Garden Gnomes: Invite These Industrious Little Men Into Your Yard

We're partial to garden gnomes at HGTV.


Crazy for gnomes.

Crazy for gnomes.

For some women it’s chocolate. For other women, shoes. For me, it’s garden gnomes.

I’m not sure where my gnome-love originated: perhaps a magical stint living in Germany—gnome ground zero—as a child? But I fight a strong gnome-in-the-garden urge that makes my garden run the risk of an all-out kitsch assault. There is just something about their wry-to-wizened looks, the barista beards, the cute overalls barely containing their plump bellies. Gnomes spell garden productivity to me. Though they originated in 19th century Germany and were initially intended to ward off evil interlopers, to me gnomes are talismans and good luck charms that you tuck beneath your dill or hostas to ensure all will grow right.

Choosing the right garden gnome, however, can be a challenge. Some are so hyper-articulated “cute” they make Rankin-Bass holiday specials look restrained. As a rule I don’t think you should heap kitsch upon kitsch, so I am not a fan of the football team jersey attired gnome or the biker-girl gnome.

Celebrating Garden Gnomes and their History 02:55

I am wary of gnomes with a slightly sinister appearance, that veer from the grandfatherly into the street-corner drunkard realm. 

I have a bleached-out gnome on my porch right now that wind and weather have not treated well. He’s the ghost-gnome. Close to becoming scary-gnome.

The garden gnome lexicon is characterized by reoccurring characters as familiar as Seinfeld’s Kramer or Don Draper’s conscience. There is Productive Gnome, working a wheelbarrow or ax, ready to get down to business. His antithesis is the Odalisque Gnome: he balances Productive Gnome by perpetually kicking back while Productive does all the work. He often smokes a pipe or closes his eyes for a brief nap that develops into a two-hour work stoppage.

The Odalisque Gnome is very much like Burt Reynolds in his famous 1973 Cosmopolitan cheesecake pose. The gnome resource Zwergli Gnomes features those kicking-back, leisure-gnome.

Though Chattanooga’s Rock City is the more famous gnome-habitat, my hometown of Atlanta has its own garden gnome enclave at the Atlanta Botanical Garden where a tucked away grotto harbors the mischievous creatures. Gnomes are the subject of some controversy too, banned — along with bunting, flags and balloons — from the ne plus ultra of chichi gardening, England’s Chelsea Flower Show, for their lowbrow associations.

Perhaps the ultimate design send-up of the gnome came in 1999 when French designer Philippe Starck reimagined this kitsch icon as the Kartell gnome stool and lowbrow transmogrified into highbrow. For me Starck’s tongue-in-cheek stool — which I covet — presents a challenge. Do I leave my gnome fascination at the door or let it cross the threshold and take over my home too?

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