Focal Points


From Functional to Decorative

By Katy Keiffer

Focal Points

Using "functional" objects as garden ornaments began in the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century as affluent Americans started going abroad for grand tours. They brought back wellheads, columns, oil jars and sarcophagi that were particularly coveted for the then fashionable Italian style formal garden. These antiques, partial or whole, were imported in great numbers for gardens at such estates as Hearst Castle at San Simeon, The Elms in Newport, Weld in Brookline, MA and many others. Antiquities became status symbols so much so that one critic in a 1903 "House and Garden" called them "second-hand debris from European museums."

Renowned architects and tastemakers such as Stanford White and Charles Platt were at the forefront of appropriating antique functional objects for decorative and even conceptual use. In their search for innovation they designed to create a mood, an impression of an ancient Italian garden. White of McKim, Mead and White was a great proponent of buying antiques from abroad. In his own garden at Box Hill at St. James, NY a visitor might see "a Greek capital...a row of amphorae...a rich, terra-cotta vase, an ancient carved sarcophagus or finely molded head upon a marble base." (House and Garden 1903) He encouraged his clients to collect the same, and would even go to Europe himself to buy ornament for projects he was working on. Even church baptismal founts and holy water basins, removed from churches in Spain, Italy and France, made their way into gardens, transformed into planters and tree pots.

Oil jars made of terra cotta, some of epic size, were also very popular in Italian style gardens. In the ca. 1900 garden at Faulkner Farm in Brookline, MA designed by Platt, oil jars were a significant feature. Ralph Adams Cram, a noted architect of the era, said in 1901 that when gazing upon this garden "one only feels the need of some slim Greek girl or better still a girl of Pompeii to come up the stone steps bearing a slender amphora of Cypriote wine and a gilded dish of purple figs."

Venetian WellheadMedieval wellheads were particularly popular additions to American and English gardens and became sought after objects for collectors. Fortunately, they were numerous in Venice where they had been used as curbs around wells of precious, fresh rainwater gathered in cisterns. Often elaborately carved and decorated, wellheads graced public and private squares throughout the city. The end of the 19th century saw Venice connected to a water supply via aqueduct, and the need to gather rainwater was no longer paramount. As a result, art professionals recognized an opportunity and made a market for Venetian wellheads with their wealthy overseas clients. At the height of their use in Venice there were over 6,000 recorded, but currently only about 600 remain.

Inevitably competition between English and American garden enthusiasts, as well as savvy Italian dealers,began to drain off the European originals. In response, American makers such as Tiffany & Co., Galloway Terra Cotta Company and Pompeian Studios made their own versions of the antiques brought in from Europe, truly bringing full circle the shift from original function to fashionable, decorative, use.

StaddleRustic examples of the trend of turning the functional into the ornamental include the conversion of troughs, millstones and staddle stones, all of which are used as decorative elements in gardens. Troughs that once served water to animals are now used to lend historical import to rustic gardens. Millstones, originally used to grind grain into flour, have found new use as stepping stones, low plinths or even, when placed upright, abstract sculpture. Mushroom-shaped staddle stones once functioned as support bases for granaries (as depicted in the above period photograph). Now staddle stones add an informal sculptural note to any small garden.

The Sundial: From Timepiece to Ornament

By Barbara Israel

"The sun-dial is...[a] striking example of the charm of simplicity in form and directness in utility;
its lines and markings are the absolute mathematical expression of the information it gives..."
(Earle, Sundials and Roses of Yesterday, p. 2)

SundialOver the years the horizontal sundial went through a gradual transition from functional to decorative use. Despite the fact that mechanical clocks were introduced in the thirteenth century in Europe the sundial was still valued for its dependability. Clocks and watches would have been used on cloudy days or at night, but when the sun was out their owners would have turned to the sundial to set their timepieces. An old sundial motto says "A clock the time may wrongly tell/ I never if the sun shine well".

