Okay, hands up. Who owns a garden gnome? Confess, now. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll confess. I have one. I call him Darth Spader, not that his name reflects any ambition to take up a shovel and help out. He prefers instead to hang out unobtrusively behind a shrub.
Gnomes have seen their popularity rise in recent years thanks largely to the Hobbit movies, but I don’t believe this has had any effect on the status of garden gnomes. Polls show they are somewhat less popular than stray cats in a garden, even though they cause far fewer problems.
Some find garden gnomes cute while others find them repulsive. Why, the Royal Horticultural Society considers coloured figures of all kinds, whether gnomes, fairies or similar creatures, unacceptable at any shows. And the little folk have always been persona non grata at the venerable old Chelsea Flower Show.
I’m showing support for the garden gnome because it is Oktoberfest, and garden gnomes do have a strong Teutonic background. The origin of gnomes hasn’t been as thoroughly researched as that of humans, but it does appear that the first clay garden gnome (der Gartenzwerg) was made in Graeferoda, Thuringia, Germany in the 1800's. While a first recorded appearance of a garden gnome in England was around 1840 at the estate of Sir Charles Isham, the 10th Baronet of Lamport Hall.
Not only are gnomes part of the landscape in Germany, for a while they were all the rage in Paris and became something of a status symbol in French gardens. Back in 2000, the chic Parc de Bagatelle in Paris displayed 2000 of the little guys throughout the world famous gardens, the very same gardens that a decade earlier displayed sculptures by Henry Moore.
Parisians flocked to the park to see the gnomes, and all was well until The Garden Gnome Liberation Front struck. After stealing 20 of the gnomes during a nighttime raid, the group issued a statement claiming responsibility and threatening to strike again unless the exhibit was closed and the remaining gnomes released.
The communiqué further stated that the garden gnomes should not be ridiculed and should be released into their natural habitat (funny, I’d have thought that since they were garden gnomes, they were already in their natural habitat).
Unfortunately, gnome thieves are not only active in France. There have been many other instances of them going missing from gardens around the world, sometimes kidnapped with demands made for considerable ransom money. Even here in Waterloo gnome abductions have occurred.
I don’t know the details of the case, or whether the perpetrators were apprehended. I only happened to learn of it when I stopped by the annual police auction at the Waterloo detachment one Saturday morning a year or two back. The usual racks of bicycles were up for sale, along with household articles that had been lost or recovered, but over in the doorway of the police station, I discovered a group of garden gnomes. They were huddled together out of the wind, some of them ceramic, others concrete or plastic. Most were brightly coloured while a couple looked as though they’d been living rough. I assumed they were recovered after being stolen as a prank. A prank maybe, but heartbreaking to the owner.
For a moment, I felt an overwhelming urge to stick around and purchase the lot and take them home to share the garden with Darth, but I resisted. I really didn’t have room for them, and I somehow felt that Darth might not appreciate such a large invasion, solitary character that he is, so I left them to their fate, hoping they’d be adopted by a kindhearted gardener.
Whether you’re a fan of garden gnomes or not (George Harrison welcomed them into his garden and also included them on an album cover), they’re certainly controversial characters, and if they bring the good luck that they’re reputed to, then I’d say every garden needs one.
I should add that these are not real garden gnomes I’m referring to here. Besides sneaking into prestigious garden shows, genuine ones particularly love to attend Oktoberfest, all dressed up in their nifty gnome lederhosen. If you happen to discover one sleeping it off under the shrubbery in your back yard this week, ignore him. He’ll probably wander off after he wakes up. But if you can persuade him to rake leaves first, go right ahead.