I mean, WHO could bring themselves to doom such innocent creatures to ignoble ends?
That’s what I think, every time I drop off sacks of metal soup cans, glass, cardboard, and plastic at the “tip” (recycling center) of Darwen, Lancashire, where I have to pass a forlorn phalanx of cast-off garden creatures carefully rescued from the waste stream by kindhearted workers.
And perhaps the saddest of all, amidst the oversized concrete snails, chipped ceramic Buddhas and faded Snow Whites, are the crumbling old garden gnomes – most still smiling as if they were just on a holiday outing, not realizing they have been binned, their dedicated garden deeds done.
A lucky few are adopted by softies like me, including a clanful for my own garden. Overlooking an occasional missing tool or body part, and all in sore need of fresh paint, I like to think there’s karma in helping rehome old gnomes into welcoming home grounds.
Where It All Started
Small replicas of guardian creatures have been celebrated in ancient cultures, from shape-shifting Japanese bakemono and tengu to blushingly-bawdy Roman stone Priapus figurines. Both the Egyptian god Geb, and Kubera from India were short-statured protectors of Earth and its treasures.
But because this blog is just about cheery garden gnomes, I don’t want to get into the creepy folklore of South American duendes, or the variations of mythical (and sometimes irritable, or downright malevolent little critters (hobbits, pixies, imps, dwarfs, fairies, elves, leprechauns, pucks, jinns (geniis), brownies, Nordic nisses and tomtes), or the tales of “little feet” creatures from native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Let’s just say their ilk have cropped up throughout history in nearly every culture.
Paracelsus, famed Swiss alchemist of the 16th century Renaissance movement, first described gnomes – from genomos meaning “earth dweller” – as “diminutive figures two spans in height who did not like to mix with humans” and as guardians of the Earth elements.
Wood, porcelain, and terracotta gartenzwerge – garden gnomes as we know them now – started circulating in the early 1800s Germany and hit Big Time when in 1847 Sir Charles Isham imported nearly two dozen to his English garden; Lampy, the lone survivor – arguably England’s first immigrant gnome – is insured for a million pounds sterling (about 1.3 million dollars).
NOT UNIVERSALLY APPRECIATED
It’s been said that kitsch, which appeals mostly to popular rather than high art tastes, is “less about the thing observed than about the observer.” Like pink flamingos – the most loved-to-be-hated garden icon – gnomes are usually best appreciated in a humorous or deliberately-ironic way.
Still, not everyone “gets” garden gnomes (or flamingos or anything else fanciful). In fact, de-gnoming a garden has become a thing; Harry Potter’s friends (who saw gnomes as common garden pests resembling potatoes with legs) got rid of a few wearing heavy gloves, and swinging them overhead and tossing them out of the garden.
In a sinister twist, members of the international Garden Gnome Liberation Front and copycat groups have been fined and even imprisoned for stealing garden gnomes and setting them free in forests, which they claim is the natural habitat of gnomes.
On a happier note, I actually made a special side trip in the south of England to frolic in The Gnome Reserve, a four-acre pastoral and forested refuge where over 2000 gnomes are free to be themselves.
There are other gnome refuges, including the European Gnome Sanctuary in the Tuscany region of Italy and a sprawling Gnomesville about two hours south of Perth in western Australia that boasts so many it’s almost depressing, with thousands of the little critters crammed, rucksack-to-rucksack but with fixed grins, into “neighborhoods” that almost look like cheery refugee camps.
GNOMES GET THE RHS NOD
In 2013 I was thrilled at the 100th anniversary Chelsea Flower Show to attend the unveiling of the first gnomes officially allowed to participate in the upscale show gardens – all hand painted by superstars including Elton John. The ban was lifted after the elf-loving organizers of the Royal Horticulture Society were targeted as snobs by garden-variety gnome enthusiasts.
First gnomes officially welcomed to the Chelsea Flower Show in a century
In what could be said to be the most heart-breaking line in The Full Monty movie, when a hapless member of the dysfunctional dance troupe saw his angry wife shatter his favorite gnome, he could only stammer “I thought you LIKED them…” to which she chillingly replied “I never liked them, Gerald.” Ouch.
I think it’s fortuitous that most gnomes are clad in conical top-flopping red or green Phrygian caps which for centuries have signified freedom and the pursuit of liberty.
There are countless contemporary gnome gknockoffs (sorry), from skeleton and zombie gnomes to naked misfits doing all sorts of rude things (here’s one “adults only” site). But in general gnomes are cheery, helpful, humble, and encouraging. Most keep to the spirit of gardening, and that’s good.
All this aside, I’m doing my part, emancipating cast-off older gnomes with help from the guys at the recycling center, and repatriating them into welcoming gardens where they represent a spirit too often suppressed.
Can we get along? In a bittersweet moment, three gnomes who were re-homed from the Darwen tip in February 2019, had to be cleaned up a bit – but weren’t happy to be soaked in Fairy washing up soap (gnomes and fairies aren’t overly fond of one another).
Now… won’t you do your part – it isn’t just old dogs in need of rescuing!