As early as the 16th century in England the horizontal sundial began to be valued as an attractive, low maintenance ornament for the garden. But in America this conversion moved more slowly. Although very few early American sundials exist today they were fairly commonplace in colonial days and not held in the sentimental regard that they were in later years. George Washington's late 18th-century sundial at Mount Vernon, a rare survivor, was and is located in the turf circle at the front of the house. This particular sundial was not in any way treated as a decorative piece but was carefully placed where travelers could see it on arrival or departure offering them an accurate reading of the time of day. American tastes preferred the horizontal sundial out of the great variety of sundial styles that had existed in Great Britain. The exception was vertical dial plates that were placed in convenient central locations on north walls in town centers.

It was not until after the Revolution in America, when clocks and watches came at last to be trusted, that the horizontal sundial took on a more decorative role in colonial gardens. " the gardens of our American colonies...there might be seen a pedestal of varying material, shape and pretension, surmounted by the most interesting furnishing in 'dead works' of the garden, a sundial." (Earle, Old Time Gardens, p. 353) During the mid-19th century American gardeners were turning to such British experts as J.C. Loudon who wrote in 1853 that "the sundial is one of the most agreeable and useful of architectural appendages, and in this country [England] is become venerable, as a piece of garden furniture."

Still sundial popularity as an ornamental feature in the garden did not truly take off in America until the turn of the century. The Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 awakened the romantic notions of the nation's historic past and created a following for the tastes and customs of the Founding Fathers. Colonial fever caught fire and catapulted the sundial into the central spot in American Colonial Revival gardens of the early 20th century. The imagination and the sentimentality of early 20th-century Americans led them to admire and seek to replicate the customs of 18th-century colonists. The sundial became the iconic symbol of their gardens. Its importance as a reliable timepiece for generations gave it the historic significance as a relic from the past. Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911) was an important early proponent of the Colonial Revival style in her 1901 book Old Time Gardens which pictured a sundial on the cover. In 1902, in another influential book Sundials and Roses of Yesterday, she wrote,

"I found that many of my friends were placing sun-dials upon pedestals in their gardens, or upon
the walls of their houses, or wished to erect them as memorials...A general interest in them seemed
to have risen in America, as it has ever existed in Scotland and England." (p. xix, Foreward)

She recognized the enthusiasm for sundials and through the widespread influence of her books virtually assured their popularity and longevity as an ornament in the American garden.

Morven SundialSome ardent colonial devotees took their fervor to such an extent that they simply created colonial traditions to tie themselves to the country's early days. Helen Stockton of Morven in Princeton, NJ wanted so passionately to have a 200th anniversary celebration that, though the house was not exactly that old, she went ahead and arranged it. To commemorate the celebration she placed a sundial in the center of her small geometric garden. The plate was mounted in a marble block and inscribed with the motto:

"Two hundred years of Morven I record,
Of Morven's house protected by the Lord;
And now I stand among old-fashioned flowers
To mark for Morven many sun-lit hours."

On Christmas Eve that year she gave a bicentennial ball and in attendance were the appropriately costumed descendents of the important Americans who had been associated with the house.

This enthusiasm for all things colonial served as a base for a revival of interest that lasted well into the 20th century. In terms of our current use and placement of sundials, one hundred years later, we are still tied to those same traditions established by Colonial Revival gardeners. We place our sundials in the center of rose gardens or at a spot where two pathways intersect but never haphazardly by the front door of a house! Most importantly, our collective admiration of their beauty has surpassed our appreciation of their original function. All in all, the working sundial was converted into what may be the single most popular ornament in gardens today.

Duck Farm

Reveries from Running Duck Farm

By Nan Zander with photos by Clara Zander

In a certain sense, all flowering plants are useful. The beauty they add to our world is essential, and I ask nothing more of them. In decades past, however, gardens were full of utilitarian plants that were harvested for a vast range of household uses and beauty was secondary in many cases. Twentieth century gardeners have the luxury of choosing what to plant, and walking into a store to buy the potions their ancestors would have had to make. Granted, countless people choose to plant practical gardens full of vegetables or herbs. But in our flower gardens we grow ornamentals in every shape, size and color, their past uses all but forgotten except by the dedicated herbalist or plant historian.

