Maybe you’re a first-time home-owner pinching pennies to make the mortgage. Or, perhaps you’re just a garage-sale junky who can’t pass up a good bargain. Those with artistic natures have been known to hoard odd stuff to get creative with one day. For all these reasons and more, unorthodox art is finding its way into gardens everywhere. Some call it barrio art, others label it recycling or urban salvage. The single underlying drive is a distinct lack of money. It has resulted in a trend of decidedly individual garden décor. The new motto: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Some years ago, a Northwestern idea of using glass and beads led to the jewelbox garden concept, which also includes unusual succulents and vivid foliage. The result is an intensively decorated garden that follows none of the styles or concepts we’ve known before. It’s really freestyle, and highly adapted to the individual’s sense of beauty through plants and objects. And because many young, cash-strapped homeowners want a creative outdoor living area, they’re heading the trend.
The idea is to use what you have. In many older home sites there are free building materials that can be reused in a new garden. Maybe they aren’t the best choice nor the most long lasting, but they get you closer to a usable yard for next to no money. Among the most commonly found objects in yards or even illegal dump sites are concrete blocks, tiles, boards, fencing, wire, brick, grape stakes, bamboo rods, stone and chunk concrete.
The applications are based on rethinking gardens and trying fresh combinations in a new way. For example, a piece of loose chain link fence will make a truly stunning wall trellis if rusty, or if painted it can create a modernistic grid against a contrasting background wall. Ditto for rusty bedsprings from a child’s bed. Run some nasturtiums there and it’s art. New uses for old materials include ideas for tins, bottles, sewer pipes, tile samples, broken pottery, old windows, bowling balls and rusty bedsprings.
Look back on the history of civilization and you will find that culture after culture used the same building materials on the same sites. They recycled the stone rather than starting over from scratch. When we reuse materials that would otherwise be dumped into the landfill, our garden making actually helps the environment. If you visit any Third World country you’ll discover just how innovative they are in recycling things we’d likely throw away. Sticks, leaf mulch, kitchen compost, coffee grounds, string, wire, broken china for mosaics, colored glass fragments, fishing line and even old jewelry are just a few of the useful materials. Creating great garden art while recycling is a noble enterprise, where we diverge from the mass market and limit our consumption.
In the urban environment, some of the poorest neighborhoods share a great deal of refuse building up in vacant lots and alleys. When that material is harvested and turned into tiny city plots by creative hands, the community benefits in so many ways. Perhaps we Americans have too thoroughly bought into the idea that gardens are purchased. The truth is that until this century, they were more often than not created with little more than found objects and a packet of seeds.
To me, the most fabulous gardens are those that don’t follow the traditions of the great gardens of the world. I find more delight in some little side-yard pocket with an odd assemblage of artistic, handmade elements than I do a million-dollar landscape. Maybe it’s because that narrow side yard will be beautiful for just a little while as that gardener tends it, and in due time it will fade away ephemeral.
If it were up to me, I’d offer awards for the best outsider art gardens and make them famous stops in every city. Then we’d all be inspired to think small, recycle and allow our personal creativity to reign free.
Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of “Weekend Gardening” on the DIY Network. Contact her at www.moplants.com or visit www.diynetwork.com.