Texas AgriLife Extension,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

April, 2008

Antiques in the Garden

by Dr. William C. Welch, Extension Horticulturist,
Texas A&M University, College Station, TX

As a lifelong plant collector it has been an interesting trip to realize that many of the specimens we grow and love are true living antiques. A cutting from George Washington’s favorite rose or Elizabeth Lawrence’s cherished ‘White Empress’ camellia means having a part of the original. It is also like having a personal visit with all your family and friends around you.

A copper plaque covered with vertigris
A copper plaque covered with vertigris

  • Sculpture, urns, finials, furniture and other accessories add richness and personality to the garden. Recent years have seen a huge increase in prices and declining availability of these objects that were once common and inexpensive. A few well chosen antique pieces can set the tone for a garden. Too many and it becomes a cluttered mess! How do we ensure that acquiring them is right for our landscape?

  • Be aware that scale is of the utmost importance. If the urn, sculpture, finial or other object is too small or too large it isn’t going to look right.

  • Does it look right with my house and other surroundings? This can be a bit more complicated. The patina of weathered lead, copper or peeling paint generally looks best surrounded by period architecture or good quality reproductions. Sometimes, however, the contrast of something old in a very new setting can also work. Let the architecture provide clues to the selection of your accessories.

    A copper plaque covered with vertigris

  • When to purchase and how much to pay? Impulse buying has served me fairly well in the acquiring of garden antiques. (How’s that for rationalizing?) The value of good garden antiques has grown faster than most other art. The other part of the equation concerns how much to pay which becomes a matter of your resources and how much of a commitment you are willing to make.

  • What about security and maintaining the value? Security has become an issue when even cemeteries aren’t safe from looting. Firmly anchoring pieces and having them inside locked gates is one possibility. Maintaining the quality is another issue. Wood, terra cotta and even cast iron and concrete need maintenance and protection. To prevent accelerated weather damage many fine garden antiques are being moved inside for their protection. I realized this after paying rather handsomely for several hand crafted whirly gigs (wind driven portable sculptures) I move them outside for special occasions but enjoy them indoors most of the time.

  • Where to buy. If your eye is good you can sometimes find great values in flea markets and garage sales. Antique shows, estate sales and internet purchases can also be productive. Trying to find a particular time for a specific place in the garden can require time and patience. It can also be highly rewarding!

  • Even if you don’t “need” a particular item but really like it and think it is fairly priced my advice is to go for it! Having a small inventory of good pieces is a joy and allows flexibility in garden displays.

  • A word about reproductions….In reality, few of us can afford original, antique garden art. Poorly crafted reproductions are abundant but so are high quality items. Look for detailing and crispness in workmanship. Today’s reproductions could well be tomorrow’s valuable antique. A little weathering usually helps the piece to look older. There are treatments than can facilitate this process.

  • Every garden should reflect the owner’s tastes and lifestyle. Having a collection of living plant antiques as well as garden accessories can add significantly to one’s enjoyment. Sharing your plants with friends and family is another way to pass along traditions while doing so we reinforce the sense of place on our properties. Recycling garden art and architectural details has a positive impact on our environment. Selecting time tested plants that have proven to be water efficient long lived, insect and disease resistant makes great sense.

Earth Kind uses research-proven techniques to provide maximum gardening and landscape performance while preserving and protecting the environment. For more information on Earth Kind Landscape Management Practices see our web site: https://earthkind.tamu.edu