Finding Your Inner Kitsch


July 11, 2016: As an arborist, I've had to deliver the sad news to a tree owner that their tree is dying and probably ought to come down. The aftermath is a stump, to which the typical solutions are to have the stump ground out or leave it standing like a headstone at Arlington Cemetery. I would posit a third solution - to turn it into a piece of outdoor art.

Northwestern Oregon is the Chainsaw Bear Capital of the World. . . . I don't actually have data to support that , but drive down any rural road where there's more than 10 people living and I'd bet you a latte that one of those 10 have a chainsaw carved bear on the property. Bears are the bread and butter of chainsaw carvers. "People like them. People want them. We carve 'em" , one carver told me, though I could tell his inner artistic self was frustrated by the crass public marketplace.

The possibilities for a stump are only limited by its size and the talents and imagination of the carver. Everyone has probably driven by a chainsaw carving roadstand. There are even "galleries" where chainsaw art is displayed and sold. Tres chic. But, fortunately for you and your stump, there are also onsite carvers that will come to your property and give that stump a new creative life, for a price. How much does stump carving cost? It's variable depending on size and complexity of the carving but rough estimates I've seen range from $100-$200 a vertical foot for carvings under 5' and $200-$300/foot for taller ones (they usually need scaffolding).

If you're a DIY kind of person, you can try stump carving yourself, though I would highly recommend that you have a good practical background in chainsaw safety, use and sharpening. . I, myself, have taken to stump carving and have found it to be relaxing and meditative. There's nothing like having a screaming chainsaw in my hand and breathing that outdoor air mixed with 2 cycle exhaust to bring out my creative inner self and be at one with the stump. Chanting "OM" over the top of the chainsaw also helps to enhance the awakening process.

I carve morel mushrooms. . . . that's pretty much all I carve, though I have begun a new and exciting project recently - a chantrelle. I'll never do a bear. There are enough of them and being the stump snob that I have become I would recommend that you not either. Should you be faced with the question of "What do I do with that stump?" Below are some eclectic stumps for thought to get your creative sap flowing. P.S. - If you want a stump carved, it starts before the tree removal. Have the tree service leave 4- 8' of stump (it can always be trimmed down to eventual height).

I hope this inspires you to keep the stump grinder out of your yard. And if it's a morel you want (or perhaps in the future, a chantrelle), you know who to contact.

By Guess Who?By Guess Who?


Nov. 30, 2016: I was originally going to write on garden statuary but, when looking at its breadth and diversity, I realized that within the space of a blog it's a bit like covering the history of the Roman Empire on the back of a postcard. Instead I will focus my efforts on two iconic lawn statues , the first and the focus of this article is the lawn jockey.

Jocko modelJocko modelNo lawn statuary has ever generated the strong emotions that the lawn jockey has. Many consider it to be overtly racist. I will leave that judgment to you, gentle reader, and will focus on how the lawn jockey came to be. Unlike the pink flamingo, there is no exact date of when the jockey came into existence. It's past is shrouded in myth. One of the most enduring myths is that the lawn jockey was first erected by George Washington at Mount Vernon.

The legend of Jocko goes something like this. When George Washington was crossing Delaware to attack the British at Trenton, he had a young black horse groom by the name of Jocko whom Washington had told to stay behind and take care of the horses. Jocko wanted to come but George said he was too Chinaman Jockey 1910Chinaman Jockey 1910young. It was very cold that night and Jocko froze to death while holding the horses. GW was so distraught that he erected a statute of Jocko at his homestead and named it 'The Faithful Groomsman". It's a pretty touching story however there is no written evidence from Mt Vernon or anyone visiting it that such a statue existed. Maybe it was hidden away behind that cherry tree.

Another legend has the lawn jockey adorning residences just prior to the Civil War. Some lawn jockey owners that were part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves to escape to the North, would tie a red ribbon on the arm of the jockey to indicate it wasn't safe to approach the house and a green ribbon to say it was safe. Again, no historical evidence exists to support this legend either.

