Chances are that your garden is your playground: a place to unwind, putter, and let your heart be light. Gardening can be a hit-or-miss endeavor, however. A sudden cold snap can dash all hopes of early tomatoes. Water restrictions can shrivel the watermelons. Aphids, nematodes and things that go munch in the night all take their toll on the serious gardener’s sanity.

Perhaps that is why gardeners are compelled not only to say it with flowers but with ornaments and art. When natural creations falter, human creations may compensate or console. A recent tour of several Triangle gardens indicate that the more earnest the gardener, the more lighthearted the garden’s accessories.

When the phlox fail, the salvias succumb and the deer decimate the daylilies, lawn art comes to the rescue. A pink flamingo or two, or perhaps several dozen–following the example set by one popular Durham gardener–can help you forget your losses. A few strategically placed gazing balls (or perhaps 70, like the same legendary flamingo woman) can cheer even the most disheartened planter.

But instead of running out to buy plastic deer and bunnies or sundry other lawn accessories, there are a lot of great do-it-yourself ideas that can jazz up your garden and help the planet at the same time. That’s the idea that a friend had when she picked up a basket full of discarded ceramic tiles at the Habitat for Humanity Reuse Center in Raleigh, and used them to build edging for a garden bed. Not only is she helping cut down landfill waste, but the nominal charge for their materials goes to helping others have a home of their own. Many of their items are new, discarded only due to purchasing errors.

The Scrap Exchange in Durham is another treasure trove of materials that can be recycled by an enterprising garden enthusiast. As Director Pat Hoffman explains, “We are the only local source of industrial discards available to the public. For next to nothing, you can get a fabulous array of odds and ends that you can turn into practically anything.”

As an example, Hoffman mentions Karen Stark of Durham, whose porch is festooned with decorative fish pieced together from recycled materials she gathered at the Scrap Exchange. Stark also created a festive Statue of Liberty and a life-sized Elvis from plastic industrial waste–the perfect scarecrow and pick-me-up should the petunias start to droop.

Local artist Bryant Holsenbeck, is also a Scrap Exchange fan. Recently acclaimed for her bottle-cap mandala project at Duke, Holsenbeck is an avid gardener and ecology activist. Her birdhouses made from chopsticks, pencils and castoff pieces of rubber are just the beginning. With a delicious sense of humor, she incorporates found objects with natural materials, creating environmentally correct fun. Sprinkling these objects throughout her gardens, she has created a charming and inspiring outdoor space.

If you’re looking for more ideas for bringing a light-hearted spirit to your garden, head for The Last Unicorn, near the Chatham-Orange County line in Chapel Hill. Owner Gaines Steer says he sells acres of ideas, but actually, the ideas are free. The other goodies, not free, are the hundreds of wrought iron gates, house fixtures, antiques, stained glass and architectural salvage that he has gleefully tucked under shrubs, against towering pines and throughout the meandering woodland pathways. How about a small coal-fire grate? Inexpensive, it just needs a bit of scrubbing and it would make a dandy little patio table. You could fill it with sand, stick some shells or toys on top and then cap it with beveled glass. Set it up between a couple of his iron bistro chairs and presto! You’ve got a cheerful conversation corner with loads of personality. Steer’s quirky sense of humor is the perfect antidote for gardeners with a case of taking themselves too seriously.


f course, not everyone has the time or creative flair to turn salvage materials and trash into garden art. Luckily, the Triangle has a wealth of artists who do exactly that.

For instance, Cally Warner in Chapel Hill is an aficionado of rusty old farm equipment. Deeply concerned about the disappearing farmlands in North Carolina, she honors our agricultural heritage by scavenging pieces of tractors, harrows, drive chains and other machinery. Then she incorporates them into functional art for the home and garden. She welds old harrow disks onto chain links, creating elegant birdbaths, while an old Ford truck grill is transformed into an outdoor lamp. She has planted iron bed frames as railings that lead down her home’s steep hillside garden. She wraps them in outdoor holiday lights for a joyful effect: truly a gardener with a sense of humor.

David Sparrow, a Durham artist, has directed his welding torch toward more single-minded pursuits. In the middle of a quiet downtown neighborhood, there is an overflowing garage where you can find him stacking wheels, gears and factory junk, all so that he can make spinning, twirling, clacking, ringing and utterly joyful folk art. Sparrow is an artist and connoisseur of whirligigs. Not any namby-pamby wooden toys, mind you. We’re talking big whirligigs, extraordinary whirligigs that stand at the top of metal poles and spin with wheels that once rolled bicycles and wheelchairs. His art is made almost entirely from used and reclaimed materials, brightly painted in meticulous detail with a naive exuberance.

Although he is somewhat shy about his passion, only rarely appearing at art shows, Sparrow is not only doing good for the environment by finding new uses for landfill-bound discards, but he is doing good for the soul, bringing whimsy to our outdoor spaces.

Chatham County artist Steve Cote (pronounced “co’-tee”) is also renowned for his ability to transform scrap and waste metals into lively outdoor art. Like Warner, he has a fondness for preserving beautiful, hand-forged farm equipment parts. His art is representational, however, and brimming with droll humor. He creates sunflowers from harrow and tractor pieces. His Noah’s Ark, complete with animals, is made from bits and pieces of found metal and salvaged junk. His latest work, a life-sized Noah, was featured recently at the prestigious Art in the Garden Sculpture Invitational outside of Chapel Hill. Cote’s work is full of a lively spirit that would bring a smile to even the most beleaguered gardener.

Like his friend Cote, Carrboro artist Mike Roig is a popular local artist who is committed to eco-friendly outdoor art. Using scrap, salvaged and found metals, his work is featured at Weaver Street Market, The Last Unicorn, Niche Gardens and more. He particularly enjoys creating art for large public spaces, but a visit to his home reveals that he has a flair for the more personal side of outdoor art as well. Tucked throughout the gardens surrounding his home, he reveals a playful nature with his birds, bells, and whimsical imaginary animals.

Lyle Estill of The Moncure Chessworks is one of the best-known local artists creating outdoor art on a grand scale. Famed for his life-sized chess figures, including the set at the Totten Center in the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, Estill is an avid environmentalist. He travels throughout the state reclaiming old lawn mower wheels, broken underwater pool lights and discarded stone crushers from quarries. Where the ordinary eye might see only rusting trash, Estill envisions kings, queens, knights and pawns. Melding manganese, stainless steel and brass, he etches pictures of plants and animals into the metal, creating themes that celebrate biodiversity or rare native plants.

In the Triangle, we have a thriving niche of local artists and support resources that not only serve the more serious side of environmentally aware gardeners, but also provide the much-needed element of fun and relaxation. After all, isn’t fun and relaxation why we are gardening in the first place? EndBlock