Peek into any beautiful garden, and you will find lush greenery, colorful flowers or a pattern of hedges that delights the eye. You might find towering trees, thick vines that seem to dance across an arbor or a fountain that offers a drink to a bird or butterfly.
You might also notice a piece from the past – be it formal or whimsical – an antique that offers a detail and glimpse into the soul of the garden’s owner.
“Gardens are very personal spaces,” says Bill Rau, president of M.S. Rau Antiques on Royal Street and a fourth-generation antiques dealer. “I tell clients there is no right or wrong in gardening – just follow your own thoughts and tastes.”
Rau finds that generally speaking, there are two aesthetics in gardens: the structured, disciplined, organized look and the unstructured, naturalist, overgrown look. Both are good looks, and both can incorporate antiques.
A structured garden benefits from the neoclassical, ancient Rome antiques, he says. Here a gardener might place bold urns, fountains and timeless statues or obelisks. An unstructured garden has no immediately noticeable centerpiece or focal point and might showcase antiques that are more funky or rustic.
Landscape architect Marianne Mumford, co-owner of Landscape Images, often adds antiques to the gardens she designs. “Antiques add visual interest to a garden and a personal touch to any setting,” she says. Often, the antiques hold an emotional attachment to the owner and remind them of loved ones or treasured experience.
For example, in one Uptown garden Mumford designed, the owner had a large weather vane that she purchased on a trip abroad. She wanted to place it in her garden, but didn’t want the weather vane to stick out. To soften the look, Mumford surrounded the antique with graceful agapanthus. The slender leaves and periwinkle sprouts added just the right accents. The antique looked right at home in its space. In my own garden, Mumford placed some vintage-era stone obelisks in a structured, geometric space. The obelisks had been in our family for decades and perfectly punctuated the area.
Some of the most popular antiques that gardeners are using are old sugar kettles, which add a decidedly Southern touch. Often used as planters, kettles add a bold, colorful statement when filled with annuals. Kettles can also be made into fountains, adding a touch of serenity with their gently running water.
“We are finding clients who want antique olive jars and urns that are made of stone or pottery. Iron or bronze benches are also popular today,” says Rau. He also finds that clients are looking for antique tables and chairs for dining outdoors.
The biggest mistake a gardener can make is placing an antique outdoors that doesn’t belong there. “If your antique marble statue has never been outdoors, don’t place it there. It will be worn by the weather,” says Rau. “On the other hand, if it has always been outdoors, then leave it there as it has survived climate changes over the years.”
Mumford says that a gardener should think of the scale of the item and make sure it is the appropriate size for the area. She recommends an antique be one-third the size of the area it is housed in. “A patio that is 10 feet by 10 feet should house a fountain or urn that is 3 feet tall,” she says. “If it is any larger, it will dominate the space.”
Make sure that if your antique holds water, such as a fountain, kettle or bird bath, the water moves continuously. If it doesn’t, it will soon become a fertile area for breeding mosquitoes and bacteria that could be harmful to butterflies and birds that drink from it.
Consistency also matters. If you are planning a formal setting, don’t throw in a rustic wagon wheel, as it will look out of place.
Last, the “less is more theory” is as important in a garden as anywhere. The eye, says Mumford, can absorb only so much.
In the end, dress your garden as you would dress yourself or your home. Your garden is a reflection of yourself and what makes you happy.
“The best part is that a garden is never finished,” says Rau. “It’s always evolving and growing. It changes with the seasons and with the gardener’s desires. That’s what makes it interesting and fun.”