A Touch of Glass

Glass in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Glass in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Blue glass bunny in an herb planter at Hayefield

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.

Glass in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Scratched red-coated glass

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.)

DSCF5103

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.

049 (2)

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.

Purple-frosted glass in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Blue glass at Hayefield

Red glass at Hayefield

Green glass at Hayefield

Purple glass at Hayefield

Orange glass at Hayefield

Pink glass ay Hayefield

Yellow glass at Hayefield

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.

Green glass carboy (demijohn) in garden at Hayefield

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.

Blue glass with Geranium wlassovianum in fall color at Hayefield

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.

Glass fishing-net float in Thymus pseudolanuginosus at Hayefield

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.

Sitting area at Hayefield Fall 2011

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.

Glass in the garden at Hayefield

My favorite way to display glass, though, is so that the sun can shine through it.

Glass in the veg garden at Hayefield

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.

Green glass in the garden at Hayefield

Aqua glass in the garden at Hayefield

Yellow glass in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Bottle tree in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Bottle tree in the garden at Hayefield

I have a more typical type of bottle tree, too: a metal tree frame that Mom bought for me from Gardener’s Supply Company.

Bottle tree in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Bottle tree in the garden at Hayefield

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.

Red glass in the garden at Hayefield with spray-painted caryopteris

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.

Black glass in the garden at Hayefield

Please note: I have no connection with and receive no compensation from any of the companies mentioned in this post.

26 responses to this post.

  1. Superbe … A lire ce bel hommage au verre, tu m’as donné l’envie de coloré mon jardin.
    Merci de partager ainsi sur ton blog, c’est un grand plaisir de le découvrir à chaque nouveau billet!
    Belle journée.

    Je suis tellement heureux que vous avez apprécié le sujet, Framboisine. Merci d’avoir lu.
    -Nan

  2. I am so glad you decided to include glass in your garden, Nan, and share it with us. There is nothing quite like the way light shines through colored glass. Besides purchasing glass art after seeing it at the garden blogger’s fling in Seattle last year, there has been a new edging of upside down colored bottles installed at the entrance to the back gardens. Long live glass in the garden!

    Frances

    Thanks for the edging idea, Frances; I think I’m going to try that this year in the corners of the front garden beds, where they can double as hose guides. I imagine that having the bottles already on the ground and settled into the soil greatly decreases the chance of breakage. Still, if you do lose one bottle (or a few) now and then, that’s a good excuse to look for more!
    -Nan

  3. Posted by Brenda Rose on March 2, 2012 at 6:08 am

    I really like the plum tree topped with vases, it’s got style!

    I’m glad you like it, Brenda. I think it’s fun, but I do realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste.
    -Nan

  4. Posted by Lisa at Greenbow on March 2, 2012 at 6:47 am

    The colored glass bug did bite you. I love glass in the garden but I don’t have much of it. I am the klutz of your nightmares. :/ I have often drooled over the Chihuly displays in gardens. How could one not be inspired by all that glass?

    Having the pieces collected into one safe place, such as on a bottle tree, might work for you; that’s one place I’ve never had to deal with any breakage. Unless, of course, you were to somehow fall against the tree, in which case you’d be dealing with both broken glass and impalement on metal spikes. Hmmm..maybe that’s not such a good idea. Here, I figure I’m in less danger from the glass than from the pieces of rusty metal I also use as garden accents.
    -Nan

  5. Wow, when you got over your fear of putting glass items in your garden, you really got over. Great ideas, lovely pics, as always. After reading your posts, I’m always inspired to do something new in my own garden. Thank you!

    No sense doing things by halves, right? And thanks in turn to Pam for inspiring me try give glass a try!
    -Nan

  6. Posted by Tim Vojt on March 2, 2012 at 8:51 am

    In for a dime, in for a dollar, huh? I especially love the big green bottle nestled in with the hellebore, et al. Almost every time I dig some place new in my yard I find a marble or two. I love sprinkling them among rocks in the garden for little bit of sparkle and I like to imagine that at some point in the past some angry mother said to her kid “I am sick of you leaving these marbles all over the place” and chucking them all over the yard! (Ok, did I just expose *my* parenting style?) Another inexpensive glass item for you to collect…….

