A Field Guide to Lawn Ornaments

Lawn ornaments are a hardy species. Even in Vermont's unforgiving climate, you can spot them all year 'round. You don't have to look hard in December to find a plywood Santa or a plastic snowman taking temporary residence in somebody's yard. By March, these cold-weather phyla have usually retreated, replaced by multicolored plastic eggs hanging in trees and the occasional out-sized rabbit. But when real spring arrives, with bulbs in bloom and creemee freezers cranking, true aficionados pull out their field glasses in preparation for prime lawn ornament season.Lawn ornaments are everywhere. Be-costumed bears beckon from the Sirloin Saloon on Shelburne Road. A faithful German shepherd, still as a sentinel, stands guard on a North Avenue front porch. Cast-concrete skunks add woodland whimsy to a Williston subdivision. There's something delicious about the serendipitous surprise of discovering an authentically reproduced Japanese lantern casting light on your neighbor's vinyl siding. If you're really fixated on finding these outdoor fixtures, it's helpful to remember this simple formula: Lawn ornament incidence tends to be inversely proportional to property size. Trailer parks are lawn ornament paradises.Ozone depletion and wetlands destruction have had little impact on the diversity of lawn ornament species. Rather, the variety of identified ornament types is so wide -- including out-moded farm implements, fuzzy duckies, hollow plastic gargoyles and replica gasoline pumps -- that the novice observer can easily be taken in by faux, or fool's, ornaments. Don't be conned by lawn ornament poseurs: kids' toys nobody bothered to put away; recreational vehicles on trailers; non-recreational vehicles on blocks; major appliances.Whether you're a seasoned connoisseur or just learning to distinguish a rustic milk can from a Rubber Maid trash can, now is the perfect time to avail yourself of Vermont's plentiful front-yard pleasures. A good place to start is David Duchaine's Shed Sales on Shelburne Road. A retired Air National Guardsman who's been selling antiques since the early '70s, Duchaine branched out into cast concrete statuary six years ago. The assortment of decorative doodads on display in his parking lot is a testament to the nearly limitless bounds of the human imagination and the structural properties of sand mixed with gravel. Duchaine points out a pair of painted "Apple Dumplin' Kids" in Tyrolean garb, a reclining porcine odalisque he calls "Pigatude" (short for "Pig With Attitude"), and self-circulating electric fountains that winter over inside as elegant living room humidifiers.For those who feel called to mix the sand and gravel batter, pour it into factory-made molds and either paint the finished sculpture or let it age naturally, cast concrete can be a lucrative business, according to an Ontario outfit called "Concrete Success." Just $12.95 gets you "Turn Concrete Into Cash," a step-by-step manual explaining how you, too, can "make ornamental concrete lawn ornaments for HUGE profits."For the consumer, cast concrete represents a mid-range product. Duchaine's $38 to $150 statuary is cheaper than cast white "marble," but more expensive than painted wood.Up north in Milton, look for doleful basset hounds balancing "Keep Off" signs on their heads, Dutch couple name signs, loving frogs and other painted wood lawn ornaments. Milton Beverage is just past the drag strip as you drive north on Route 7. The proprietor, who identifies himself as "Marcel" ("I only give my last name to my priest and my lawyer"), lives next door in a modified mobile home. His yard is accented by a white-washed truck-tire planter and an ornamental windmill similar to the type K.E. Brown Sales of Roland, Iowa, claims "discourages moles and gophers from the premises due to slight ground vibrations."Marcel is quick to point out that he doesn't make any ornaments himself. "I work nine-hour days," he says. "I don't have time." And he's as secretive about who does make them as he is about his own identity. Marcel will own to their being factory-produced -- and definitely not imported. "All you have to say is that they're made in the USA," he notes patriotically. "Not in Taiwan or China or Indonesia or Algeria."Corroborating Marcel's claim, the $13.95 price tag on the flying duck with spinning wings prominently brags, "Made in the good ol' USA." The duck is sold alongside kissing crows on a swing you can hang from a tree, flat stuffed sheep you can plant in your grass, and Bo Peep dolls (in your choice of calico outfit) to mind them. But Marcel's most popular item is probably the classic "Granny Fanny," a mushroom-shaped plywood board painted to look like an old lady bending over and exposing her polka-dotted undies.Plastic ornaments provide an even more affordable option for those who lack the means -- or the conviction -- to invest in wood or concrete. The ubiquitous pink flamingo falls into this category. Ben Franklin offers inspirational plastic representations of the Virgin Mary and Saint Francis, charming plastic fawns and calves, fearsome plastic gargoyles and cheeky plastic elves. Hidden openings allow you to fill the hollow forms with sand for added stability.But whatever they're made of, lawn ornaments are at their best en masse, and happy is the lawn ornament enthusiast who stumbles upon a yard whose owners understand this principle. The "more is more" maxim surely guided Betty and Pierre Pepin when they decided to turn their Malletts Bay home into a veritable lawn ornament Louvre. A life-sized silhouetted cowboy made by a Pepin son-in-law leans against one tree while a carved bear cub clings to the trunk of another. A wooden boy dangles a wooden fish on a real rope line near a fake tomb stone. Concrete lovers smooch. Frog figurines frolic on the rim of a birdbath. At the side of the house overlooking Lake Champlain, a nautical display features a handsome pelican, a salty fisherman and a real lobster trap, to which Betty hopes to add a toy lobster.Back in Burlington, battered seashore meets abandoned farm in the eclectic display maintained by Beebo, an obscure artist whose affinity for other people's garbage bravely extends the traditional boundaries of American lawn ornamentation. His collection, culled in large part from yard sales, includes lobster traps, buoys, driftwood and seashells as well as a wide assortment of busted agricultural machinery. But his most adventurous objects are those not usually seen outside suburban rec rooms: marble ashtrays, an inscribed lump of genuine Pennsylvania coal, and somebody else's bowling trophies.For Beebo, strewing other people's cast-offs all over his front yard is a way to keep his living room clear of "a lot of junk that's too broken or dirty to have inside," but nevertheless "nice to look at." And simply too good to throw away. The pleasure he brings to lawn ornament watchers of all ages is an added bonus. "People like to laugh at us, and we like to be laughed at," says Beebo congenially. "So everybody's happy."PQs: If you're really fixated on finding these outdoor fixtures, it's helpful to remember this simple formula: Lawn ornament incidence tends to be inversely proportional to property size.Don't be conned by lawn ornament poseurs: kids' toys nobody bothered to put away; recreational vehicles on trailers; non-recreational vehicles on blocks; major appliances.

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