At every level of my perennial border are delightful specimens with surprising pasts. As I peruse the plants at the front of my sunny border, among the low growing plants there are a number of cheerful clumps of Stachys byzantina, or Lamb's ear. I love this edging plant for its fuzzy silver leaves and reliable habits, and never knew that in the past it was known as Heal-all or Woundwort and used to treat miseries ranging from internal or external bleeding to fevers and pinkeye. Growing next to my Stachys is one of my absolute favorite plants. I love everything about Lady's Mantle. Alchemilla mollis has delicate chartreuse blossoms and leaves that hold the dew like sparkling gems, and it was to these my daughters would bring their plastic animals to drink when they played in the garden as children. It too was used to treat internal or external bleeding, as well as that range of ailments once referred to as "women's problems". Nearby is the early blooming Helleborus niger, the extremely poisonous Christmas Rose, once used with extreme caution by Hippocrates as a purgative. Who knew? During the Renaissance, Clove pinks were used as a tonic for nervous disorders and another Dianthus was used to treat heart problems. Today, these uses long forgotten, the glorious scent is what draws many gardeners to the Dianthus varieties.

Bearded IrisThe middle of my garden boasts numerous beauties with former lives as well. I am particularly proud of my collection of bearded irises and was surprised to learn of their utilitarian past. The thousands of stunning Iris germanica varieties available to modern gardeners are probably all descended from the iris in Pompeii described by Pliny and extolled for its medicinal uses. In medieval gardens, they were planted for religious uses, decorating altars and vestments. Leaves were used for thatching, and the root was (and still is) used in perfumery, which was a social necessity in pre-plumbing days. I adore their fragrance, but have never dried the root for its scent. My chickens, unfortunately, are convinced that the soil around my irises is there strictly for their dust bath on a hot summer day, which can be ruinous to the shallow planted rhizomes. The Chinese peony is another celebrated species with societies dedicated to its cultivation and improvement. The ancient Chinese, however, revered its ability to cure headaches, toothaches and seizures, among other ailments. Monkshood was also valuable in ancient Asian cultures as a highly toxic poison for hunting arrows. While bees love the clear blue flowers of Aconitum napellus, deer and rabbits know better.

Two of my favorite tall perennials are mallows and hollyhocks. Both of these cottage garden standards were once planted for their medicinal properties and because nearly every part of them was somehow edible. They were used to treat a range of ailments from poor circulation to dysentery, ulcers and all sorts of inflammation. Interesting, but please don't try this at home. Today they are generally not Butterflyconsidered herbs, but planted for their charm, color and stature and I wouldn't dream of taking a bite of my pink Prairie mallow. I did discover a use recently for hollyhock flowers that is very relevant today. The flowers will speed up the bacterial action that breaks down a compost heap, which is something I can truly use. Most people know that Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) have been used for centuries to treat heart conditions. I doubt they know that the tall red Bee Balm blooming reliably at the back of their fall border was used by the patriotic citizens of Boston as a substitute for the British tea they dumped into Boston Harbor in 1773. Or that the same Monarda didyma was a favorite of New England Shaker communities for its many herbal and medicinal uses. All of these uses were probably passed on to colonists by Native Americans, who used wild bee balm both medicinally and ceremonially in their sweat lodges. Aside from all its past uses, it is beautiful, fragrant, reliable, loved by hummingbirds, bees and butterflies and disliked by most deer.

Roses made up an ancient Chinese stomach medicine. Daisies would heal wounds. Columbines, Cone Flowers, Baptisia and Yarrow were all used by Native Americans for one medicinal use or another. Evening Primrose and Mullein help sore throats. Is there a plant somewhere in my garden that was not somehow useful in the past? I haven't found one yet but it makes no difference. Feeding the soul is balm enough.

For more information on useful plants, visit the following websites:

Cressing Barn

Cressing Temple and Barns

By Katy Keiffer

Cressing Temple, an ancient monument in Essex, England was established by the Christian military order, the Knights Templar, in 1137 when they received the land as a gift from Queen Matilda. Following the 1312 ban on the Templars, the property was awarded to the order of the Knights Hospitalier, also known as the Knights of Malta. When Henry the VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England, the property passed into the hands of his Baron of the Exchequer, Sir John Smyth. At that time, around 1623, a typical walled Tudor garden was established with decorative topiary, a stand of nut trees, and other practical and medicinal plants typically used by English communities to feed themselves and ward off disease.

