Lawn sprinklers blend whimsy and function Spray: Gizmos for watering the grass have an appeal all their own, and can be found in many forms, both antique and new.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Not so long ago, when life was simpler, kids amused themselves in their own neighborhoods all summer, instead of at the mall. We played tag and kick-the-can and danced away hot afternoons in the cool shower of a lawn sprinkler, shrieking as we dashed through the spray and leaped across the little rainbows in it.

Now we're grown-up techno-wizards with pagers and cell phones, but sprinklers of all kinds are still an important part of the life of the garden. Even drought-tolerant lawns and gardens require a good soaking from time to time.

Hoses, hose reels and sprinklers were introduced to American gardeners at the end of the 19th century, along with suburban housing developments and municipal water systems. These new tools "were innovations that no true gardener could be without," according to D. Keith Crotz, a garden historian, in an article in "Keeping Eden," a history of gardening in America (Little, Brown and Co., 1992). Well-tended lawns were "so much a part of domestic life by the turn of the century that implements used for their care were made in whimsical, if not artistic, fashion."

In 1902, one catalog of "lawn essentials" featured a sprinkler in the form of a bug-eyed green frog that watered an area 40 feet in diameter. The "handsomely enameled" frog cost 50 cents, 75 cents for mail-order customers.

Such a sprinkler would be worth a great deal more today. Old sprinklers are collector's items, as are antique brass nozzles and other watering contraptions of every description. Antique sprinklers still turn up at flea markets and yard sales. Old whirly-bird sprinklers may fetch anywhere from about $30 to $100. You'll pay more than that for an antique traveling sprinkler in working condition, the kind that moves like a miniature tractor across the lawn along the hose.

One of the nicest old sprinklers was shaped like a sitting duck. The fat white duck filled up with water, and the spray came out of holes along her bill and over the top of her head, which spun around maniacally, splashing water all around. Sotheby's, a New York auction house, recently sold a sprinkler like that for $805.

Novelty sprinklers often cost much less than antiques and can also be found in garden shops, where you sometimes see sprinklers set in cast-stone frogs, ducks or snails, usually in the $30 range. One mail-order company carries a friendly otter sprinkler: The concrete otter stands erect, clutching the end of a hose, whiskers dripping, spreading a ring of bright water. He's awfully cute, but not cheap: $1,565.

The spray pattern reveals something about the gardener, too. I'm the whirly-bird type; my 70-year-old neighbor prefers the measured pace of his oscillating sprinkler. Around the corner, my lawn-crazy neighbor likes the precise clicking and whirring of his impulse sprinkler.

Even after 100 years, we're still entranced by these fascinating examples of industrial design. One catalog carries an oscillating sprinkler "engineered for peak performance and puddle-free distribution." Another offers a "rain tower" sprinkler mounted on an adjustable tripod that rises up to 6 feet over the garden; another sells a rotary sprinkler with 49 possible "adjustment positions." Fancy in-ground systems are programmable smart sprinklers that remember when it last rained. You can still get a sprinkler that looks and moves like a tractor, but there's a new one that looks more like a dune buggy.

So when you put away the mower, the clippers, the trowel and the wheelbarrow, position that sprinkler just so. Go ahead and duck through the spray on your way from the spigot to the lawn chair. Let yourself go a little in the rhythm of the sweeping sprays of water. For a few minutes at least, everything else can wait.

Sources

The otter sprinkler ($1,565), made by California artist Lou Rankin, is available through Gump's by mail, P.O. Box 489, New Oxford, Pa. 17350; 800-284- 8677. The catalog is free.

Gardener's Supply Co., 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401, sells a frog sprinkler with a brass spray nozzle ($29.95), a "rain tower" sprinkler on a tripod ($54.95) and other watering supplies. Phone 800-955-3370. The catalog is free.

The catalog of A. M. Leonard Inc., P.O. Box 816, Piqua, Ohio 45356, offers a broad selection of sprinklers and watering equipment, including two traveling sprinklers (tractor style, $82.48; commercial-scale dune buggy, $1,023.82). Phone 800-543-8955. The catalog is free.

The catalog of Smith & Hawken includes nozzles and sprinklers. Phone 800-776-3336. The catalog is free.

Pub Date: 8/10/97

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