    I admit to also having a penchant for small polished rocks, so I do have a few dishes of those sitting around to play with. In the case of the marbles in your yard, I can just as easily imagine a child chucking them around. It seems that every small child who ever visited this garden or my previous one simply had to pick up small rocks and gravel to throw into the water garden, onto the paving, or at the plants. Fortunately, I have few visitors!
    -Nan

  7. Great article. Your blog is wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

    Thanks for visiting, reading, and commenting, Angela!
    -Nan

  8. Posted by Kerry Sanders on March 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Wow, you’ve amassed quite a haul over the years!

    I particularly love the pumpkin one.

    That’s one of my favorites too, Kerry – a great end-of-the-season-sale find.
    -Nan

  9. I have to admit, I was the same way about garden “art”…I just didn’t think it worth my time. I started really getting into rusty metal, however, last year and now always check out the artists’ booths at garden shows! I’ve wondered what the large, green glass bottle (demijohn) was before…just LOVE the shape and color of it. I think my only glass at the moment is a ruby-red glass hummingbird feeder that I find myself moving around all summer just to see how it looks with different plants. Thank goodness the hummers favor flowers over the feeder in summer or they’d be pretty cross with me for moving it so often!

    Who knows – maybe they enjoy the change in venue for dining? I’ve seen some really cool glass bird feeders in gardening catalogs recently. I imagine they get dirty really fast, but they’d certainly be easy to clean.
    -Nan

  10. I love glass in the garden, but don’t have nearly as much of the beautiful, colored pieces as you do! I have to admit, I particularly like the bunny–both the modernish shape and the color–and that square reddish orange piece with the sections.

    Thanks for mentioning the spray paint, by the way. I have a couple of moroccan-style hanging lanterns where the panels have faded over the past few years. I thought I would just have to live with it and admire the pressed pattern on the now-clear glass, along with the metal work… but I’m going to look for some of that stained glass paint now to try to return them to their former amethyst glory!

    I hope you can find the paint you want, Kim. It’s certainly been handy for sprucing up those faded pieces.
    -Nan

  11. When you get started on something you really do get addicted. But the whole process of discovering inexpensive hidden glass treasures and displaying them creatively in your garden sounds fun. How do you keep water out of that very large green bottle that you leave out all year? I have a very heavy duty blue glass bottle and would like to do the same after reading your post. Thanks for the inspiration.

    For a long time, I set the jug upside down, with the neck down in the soil, too keep water out. But for the last few years, I’ve been leaving it out all year, right side up, and simply dumping out the water a few times a year. The opening is so narrow that not much rain gets in, and the base of the jug is so wide that the relatively small amount of water inside can freeze and thaw without pushing on the sides. Finding a cork (or a plug cut from a fallen branch of the appropriate diameter) to fit the opening would be a suitable way to keep water from getting in in the first place.
    -Nan

  12. Ah I can just imagine all of the sounds of tinkling glass breaking now if I had such a collection. Yours is lovely. My favorite is the pumpkin.

    Yes, that sound would surely not be a pleasant one.
    -Nan

  13. I just stumbled upon your Blog. I smiled when you spoke about the blue bottle tree. I put one up about 2 years ago. People who come to the garden love it. I have found that many different kinds of sculpture can add to a garden. The garden becomes a gallery both for flowers and the sculpture. I have 15 different original sculptures here and they all add a special dimension to the space. Here on the shore of Lake Michigan I am always careful that any sculpture does not take away form the beauty and motion of the lake but enhances it. Glad you have join us in appreciating what such art objects can bring to the garden ares. Will see you again. Am going to be following you now. Jack

    Welcome, Jack! Bottle trees do provoke interesting responses, don’t they — usually delight or amusement, but sometimes disdain, depending on the visitor’s tolerance of whimsy.
    -Nan

  14. Nan,
    I love your posts, this one is especially welcome as I collect may pieces of colored glass for our Guest House. I have a periwinkle colored glass frog in my garden next to the same color tool shed. I was afraid to use much glass for fear of breakage. Now I’m going to use your idea of rebar topped with bottles to mark out my new herb bed. Thank you for your wonderful writing and stunning pictures. Sandi

    I hope you have as much fun with your glass as I do with mine, Sandi. As others have noted, it’s quite an addictive thing to collect!
    -Nan

  15. Thanks for another inspiring idea that I want to try, Nan! Like Tim, my favourite is the way you placed the green carboy. That’s the kind of thing I’d love to do in my garden. Now to hunt for some fabulous (cheap) pieces and make a start.

