Whimsy Must Live

Over at Garden Rant, in a post entitled “Whimsy Must Die” and the follow-up “Couldn’t Resist“, people are going off, once again, about ugly, tacky gardens.

Despite the last fiasco (which I will not link to here), I find myself surprised by how many people take very real offence to a front yard covered in garden gnomes and other so-called kitsch ornamentation — most especially gardeners whose outdoor aesthetic choices are often unfairly subject to the neighbourhood judge and jury. If I came across any of the yards shown in the Garden Rant posts while walking around my own town or any other, I’d snap a few photos and walk away with a big smile on my face.

Look, I’m not above talking crap about an ugly garden (Hello, red-dyed mulch). We all have our own opinions and it’s okay to be decisive and critical about the things we see on display in the public sphere.

But at the end of the day, I’d defend the crassest, tackiest displays of pure cheese (within reason. eg. serious environmental concerns) on principle. I may believe that my own taste is IMPECCABLE and above snide remarks, but I don’t want to live in a kitsch-less world devoid of tacky ornamentation. Walking past the same tastefully designed front garden is BORING. In fact, this kind of homogenous tastefulness is slowly taking over the neighbourhoods surrounding my apartment as older Portuguese and immigrant families are being displaced by rich people who hire the same garden designers. The gardens look nice enough, but holy god is it ever getting dull.

Gone are the interesting religious shrines and tires painted white and cut into the shape of tulips. I miss them.

Case in point: There’s a garden around the way from where I live that looks like a dollar store threw up all over it. Imagine every single cheaply made plastic whirlygig and abomination on a stick you’ve ever seen — this garden has one. I’ve made many side remarks to friends in passing. “Dear god, look at all of the rubber ducks.” “Oh look, it’s got a dancing salmon, too.” Once the snickering is done, we always agree that if that garden was replaced by a cluster of ornamental grasses and some carefully arranged rocks, we’d be disappointed.

For me, it comes down to the fact that the artists behind these masterpieces are having fun. And they are fearlessly bringing their individuality out into the open to share with the world, good taste be damned.

Last week, while walking with a friend to the CNE — a yearly pilgrimage for purveyors of bad taste and even worse food — we chatted about gardening in the city and how one of the best things multiculturalism and immigration has done for Toronto (among many good things) is show the old guard keeping-up-with-the-Jones’-types how to let go a little.

A front yard slathered in melting stuffed animals fills me with as much joy and wonder as a well-tended bed overflowing with horticultural gems. What matters is the enthusiasm of the gardener and their willingness to put it out there. Call it tacky, tasteless, crass, kitsch, embarrassing, ugly, cheap, crude, or whatever you want, but the day whimsy is killed off for good will be a sad day indeed.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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33 thoughts on “Whimsy Must Live

  1. Oh. my. gawd. That yard is awesome, in a brings back memories of the circus kind of way. If you break a window which one of the prizes do you win?

    I came across a garden similar to this once, although there was less comic book and cartoon figures and more just big-eyed garden ‘art.’

  2. Your post reminded me about growing up in my grandparents’ neighborhood in Detroit. Their street was a mix of little old Italian ladies and little old Polish ladies. The garden kitsch was top-notch. It was a neighborhood that made me very happy as a kid. It was colorful, it was playful, and everywhere you looked, there was something different to see. I miss that — places like that are hard to find.

  3. I have no problem at all with people wanting to add personality to their yards and gardens – I actually really enjoying seeing a yard with some weird colorful sculpture that I wouldn’t in a million years put in my garden, or a DIY wind chime made of rusty old spoons. I support creativity and uniqueness! Who cares if someone has 500 lawn gnomes in their front yard – I am impressed that one could acquire so many!

    What gives me the right to judge other people’s personal preferences and tastes? Maybe someone hates my garden design.

    I say that as long as things are well maintained, aren’t physically hurting anyone and are not affecting the environment in a negative way, let them eat cake (or have 500 garden gnomes).

  4. My heart swells with love for each of those gardeners who exert great effort to beautify their space for their neighbors to enjoy. They’re also the ones sweeping up maple helicopers, unclogging street sewers, scrubbing sidewalks & steps, redelivering misdirected mail, greeting passerbys.

  5. Art is what moves us or inspires us and is very personal. I don’t have to love yours, you don’t have to love mine.

  6. Great response post. I’m all for a contest over at GardenRant for the yard with the most “whimsy.”

    I’m surprised at how much furor the post is causing. I’m kind of sad at people latching onto the judgment thing. I’m not against whimsy so much as I am at homogeneity. Whether it be stuff or plants, I’m just sick of seeing the same thing in gardens over and over again, whether it be Buddhas or pinwheels. If you use your pinwheels and flamingos in a way that is creative and tongue-in-cheek, I’ve got nothing but respect for that.

