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Garden Gnomes Lend Life To an Ordinary Lawn

A woman lives in a small brown house across from the cemetery. Both the house and the cemetery face a shabby road lined by an auto-parts store, four fast-food restaurants, a used car lot, and several gas stations.

But the woman in the brown house has made her mark on the front yard. The patch of lawn, barely 20 by 20 feet, has blossomed with ornamentation.

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I have revised my thoughts on lawn decoration or, at least, begun to think about it again. I've never thought well of lawn ornaments. One ornament seems to suggest poor taste; two confirm it. But what am I to make of a dozen? What came first? I don't remember, but now there are gnomes, a mushroom, a gazing globe, a fawn at rest, a farmer, whirligigs, and a wheelbarrow. Marigolds in concrete blocks border the drive; there are two tires painted bright blue, planted with geraniums. The result is amazingly cheerful and oddly beautiful.

The woman has achieved a concentration of energy rarely seen in suburban America. Gardening is a popular activity these days, but most often the result seems too carefully considered. The ornamental planting is surrounded by a foreign border of bark. The smooth lawn stretches from the street to the planting. Then come the tasteful evergreens, a few dashes of color, and the house, showing its quiet side to the world. All life is lived in the backyard, I suppose.

Suburban America looks down its nose at people who keep too much "stuff" in the front yard.

I think the gardens that interest us are not gardens of Zen-like simplicity, although sometimes these arrangements happen naturally and then are satisfying. But the garden that draws us, that takes our breath away, is the garden in which color and texture fight up out of the ground and tangle for space and sun. Something in which the human hand is not too obvious. A wild space.

Perhaps this is what drives our passion for gardening. We plant and plant, trying to achieve a concentration of energy on our circumscribed plots of ground. We hold down the corners with hedges, trees, borders, and beds, somehow hoping to infuse something sacred into that space. We want it to be beautiful (by which we mean inspirational, rejuvenating, absorbing), but our plans are tame, proper, tasteful. Most of us don't get it right, and we know it. We hunger for the bountiful and complex. We achieve landscaping.

The woman in the brown house has got it right. Lawn ornamentation is not gardening. But she has transcended decoration and burst into something approaching devotional art.

In her small yard, pressed up against macadam and cars, she's made a space that boils with color, shape, and spirit. Something wildly her own. When I drive by, I want to roll down the window, sound the horn, and shout, "Yes!"

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