Barn InteriorFor most of its history Cressing Temple has been a functioning farm. The extraordinary grain barns built by the Knights Templar in the early 13th century are considered the two largest Templar barns in Europe. The wood used to construct them is dated to 1205 and 1256. The barns underwent extensive reconstruction during the early 15th century following the peasant revolt of 1381. Though the form is all about the function of holding up the huge roofs, the crisscrossing of the trusses and support beams is extraordinarily beautiful. Their survival for close to 800 years is an impressive testimony to the careful selection of materials and the quality of the craftsmanship.

Cressing FountainOn a recent trip to Cressing Temple, Barbara Israel photographed a number of features at this ancient site, including the magnificent Tudor-era fountain and star pool. She also spotted a lovely "copper", or washtub, as well as a stone trough once used for livestock. Both of these objects are used ornamentally in the garden, though most likely they are 20th-century additions of the Cullen family, the last private family to own and operate the farm.

Cressing Temple is located on Witham Road, Braintree, Essex. The site is fully open from March 1 to the end of October, Monday through Saturday from 10am - 5pm. More information can be found at their excellent and comprehensive website:

Planting Containers this Spring

By Charles A. Johnson

Spring is here and it's time to uncover, bring out and rediscover your treasured garden ornaments. Many gardeners have urns that they use either as visual accents in their garden or as containers for plants. The suggestions I will be making apply to both new and antique urns or planters. Properly caring for your urns will extend their lives and allow them to be enjoyed for years to come.

Many antique urns look great in the garden by themselves (see Focal Points 1). You may want to consider not planting yours at all. However, planted or not, all outdoor containers need drainage. Water pooling inside a cast-iron urn can cause significant rusting and flaking. And over time this can seriously weaken the integrity of the container. Stone soaks up water so that the freezing and thawing of any collected water can cause serious damage to a stone urn. If there are any repairs to the stone, and the repaired areas are softer than the original surrounding material, separation can occur. One easy fix to create drainage is to fill the bottom with stones about 1 or 2 inches deep to absorb the extra water. Otherwise a liner is the answer.

PlantedPlantingIf you decide to plant your container, double line it with thick plastic sheeting. Poke holes in the bottom of the plastic to allow for drainage. Be generous with the plastic and roll the excess inward, making sure to leave the center open to receive your plant. This will encourage the water to fall into the planted area, instead of pooling between the plastic and the wall of the container. When used with stone urns and planters, the plastic sheeting creates a protective barrier that keeps roots from growing into the stone which could otherwise destroy the container.

There are two methods for planting. The preferred method is to plant directly into soil in the container you've lined with plastic sheeting. Place several small stones on top of the drainage holes you've made. This helps create a small ecosystem in the container. Then, pack the soil tightly over the stones and do your planting as usual. The alternative is to place the plant, still in their original garden center plastic pot, directly in the Moss Detailplastic-lined container. If the potted plant sits too low in your container, you can raise it by arranging more stones underneath. If the potted plant does not fit snugly or stand up properly in your container I recommend that you use Spanish or spagma moss to fill the excess space. The moss can also be used to cover the top of the pre-planted pot, and it will help keep moisture in the soil. There are aesthetic benefits as well; moss can be quite attractive and it gives a very finished look to plantings. Contact your local nursery to find these and other moss varieties.

At the end of the season you can easily pop out the planting leaving a nice clean container for the next season, and you'll have done a great service to your object by extending its life. Happy Spring!

Filoli Garden


By Katy Keiffer

In 1917 native Californian William Bowers Bourn and his wife Agnes Moody Bourn were finally able to realize their dream of building a country estate outside of San Mateo. They named Filoli after an anagram of Mr. Bourn's favorite motto, "Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life." With impeccable taste and a deep desire to connect with the landscape and create a true retreat, the Bourns were involved in every aspect of the design of the house and grounds. Along with an extensive kitchen garden, an orchard and a number of cutting gardens, the Bourns also designed a large English Renaissance garden, a popular feature of the time, particularly for people of their wealth and standing in the community.