  7. I’ve got nothing but respect for someone who chooses to get out in their yard and do something, period. Whether it’s creative or not is irrelevant. If they enjoy it, it’s enough. And it also doesn’t matter how many of them I’ve seen. If the person who bought it likes it, who cares about anything else?

  8. Amen sister. We are so hemmed in with rules and regulations everywhere we go. I love that people feel free to express themselves in the garden. I have actually been inspired by some of things that I have seen. I would rather look at a whimsical garden over a HOA garden any day of the week. Can you image living in a community that regulated the color of your flowers.

  9. Yes! My favorite neighborhood garden is the one up the hill with two dwarf cherry trees with matching bowl cuts, and little plastic monkeys swinging in them. Yea!

  10. We have a house in our neighborhood that goes all out for Easter….eggs hanging from trees (look! it’s an Easter egg tree!), blow up bunnies, life size chocolate bunnies (Oh how I wish they were real), baskets and grass galore. But the gem? The two front bushes have been grown and shaped like giant easter baskets, and every year, are filled with plastic eggs. We go every year to see what they’ve added to the collection. We’ve made up stories as to why they love Easter so much. We’ve had family from out of town visiting and want to take photos in front of the Easter house. I figure if people have that much love, dedication and satisfaction with decorating their garden, I can’t but be in awe of it all.

  11. thanks for posting this. i walked home one night and decided to snap a pic of the one-yard-show. the person sweeping the street in front of the house said he was the son of the person who created and maintained this masterpiece. the son said this with tears in his eyes as he remembered his father. sadly, there probably are those who would still be rude about the decor even after seeing his devotion to his father’s memory. i suppose we should learn to laugh just as much at a perfectly turned leaf as we should learn why we laugh at these perfectly placed kitsch.

  12. You are my new hero. Of course everyone should have the right to display their kitschy items whether gnomes, flamingos, deer or geese in bonnets. Although I don’t display a lot of doodads I applaud someone who does. They make me smile and bring joy to the home owner.

  13. Agreed! I live in a Hispanic neighborhood that had a lot of front yard ‘bathtub Mary’ shrines surrounded by wonderful, chaotic hodge-podges of colorful flowers & veggies in the middle of the front yards when I moved in just 3 years ago. But they’re slowly being replaced with boring lawns & lackluster evergreen plants surrounded by brown mulch as the neighborhood gets bought up and gentrified. It no longer has the interesting diversity that brought me here- you can see thousands of slight variations of the these dull yards anywhere in the country. The whimsical gardens add sparkle, light and cheer to my neighborhood and I’m sad to see them go.

    Three cheers for whimsy! I think I’ll add a little more to my garden today.

  14. Wow! There is a garden we pass on our way out of town which has cast off toys, tricycles, big wheels, and little tykes vehicles stacked on top of each other in sculptural fashion. It makes me chuckle every time I see it! :D

  15. Ciao Gayla-

    Bravo, girl. I completely agree. One of our neighbours and I have an ongoing dispute regarding what he thinks is appropriate to grow in my front yard. It has to do with how close he likes to park the new truck he bought that could pull a herd of horses. I choose to grow tall plants like ornamental corn or millet or cosmos that has a mind of its own, mostly so I don’t have to look at the truck. Ok, so I don’t have to look at the truck or his wife’s Stepford garden of ’50′s lipstick pink impatiens and begonias. Even their inukshuks look like they were created in an Easy-Clone Oven. But hey, to each their own.

    If you ever come across a giant lighted Nativity scene on Craigslist, let me know.

  16. My wife and I run a small yard maintenance company…. it’s actually a Jim’s Mowing Franchise out in B.C. and we have come across so many instances where our customer’s want us to hall away their plants…. they don’t care where they go…..well… u guessed it they’re in our yard. Our yard has become a have of redeemed plants from numerous generous customers over the years!

  17. I’ve seen and played in beautiful, meticulously designed gardens from this side of the globe and back, but nothing holds more interest for than me than the whimsical gardens. If whimsy dies, my heart curls up and dies along with it. Bottle trees, junk statues, even just junk and rubble, I long to see and capture it all. (Besides, when playing in a “fancy garden” in Italy a swan bit me. I will always remember that as a lesson about not trusting pretty things…)

    But I do have dinosaur toys & other insanity on my fireplace mantle (http://bit.ly/aWy1vX) so I’m a little biased…

  18. Good thing that day will never come – not while I, or any of the other brave folks who embrace their guilty pleasures still live!

    I’m over snooty gardeners…and I’ve only been gardening for about a year, minus the garden I had as a child. Live and let live! Everything living is beautiful in its own way, and as for tacky decorations…the fact that we have time for all this functionally-useless stuff is a blessing in itself and a sign of how good our lives are.

  19. Is the first picture in the post the front of the Bovine Sex Club? We visited Toronto a few years ago and ended up there every night, They usually had some good live music.

  20. that house is one of my fav landmarks in my neighbourhood… i can give you the address of another that’s just a few blocks away.

    to heck with tasteful… anyone can buy that at home depot!

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