Cavalier modelCavalier modelLawn jockey historians (yes there are some! A great site for further edification is ) somewhat concur that sometime during or shortly after the Civil War the first documented lawn jockeys appeared. There were several models of lawn jockeys but the most prevalent were the Jocko model and, in the 1940's, a Caucasian version called the Cavalier. There was once even a Chinaman version. Legend has it that a Chinaman accidently blew himself up while making gunpowder for George Washington's army and a distraught Washington . . . .actually I just made that up, but I think it has the bones of a good legend, don't you?

You can still buy both the Jocko or the Cavalier models today either in aluminum or concrete. Older cast iron models can go for thousands of dollars.

I myself do not own a lawn jockey but I believe it's time for a new lawn jockey. One without the taint of racial or ethnic bigotry. One that holds forth the lamp of progress while at the same time hearkening back to a more simpleton era when America was great. And so, I am developing my own new lawn jockey I call the Billionaire model.

Die makers, here's your chance to get in on the ground floor of America's newest and greatest phase of lawn statuary. Billions await!

Billionaire modelBillionaire model


Nov. 15, 2016: There are so many things when it comes to kitsch on sticks, I don't know where to begin. I'm thinking it'd be a book instead of a blog. But I've got to start somewhere and to me, there is no better place than the quintessential kitsch on a stick - the bottle tree.

Take a small dead tree, cut off the branches leaving 6-12" long stubs and jam bottles on those stubs and you've got a bottle tree. If you're handy with a welding torch you can make some fancy and realistic looking bottle trees with rebar. You can even buy premade or DIY kits for bottle trees. Colored glass wine bottles look best and it's also best to take the labels off. Otherwise people might mistake you for a drunk who can't recycle rather than the chic artist that you are.

I can't recall seeing a bottle tree in the Pacific Northwest but I have seen plenty in the Southeast. The bottle tree concept came to the Southeast with African slaves. I would often times see them at the rural homes of older African Americans in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

The bottle tree did not originate as a landscape design feature. It was employed as evil spirit defense. Evil spirits could be enticed into the colorful glass bottles (usually at night, when evil spirits are about) and then could not find their way out again. When the sun came up in the morning, it would then cook and kill the spirits, kind of like my yellowjacket trap on the porch. Cobalt blue bottles are reputed to be the best at catching spirits.

There is even an outdoor bottle tree museum located in the desert outside of Barstow, California called Bob's Bottle Tree Ranch. I've not been there, but it's on my bucket list. So when it comes to evil spirits in the garden, let's be frank - you got them, I got them, we all got them. What's it going to hurt to try a bottle tree. It'll be a great conversation piece plus save you all the embarrassment of sticking your recycle bin out on the curb filled to the brim with wine bottles.

At some point, when kitsch becomes camp is it still kitsch? Not in my opinion and nothing is more campier kitsch than pink flamingos. First produced in 1957 by Union Products it marked the beginning of plastic lawn ornaments. Back then, there was a certain utility behind the tackiness. In a time of Levittown like subdivisions where all the houses looked the same, you might just be able to differentiate your home from the neighbors by the pink flamingos in the yard particularly after the office Christmas party.

Like much lawn art, pink flamingos faded in popularity until Sears, the major vendor of them discontinued sales in 1971. But then, like a phoenix rising, they were rediscovered by the baby boomers as a symbol of non-conformist rebellion. Pink flamingos began sprouting back up again as statement of chic bad taste. Flamingos became campy birthday and wedding gifts. They began showing up in art museums and galleries. They showed up at campsites! Just go to any Airstream camper gathering and I guarantee you'll find an armada of flamingoes. There is even a fundraising company that will "flamingo flock" a lucky neighbor for your charity. Evidently friends can choose another friend and buy a flock of plastic flamingos that they will secretly, at night, festoon their friend's (the victim) lawn with and the victim must then pay a daily ransom until they are removed. It's called "flocking a friend".

Pink flamingos are not native to the Pacific Northwest nor should they be when it comes to lawn ornaments. When it comes to Pacific Northwest lawn ornaments you can't get much local than the Garden Yeti (Sasquatch). From 2' to a lifesize 6' tall this hand painted all-weather plastic lawn ornament starts at only $117 and is available from most Bigfoot product vendors. Nothing says Northwest kitsch and you can always paint it pink, if you've a mind to.