When planning their formal garden the Bourns turned to a nearby San Mateo firm, Rognier and Sons, run by Gaston Rognier. A craftsman from France, Rognier worked with the architects Willis Polk, Arthur Brown Jr. and the garden designer Isabella Worn, as well as the Bourns, to achieve the best possible effects in stone ornament. He created the faces of the muses on the outside of the garden house, and modeled the pediment on the top of the Filoli Gate. According to Tom Rodgers, chief curator at Filoli, in subsequent years, the estate has purchased other pieces attributed to Rognier or his son Andre, though they were not original to the property.

The Rognier pieces form the bulk of the garden ornament collection at Filoli, but Mr. Bourn did acquire an important 16th-century Italian fountain. The fountain has never been piped, but has a reflecting pool and is decorated with highly detailed grotesques. The Bourns also brought over some magnificent and enormous oil jars that had originally been used for the transport of olive oil. These date to the 19th century and although fairly common in Europe, became very popular decorative features in America. Americans traveling abroad in the early part of the 20th century were enchanted by the novel look that these former storage jars added to the garden.

Filoli UrnsWhen the Bourns both died in 1936 the estate was sold to the Roth family who lived there until 1975. At that point, Mrs. Roth donated 125 acres including the house and gardens to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Indeed of all the many estates built in the area, Filoli is the only one that has had so few owners and, consequently, has retained much of is original character both in the house and the grounds.

When the Roth family acquired the estate they retained the main features as they were originally conceived. Mrs. Roth bequeathed some sixty lots of furniture back to the trust upon her demise. Up until then, the house had borrowed pieces from the San Francisco Museum and the Getty. Those were returned after Filoli enjoyed an extraordinary stroke of good fortune. After visiting the gardens for the first time in the late 80s, a prominent Southern Californian furniture collector named Martin Melville donated his entire collection to Filoli. Unbeknownst to him, among his pieces was a beautiful wingback armchair that was original to the house. Filoli continues to receive bequests from donors and has recently acquired a magnificent Boulle cabinet in which to display some of their smaller scale treasures.

Filoli is open to visitors Tuesday, February 10 through Sunday, October 25, 2009.

For more information about Filoli and its public programs, visit

NYBGWe look forward to seeing you at The New York Botanical Garden Antique Garden Furniture Show and Sale, May 1-3, 2009. This year marks the 17th annual show and we are proud to have been among the inaugural exhibitors. The show's 35 exhibitors will feature antique cast iron and marble fountains, garden seating and statues, urns and vases, birdbaths, gates and trellises, as well as antique botanical prints and books on the garden.

The show takes place in a tent surrounded by flowering trees, plants and shrubs near the Botanical Garden's landmark Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, and is open from 10am - 5pm. As the country's original and most important venue for authentic, quality garden antiques, the show is a must for collectors and garden enthusiasts. There is a Benefit Preview Party and Collectors' Plant Sale, Thursday, April 30, from 6 to 8pm. Preview Party tickets start at $200 per person and offer attendees the opportunity to view exhibitor booths, make early purchases and enjoy cocktails and hors d'oeurvres. For Preview Party tickets and information, call 718-817-8775.

To learn more about the Antique Garden Furniture Show and Sale, including the complete list of exhibitors, visit The New York Botanical Garden website.

TulipsI'd also like to spotlight an exceptional exhibition presented at The New York Botanical Garden. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of New York by Henry Hudson the garden is presenting The Glory of Dutch Bulbs: A Legacy of 400 Years, May 1-June 7, in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. This indoor exhibition celebrates four centuries of Dutch supremacy in bulb cultivation as well as recognition of the distinguished explorer in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. The spectacle will focus on tulips, daffodils and hyacinths for the initial two weeks of the show, followed by five weeks of dazzling lilies, alliums, iris and anemones. Click here to read more about the show and sign up for the Botanical Garden's ticket alert.

Look for our next newsletter on EVERYTHING about roses including the world's largest rose bush!


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