January reveals the bones of a garden, the angles and planes, the stark uprights that leaf out in spring, the monolithic presence of walls or sheds. Like a room stripped of ornament, this pared-down state lends itself to imaginative redesign and opens the gate to year-round decoration -- a cairn of beautifully colored rocks in one corner over which the squash may vine in the summer, a ceramic frog among the chrysanthemums, statues of cranes, angels or garden fairies, a bee skep, its coiled surface like a miniature adobe hut, set by the entrance.
Found, bought and homemade objects can enhance not only the beauty but the personality of a garden, making it truly a room of one's own.
FILLING A HOLE
Potter and gardener Joan Reed, owner of Georgetown Pottery in Kent County, whose multistory bird condos grace gardens all over the Atlantic coast, fills her outdoor spaces with her own handmade decorations. For example, a large oval sunflower face -- part sun god, part Alice-in-Wonderland creature -- occupies the long wooden retaining wall beneath the porch.
"I'm a decorator at heart," Reed says. "You've got a hole, so you fill it with something."
Reed also uses her decorations to connect with the natural world. Her pottery birdbaths, feeders and birdhouses, modeled loosely on medieval English cottages and Tudor town houses, together create a kind of full-service bird sanctuary.
"I want to make them homes," Reed explains. "We all dwell here."
Reed views her pottery creations as a means of actually touching nature -- though once-removed.
"It comes from my hand to their mouth. The feeder and the bath and bird homes are objects in between, but the objects and the food come from my hand."
While Reed's focus is the connection to nature, others take a more ornamental approach. In her book, "Decorating Your Garden," interior- design writer Pat Ross takes readers on a visual tour of gardens adorned with whimsically carved and painted doorways, amber globes in fish ponds, brass statues, and other "objets." The one unifying theme among them all is the pleasure they give their owners. That's not to say that things are jumbled into a garden willy-nilly.
"The key to success is a healthy combination of spontaneity and planning," writes Ross, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Chestertown.
Steve Mott, head gardener at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, agrees. "I think you can go overboard on the ornamentation," he says.
START WITH THE FRAMEWORK
The best gardens, Ross observes, begin with a good framework, which may include a winding path, walls or fences, a terrace or other fixed features. Balance of high and low elements is important. Too much knee- and ground-level growth is boring. Too much up and down is busy.
"Sometimes it's hard to find height in the garden," says Mott. "So you first think of arbors or trellis. Or you can do garden tepees. At Longwood [Gardens], they make tepees out of bamboo. Or you can trim a tree and use those stakes to make a tepee. Then you can grow a hyacinth bean [or] grow annual vines on it. It gives you really nice height."
THEN ADD THE EXTRAS
Once you achieve a "skeleton" you like, add other ornamental (and/or practical) objects -- a bench at the turn in a hedge, a water-spewing sprite at a pond. Or you can make bolder choices -- a shard-encrusted bowling ball half-hidden in the hosta.
In selecting what to put where, remember density and color. A bright object, though it may be small, draws the eye and therefore takes up more design space than, for example, a gray stone birdbath.
Consider also, where you want people to be led. Do they always miss that beautiful clump of violets? A tall brass heron will draw people to the bird's feet to see them.
"A focal point causes people to move through the garden," Mott says. "Usually, you want to put [ornamental] things in back of border and center of border," which will draw the eye not only to the object but to the surrounding whole.
Another consideration is your own view.
"Where to put things depends upon where you're going to view the object from," Mott says.
Do you want to be able to see the birdbath all winter? Make sure it is visible from your kitchen or living room windows. Also, bear in mind that most ornaments are movable, so you can re-create and personalize your evolving outdoor room.
Behnke Nurseries 11300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, Md. 20705; 301-937-1100
86 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, Md. 21401; 410-280-3466
802 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, Md. 21204; 410-823-6600
"Decorating Your Garden," by Pat Ross (Time-Life Books, $34.95)
"Garden Ornament: Five Hundred Years of History and Practice," by George Plumptre (Thames and Hudson, $29.95)
Pub Date: 01/24/99