There is so much more garden stuff on sticks I'd loved to cover such as Granny Fannies, Curious Squirrel, and my personal favorite and creation Edvard Munch's The Scream on a stick (Special web price: $1199.00). I'll just have to save it for the book.
Edvard Munch's Scream-on-a-Stick, $1199.00 website specialEdvard Munch's Scream-on-a-Stick, $1199.00 website special


September 17, 2016:When I was a landscape teacher, there was an area on the campus that was hidden behind a pole barn. Myself and some students thought it would be a nice idea to make a little garden and, since it was relatively hidden from view, we thought we had the freedom to do some experimental design. What developed was a sanctuary of whimsy we called the Garden of Kitsch.

"Kitsch" is a German word and is defined as "considered to be in poor taste but appreciated in an ironic or knowing way". In German, its synonymous with "cheesyness" and "tackyness". It tends to be a pejorative term but I say, what the hell is the matter with being cheesy?

Our Garden of Kitsch had tire planters (called Crown Jewels, described later in the article), a bathtub shrine of the Madonna, a bottle tree, a hubcap tree, pink flamingos and the quintessential wooden cutouts of the fat farmer and his fat wife bending over. I was very proud of our garden, but that pride was not shared by our college administration (who are seldom hired for their ironic wit and whimsy). Alas, the garden never made the campus tours and when I retired, it fell into disrepair. I can only hope that, millennia from now, archaeologists might uncover its remains and say that this early primitive educational center was indeed more far advanced than we had supposed.

Life can be serious and landscape design can be very serious and often full of itself. Kitsch and whimsy can add a playfulness to a garden, some believe. I, myself, use kitsch as a form of defiance, a way to stick my finger into the eyes of the landscape Nazis who would tell us how our yards should look. If you too want to stand up and lower the resale value of your property at the same time, embrace garden kitsch with me!! But I dirant (that's digress + rant, old folks know what I mean).

And so, I embark on a series exploring garden kitsch, in which will be covered: Stuff on Sticks; Gnomes, Lawn Jockeys, and Other Statue Stuff, Household Appliances, and the first of the series, now:


The most ubiquitous usage of tires in the landscape is the tire planter. And the epitome of tire planters is Crown jewelsCrown jewelsthe Crown Jewel. "Crown Jewel" is what these planters are called in the deep South and they're as much a part of the Old South as pecan pie and sweet tea. Basically, a crown jewel is a tire turned inside out. Let me tell you one sumthin' there's a trick to turning it inside out.

You must first get you the right tire. Not any tire will do. You have to check for flexibility where the tire tread meets the sidewall. If you can push that in with your fist a couple inches, it can be turned out. If not, find another one. Steel belt or regular tread shouldn't matter, the lower the ply (sidewall thickness) the easier to turn. One sidewall is cut either into fringes, triangles, or scalloped and then using strength (preferably of two people) you push the tire inside out. It ends up looking similar to the beanie that Jughead used to wear in the Archie Comics (Millennials, please see picture).

Since we're proud of creating a thing of beauty and utility out something that would end up in a landfill, we want to draw attention to it, usually by planting it with bold light colors such as chartreuse or bubblegum pink. 'Course you can stick your finger in the eyes of those tire planter Nazis by painting it any damn color you wish, just keep in mind that dark colors absorb heat and in the limited soli volume of a planter it may cause excessive soil temperatures. When painting, first make sure to wash the tire with soap and water or a degreaser and then a coating of primer can help the paint to adhere. Properly painted tires are kitsch, paint peeling from tires is tacky!

With some internet research you can find many more creative ways to use tires in the garden. There are Tire SwanTire Swaneven tire artists who create sophisticated tire sculptures. In a world of increasing eco-awareness, recycled tire art is becoming de rigueur. You don't have to be white trash to use trashed tires anymore.

Wall mounted plantersWall mounted planters

F & P