Sprucing Up the Garden Decor
by Carol Wallace
One of the advantages to having spring take an interminable time coming (there HAS to be an advantage or the anxious gardener would go nuts!) is that without all the greenery we can see exactly what needs painting and repair. The roses have been pruned back and it's clear that the arbor needs a new coat of paint, and the little stone benches tucked around the property have begun to peel. And after five years the gargoyle lamppost is starting to chip. And I've GOT to do something about all the odds and ends of mismatched pots scattered around the house and yard.
The soil may be too wet for gardening, but as long as it's not raining I can at least do something about these non-living elements in the garden. It's time to get out the sponges and go.
Yes - I said sponges. Not those flimsy little sponge brushes that they sell in the home improvement stores, but good, natural sea sponges. When I worked in theater I did most of my paint work with sponges and could achieve a fair imitation of anything from marble to fieldstone to stucco. Now I let them do the same kind of magic in my yard. Oh - I use a brush for a few things, and I'll need a few cans of spray paint - but sponge work is faster and a lot more fun.
Concrete lawn ornaments and benches
Take those "stone" benches scattered around the yard. They're cast concrete, of course - all that the budget will allow. But with a bit of spray paint and a sponge they can be transformed into a creditable imitation of the real thing.
I begin with a couple cans of metallic spray paint - whatever is on hand, which may be bronze or silver. I spray a few patches of each color randomly over the surface of the bench, letting it cover in some places and merely misting others.
Then, because our native stone is sort of buff and gray, I sponge on a grey colored latex paint (outdoor grade). I don't need to cover everything, and I do want to go a bit thin over the metallic paint so that the glint will shine through.
Finally I take a buff brown paint, thinned with one part water to 4 parts paint, and wipe it over the whole thing. I wipe thinly in spots to allow the grey and metallic paints to glimmer through. If there is any carving on the piece I use a brush to cover it and then wipe off the highlights, leaving darker paint to collect in the recesses - and then lightly sponge that color back over the highlights. If it looks too heavy I wipe with a rag. When it dries I can always sponge on a bit more thinned buff or gray, if I think it needs it - but essentially, I'm done and the bench looks like it was carved from native stone.
Over by the pond we have used old cobblestones instead of native stone; these appear much more gray than the fieldstone in the main garden, so I reverse the process and use the brown as an undercoat and the gray as a topcoat.
Now for the arbors. The big debate of the season is what color they should be this year. I've heard tastemakers like Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse pooh-pooh greens and absolutely forbid the use of white. But they don't garden in the same light that I do in Northeast Pennsylvania. I remember falling in love with the green used in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and coming home and painting all the furniture Paris green. In our light it absolutely GLARED at me - hurt the eyes - so I used the green as the basis for a faux verdigris paint job that was so convincing that people really thought we were lounging around on copper outdoor furniture. I'll tell you how to do that on a separate page, as it sounds rather involved although it is really quite foolproof. But verdigris won't suit a solid wood arbor. No way will anyone believe it's metal of any kind at all.
Right now it is a misty gray green that I rather like - but I also rather like experimenting. I am strongly considering using that silver-green as a base for a soft grey.
Since painting a large structure like this complete with rose canes can be complicated, I rely on my trusty sponge to make short work of it. Use the fine grained portion of that natural sea sponge and just dab it all over. A bit off the bottom color will come through, but it will look more like dappled light that anything else. And sponging is REALLY fast! Just make sure to vary the direction of the sponge as you dab.
You may ask why I don't just brush on a solid coat of paint and be done with it. I'll tell you - after years in a century old house with cracked and dented walls I've discovered that a broken finish like sponging or rag-rolling hides a multitude of sins. Cracks, dings, bumps and knotholes in wood, which would show up with plain paint or stain, disappear like magic when you use a "broken" one.
Metal furniture - Cast iron or cast aluminum
One of the reasons I am leaving that hint of green is that the cast aluminum furniture will be done in verdigris this year. It always looks so soft and so much like a natural weathering process that I prefer it to any solid color process. And the pale bluish-green color reflects the light so it's safe to sit down with bare legs even on hot days.
However, you can achieve a nice effect more simply by simply painting the pieces with a dark paint - our furniture came in a sort of gunmetal gray, but dark green or black would also work. Take a brush and dab a chalky colored pastel green or blue into any recesses and relief work on the furniture and wipe it off again with that trusty sponge. This really highlights the details, because the pastel paint remains in all of the low spots. On metal it looks like the sort of bloom old iron gets.
Having whipped through the big stuff I'm now down to the miscellany - pots and urns that are looking tired. Some match - but not many, and if I plan to do a grouping of container plants then I will want something that will tie that grouping together. And that's where color comes in. Mismatched containers start to look like they go together if they are all painted in the same finish.
I'm a firm believer in solid color containers with no decoration. Painted flowers might look pretty when the pot is empty - but plant in it and you've got a competition going between the real and the fake. Guess which one wins?
One year I took gloss black enamel and spray-painted the pots - they all took on the look of black Wedgwood jasperware. I was really pleased with this - but I'd only advise using it on shade containers or real heat lovers as black really soaks up the sun's rays.
Terra cotta pots take very well to being washed with color - pale and deep blues and pinks and peaches work well, as does white (which gives them that "aged" look.) Just take that trusty sponge again and dip it in diluted latex paint and wipe it over the pot's (clean) surface until you have the color depth you desire.
But what if you have some very special containers in need of a paint job - say a beautifully fluted concrete urn? You could do the stone finish I described at the start of this article. Of you could try "smooshing." This involved painting the container in the base color of your choice and letting it dry, and then creating a glaze to go over it. A mix of light and dark gray will give you a look like that of slate, but try using a pale cream glaze over and a deeper old ivory base and your piece will look like fine marble. All you do is mix 3 parts boiled linseed oil with one part turpentine to make a glaze. You can dissolve artists oil color in turpentine to color it - but I usually take my home-made glaze to the paint store and ask them nicely to tint it for me. I brush it all over the piece I am working on - it dries very slowly thanks to the linseed oil, so you have some leeway here - and then take a dry cleaners bag and just drape it over everything. It will stick to the wet glaze. Smoothe it down, wrinkle it a bit if you like - when you take it off you will see marble-like patterns where the bag lifted the glaze from the paint. Instant effect!
Sprucing up the hardscape doesn't have to be drudgery. You'll find that playing with custom effects like this is fun - and it really is faster than trying to get a solid coat of color over everything. Plus, it guarantees that the pieces in your yard are uniquely yours - as individual to you as your garden is.
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.