For a long time, I was kind of a purist when it came to gardening: I felt that gardens should be about plants, not “stuff.” In many respects, that was just sour grapes; really cool garden art tends to be really expensive, too. Plus, I tend to get a wee bit obsessed with collecting things, so figured I’d stick with collecting plants instead of things.
But then, wouldn’t you know: I got hooked on a new kind of stuff, and I have garden blogging to blame. More specifically, a garden blogger: Pam of the blog Digging, and her beautiful blue bottle tree. After hearing me natter on about Pam’s bottle tree for a while, Mom bought me a bottle-tree frame of my very own. That started me on the hunt for neat bottles, which has since evolved into an appreciation of nice bits of glass of all kinds – not to display indoors, but to put out in the garden.
I read a comment somewhere to the effect that seeing glass in a garden makes people uncomfortable: something to do with its fragility being such a contrast with natural materials, I think, and it’s a fair point. I remember feeling a little uneasy about putting out my first few pieces of glass, but I soon got over that. The “unnatural” contrast of plants with glass isn’t much different than that of plants with metal, after all, or with plastic or concrete, for that matter. Plus, glass and plants share one fantastic trait: the ability to create amazing color effects in different kinds of light.
The tendency of glass to be fragile is a cause for concern, and if I had small children or rowdy pets wandering around in my garden, I probably wouldn’t be comfortable using glass ornaments or accents much, if at all. Even without kids or dogs, I’ve had a few pieces break over the last few years, but all of those casualties have been my own fault: either I placed them in a precarious spot, or I let them collect water and freeze in winter, or I chose pieces that were simply too delicate to hold up to normal outdoor conditions. Fortunately, all three of these problems are easy to avoid with a bit of care and common sense.
An issue unique to glass in the garden that I’m still puzzling over is the tendency of some pieces to change color. Folks who collect antique glass (and who would be horrified at the idea of putting glass outside, I’m sure) frequently discuss the phenomenon of “amethyst glass” or “sun-purple glass”: the tendency of old pieces of clear glass to turn purple when exposed to sunlight, due to a reaction of the manganese in the glass and the ultraviolet part of the light, apparently. That’s not the problem I’ve found, partly because I’m not buying valuable antique glass to start with, and partly because I don’t buy clear glass to start with, since I’m drawn to buy glass because of its pretty color as well as its shape.
My frustration is with pieces of beautifully colored glass that fade after just a few months of being outside. Pieces that get their color from pigments inside the glass itself seem to hold that color indefinitely, while those that owe their color to some sort of thin coating or stain tend to turn pale or even back to clear as the coating wears off. Short of scratching a potential purchase to check for a coating – which I don’t recommend! – or looking for existing scratches, like those below, there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to be sure whether the color is likely to stay or not.
Fading is rarely an issue with blue or green glass, I guess because the pigments or processes used to make the actual colored glass are relatively inexpensive. It’s when you start getting into vibrant jewel-toned colors – rich reds, yellows, oranges, purples, and pinks – that coatings seem to be much more likely. (The photo below shows a few examples of colorful coated glass.)
If you’re interested in learning more about the various colors of real glass and how they’re made, here are a few very interesting articles: Substances Used in the Making of Coloured Glass and Bottle/Glass Colors.
I have learned one trick: If you have a piece of faded (or clear) glass that has a great shape and you want to punch up the color, you can buy “stained glass” spray paint at some craft stores. I looked unsuccessfully for nice orange glass for a long time but eventually found an orange “stained glass” paint, which I used on this old soy-sauce bottle. (The bubbling happened because I got the spray too close to the glass.) It too faded some over the course of a season, but I can re-spray it this year if I choose to.
You can also find “glass frosting” spray paint, which wears off after just a few months if you put it on the outside of the glass. (Below is a newly sprayed piece.) This year, I may experiment with spraying the inside of a few clear pieces to see how that turns out.
The process of finding nice-looking glass is a big part of the fun of using glass in the garden. Catalogs that sell garden ornaments often have at least one or two glass pieces, and some, like Gardener’s Supply Company and GardenArtisans.com, sell a wider variety of globes, bird feeders, glass-topped stakes, and art-glass pieces. These can get pricey, though, which is a real issue when you consider the potential for breakage or fading over time. My own preference is to hunt for inexpensive bits of colorful glass that are suitable for outdoor use.
Mom and I like to make occasional sweeps through local thrift shops, flea markets, antiques malls, and craft stores looking for old or new jars, vases, candle holders, bottles, and the like. I try to stick with a limit of about $5 per piece, which still provides a surprising wealth of options, especially at second-hand shops.
Occasionally, I’ll spend more for a glass piece with a really good color or shape. I’d bought this large, heavy, green glass container, sold as a “penny jar,” for about $50 at an antique shop many years ago, and it took me quite a while to get up the nerve to try it outside. Eventually, I realized that it’s quite sturdy, to the point that I now leave it outside all year ’round. A few months ago, I found out that it’s properly known as a demijohn or carboy.
Finding ways to display the collection is another fun part of using glass in the garden. Sometimes, I set pieces of glass at ground level, tucking them into empty spots in borders or containers or nestling them into patches of groundcover.
If you try this, just make sure you keep glass ornaments off of the path a bit, so you won’t kick or trip over them.
I usually keep small or very special pieces in a little sitting area I have in a sheltered spot out back. (In the spring, I set up my nursery benches out here; once my seedlings and spring purchases are all planted, I dismantle and store the benches and then decorate the space as an outdoor room for summer and fall.) This way, I can display the pieces where they’re protected from strong wind, and I can easily pick them up to see and handle them.
My favorite way to display glass, though, is so that the sun can shine through it.
In the vegetable garden, I use rebar pins at the edges of the raised beds as hose guides, and these metal stakes make great holders for upside-down bottles, bud vases, and other narrow-mouthed glass containers.
The more snugly the glass fits against the stake, the better; that way, there’s less chance of breakage if you knock against it.
Opposite the vegetable beds, I have a plum tree that’s been declining for a few years, due to a serious case of black knot. I didn’t want to cut it down, though, because I’d put a fair bit of time into developing the framework of branches, and I still liked the shape.
While I’m waiting for the vines I’ve planted there to get established, I couldn’t resist topping the branch stubs with some wider-mouthed jars and vases.
I have a more typical type of bottle tree, too: a metal tree frame that Mom bought for me from Gardener’s Supply Company.
A couple of other sources for bottle tree frames include At West End and Kinsman Company. I like to display a variety of glass pieces on mine, but if you wanted a somewhat more refined effect (assuming that “refined” is even possible when you’re using cheap bits of glass as garden art), you could use bottles of just one shape, size, and/or color. Either way, make sure that the base of the frame is firmly settled into the soil, and that you distribute the weight of the glass pieces evenly around the tree, so it’s not likely to lean or fall over.
Sometimes I bring all of my glass pieces indoors in late fall; that way, I can wash them all at some point and set them out in new places in spring. They look quite nice as winter ornaments too, though, so I occasionally leave some outside.
If you try this, make sure the pieces are upside down so they don’t collect water, freeze, and crack or shatter; it’s a sad ending, even for an inexpensive ornament.
Please note: I have no connection with and receive no compensation from any of the companies mentioned in this post.