society, which uses the balls to control the human race. The color of the ball signifies the member's standing in the group: gold for an elite member; red, blue, or purple, a new one. Now, for whatever reason and regardless of what you call it, the gazing ball is back. But not all globes are alike. They can vary in material, size, and, of course, color or finish. The majority is still hand-blown glass and usually imported from Asia. More recently, globes of highly polished stainless steel or inexpensive plastic have become available.

Glass globes offer the best reflective quality but they're fragile. They must be secured to a pedestal with double-sided tape to withstand a big blow. The ones with stems need be sealed to prevent moisture from entering, which will cause the finish on the inside to crack and flake. In below freezing winters, most sellers advise bringing them indoors. The stainless steel balls, or mirror balls as they're called, are durable and long-lasting. Sellers claim that they never tarnish or rust or shatter. They're highly polished but their colors appear dull, and they lack the reflective quality of glass globes. Plastic globes most often show up as part of a globe-pedestal set or globe-statue set. The inexpensive knockoffs offer color but no reflective quality. They're also likely to be as susceptible to high wind as glass ones.

Glass and steel balls come in a wonderful range of colors, including silver, purple, green, blue, red, and gold. According to an old Bavarian shop, certain colors were said to have magic properties: red preserves love and faith; green means abundant harvest; blue prevents war. In general, though, all solid colors gather in and reflect the garden around them, silver globes mirror the garden most clearly; darker colored globes seem to capture some of the light, rather than reflect it. Newer globes come with a pindot, crackled, swirled, iridescent, opalescent, or "soap bubble" finish. Some of those with a fancy finish may not be as reflective as solid colors. The 10- and 12-inch balls are the most common size, priced from $15 to $60. Stainless steel balls and the fancy-finished glass balls seem to be the most expensive. There are also 4-, 5-, 6-, 8-, and even 20-inch balls available.

The art of using gazing globes or pink flamingos for that matter in the garden is something that can be learned. The right touch can transform tacky into art. A very helpful guide is Smith & Hawken's Garden Ornament by Linda Joan Smith (Workman Publishing, 1998, $22.95). In this beautifully illustrated book, she explains how to select an ornament and integrate it into a setting. The secret, according to Smith, is how the ornament relates to the garden around it.

The book gently leads the reader through the elements that must be juggled for an ornament to "work" in a garden or in some cases, how to plant to complement an ornament. The book covers all manner of ornament, from livestock watering trough to priceless antique. The author does not overlook gazing globes, which she poetically describes as "silvered spheres, available in a rainbow of tints [that] distill the world around them into a single magic image, odd as a face in a funhouse mirror and entrancing as the future in a soothsayer's crystal ball." She points out alternatives to the gazing globe--glass fishing floats, marbles, stone ball finials, and bowling balls.

In the book, you'll also find basic information on how to care for the materials like terra-cotta, marble, cast stone, limestone, and wood that ornaments are usually made of, as well as how to shop for an antique ornament.

If you have some questions about decorating the garden with ornaments such as the gazing globe, email me.

Websites for globes:

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