    Great, Lyn – another collector! Best of luck luck on your glass quest.
    -Nan

    • I went straight out and found my first piece – a square orange bottle in a charity shop for $2. I’m excited – now I just have to place it (after a bit of weeding).

      How fun, Lyn! And how lucky of you to find a nice bit of orange glass; that’s a color I’m always hunting for.
      -Nan

  16. Thanks for the nice shout-out, Nan. Your multi-colored bottle tree is so cheerful, and I bet the light effects are quite fun too. As you say, breakage can be a concern (at first), but my bottles have even survived several hailstorms so far. Bottles are obviously tougher than they look!

    That’s good to hear, Pam. We don’t get much hail here usually, but you never know. Wind is a far more frequent issue, but as long as the bottles are pretty well distributed by weight, even the light metal-framed tree I have hasn’t keeled over.
    -Nan

  17. Hi Nan, I see you’ve gotten over that “using glass outdoors” hurdle. Do you ever think of hail? This is one thing I think about, although it happens fairly rarely.

    Your glassware in the SUN looks much better than what I might put out in the shade… so I’m pretty much not yet putting out glassware. Just hate the thought of digging in the ground with broken pieces strewn about… Perhaps I’ll get over it yet. ;-)

    Hi Shady! We’ve had a bit of hail but no glass damage from it. The pieces I choose for outdoor use are pretty sturdy to begin with, too, which makes breakage very unusual, for the most part.
    -Nan

  18. Yours is TRULY pretty, though. I love the “tree” with the multicolors!!!

    Thanks – the sun sure does show off the colors prettily.
    -Nan

  19. Beautiful!

    Thanks for visiting!
    -Nan

  20. Posted by PrairieGirl on March 7, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I was excited to read your post; I love bottle trees, they’re all so unique! I definitely want to try one.
    I collected some old electrical insulators from beside the railroad tracks and was looking for inspiration for best way to display them in the garden. They look a little like glass mushrooms…

    Right! Insulators are really neat-looking, and definitely sturdy – great for the garden. I bet they’d look great on top of fence posts, or on short (1-foot) pieces of rebar.
    -Nan

  21. Your glass objects are delightful! I really like how you’ve decorated your sitting area.

    Here in the land of neighborhood covenants, I have to keep my objects discreet and below the view from those driving by…even on 4.5 acres, our house sits below the road level. So far, the only glass is a “retaining wall” of green beer bottles on rebar posts! It works well to hold back a bit of soil around the base of miscanthus cosmopolitan on a slope.

    Ooh – a bottle wall – what a neat idea! I foresee another glass project in my future. Thanks, Freda!
    -Nan

  22. Once you make a decision, there is apparently no turning back. I love the sparkle of the glass in your garden.

    What a lovely way of saying that I’ve gone a bit overboard with the whole glass-collecting thing, Layanee.
    -Nan

  23. I loved your article and all the glass pictures. I have started with a few ceramic critters in my garden but you have inspired me to start looking for colored glass jars and bottles. Kudos to you
    Deb

    Welcome, Debra, and thanks for visiting. I really like ceramic pieces too, but I’ve lost several from freeze damage, so I’ve pretty much given up on using them in the garden.
    -Nan

  24. Hi Nan, I found your blog through the Amateur Weeder. I used to collect blue glass, then my preference changed to green and now to purple. Unfortunately friends don’t always keep up with my flightiness and carry on giving me gifts in the old colours. I always felt guilty about not displaying it but thanks to you I have a wonderful solution. My garden still has snow on the ground however the sun is shining so I think I will get out there and see how the light plays on the snow.

    Welcome to Hayefield, Susan. I’m so pleased that you like this way to display your excess glass. Have fun with it!
    -Nan

  25. That’s quite a collection of lovely bottles. Love the first shot of the bottle tree. Can’t try any of this home with the wind and large rowdy dogs.

    Yeah, probably not a good choice for you, Nicole!
    -Nan

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