Civil Liberties

Garden Gnome Politics

The age-old battle over landscape expression


Reconnoiter a few suburban subdivisions these days, and it'll be clearer than ever that there are two Americas. One decorates its front yards with giant patriotic teddy bears and halfburied zombies. The other has to get approval from its homeowners association (HOA) to change the color of its front door from beige to light tan. While the first America is especially visible between Halloween and New Year's Day, it does not require a special occasion to express itself. For those with the unfettered freedom to landscape, lawns are like blogs, only with weeds.

The urge to make a statement via maniacally groomed sod and a urinating terra cotta tot is as old as America itself. Yet this is the age of the planned development. With restrictive covenants designed to keep exterior spaces as aesthetically neutral as a pair of Gap chinos, these communities monitor chimney finishes and driveway accent lighting with the exacting, merciless scrutiny of the So You Think You Can Dance judges. And if you break the rules, justice can be equally harsh. In one legendary case, a California man lost his home after his HOA sued him for planting 5,000 rose bushes on his four-acre property without the proper approval. In another, a Florida couple racked up $3,400 in fines for displaying a pink flamingo in their yard. With property values at stake, it's hard out there for a garden gnome.

The American front yard was a contested territory long before the rise of the HOA. In his influential design for Riverside, a planned suburb outside Chicago that was developed in the late 1860s, Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned the front lawn as a democratizing, unifying element; walls were prohibited, and every house on a block would be knit together by a common expanse of unbroken, park-like turf. It was privately owned but also public space. Those who failed to keep the weeds at bay risked ostracism by their neighbors.

Along with its communitarian ends, however, the lawn functioned as a space for individual expression and one-upmanship. Formal landscaping was mostly an invention of European aristocrats, after all, and while Olmsted may have seen a democratic utopia in fields of unfenced grass, that didn't stop status-seeking suburbanites from attempting to create their own mini-Versailles. In today's world, where self-expression is the reigning ethos and the imperative to dramatize informs even the most mundane aspects of life, the HOA ideal of tightly regulated window treatments is remarkably out of step with how we otherwise live our lives. Indeed, in the performative, self-aggrandizing MySpace era, the whole point of existence is to demonstrate that our metaphorical grass is greener than our neighbor's. So why shouldn't we be able to do that with our actual grass? And our lawn ornaments too?

These days, no other institution asks such questions more persuasively, or at least more ornately, than the Design Toscano catalog, a quarterly compendium of marblesque statuary aimed squarely at cul-de-sac Medicis who, like 15th-century aristocrats, are less interested in protecting property values than in standing out from the rest of the block with eye-catching "statement pieces."

In its early years, Design Toscano's mainstays were medieval gargoyles and classical statuary, products embedded in the lawn ornament canon for centuries. But these days the company plays to more novel tastes as well. The cover of its spring 2008 edition, for example, features a trio of meerkats, standing at attention in typical meerkat fashion, painted realistically, and looking about as lifelike as three creatures made from "quality designer resin" can look when the price tag is kept below $100. "Prepare to turn some heads!" the copy advises, following up with a guarantee: "Garden Décor that Leaves a Lasting Impression."

The catalog hits on other common garden aspirations—the drive to beautify one's surroundings, the desire to create a space for contemplation and repose—but the potential to provoke a strong reaction from others remains a running theme. "Imagine the look of surprise when neighbors see this more than yard-long croc peeking from your flowerbed!" reads the copy for an item known as The Swamp Beast. Elsewhere there are promises that T-Rex dinosaurs, Roswell-style aliens, Bigfoot, and even the head and hands of a "life-size, gray-toned zombie" will "delight passersby," make neighbors "do a double-take," and "leave your guests in awe!"

Compared to the average hydrangea, a three-foot unicorn "exquisitely hand-painted in the soft palette of the dream world" certainly qualifies as a statement. Ultimately, however, Design Toscano's wares are scaled rather modestly. Bigfoot measures a mere 28.5 inches high; if he were standing alongside Hollywood actor Verne "Mini Me" Troyer, Sasquatch would be looking up at him. Even a "monument-sized" Buddha is just four feet tall.

For those who prefer pieces that inspire whole speeches, rather than just a statement, airblown inflatables are one answer. Once the exclusive domain of down-market car dealerships and temporary pumpkin patches, these nylon phantasms now turn suburban blocks into impromptu acid trips, especially around the holidays. Look, there's Giant Blow-Up Garfield giving a present to Giant Blow-Up Jesus, while Dracula and Mickey Mouse look on in approval!

If a couple of flamingos can generate thousands of dollars in HOA fines and a few thousand unauthorized rose bushes can lead to homelessness, what, one wonders, is the penalty for such grandiose tackiness? Public flogging in a tasteful, matte-finish pillory that color-coordinates with the surrounding architecture? Luckily, some brave souls are willing to risk their well-being in the name of individual expression and the notion that the places where people live should look like places where people live. Even more than a Design Toscano space alien, giant inflatables reject the impulse to render every gated subdivision as static and lifeless as an architectural model. They don't just demand attention; they demand comment, even if that comment is an irritated aside about good fences—and maybe the occasional blow dart-making good neighbors. They are, in short, an effort to communicate.

In neighborhoods where architectural control committees enforce mailbox homogeneity, streetscapes
essentially communicate one of two messages: The Smith family is either abiding by the community's covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or it isn't. In neighborhoods where giant cartoon cats hover over front lawns, a much wider range of discourse is possible. To exploit the possibilities, you can even hire an expert to temporarily turn your lawn into a "greeting yard" that celebrates a birthday, a newborn, an anniversary, an engagement, or some other event. All over America, lawn greetings entrepreneurs are ready to rent you a massive fiberglass stork or a few dozen bright yellow smiley faces to help you celebrate the most personal and important moments of your lives with that guy two houses down who you're pretty sure steals your Sunday newspaper on a semi-regular basis.

Just as greeting animations can turn MySpace strangers into real-life best friends, however, a lawn greeting can do the same in suburban neighborhoods. At a time when we're intimately acquainted with the lives of bloggers we've never met while knowing nothing about the people who live next door, an ostentatious display provides an obvious and convenient entry point. When people put up a lawn greeting, neighbors have a pretext to act neighborly. They bring presents, offer congratulations, and eventually have more to bond over than the fact that all their garbage cans exist in perfect aesthetic harmony with one another. The communities that allow displays of human expression to exist in the form of designer resin aliens and inflatable tiki totem poles may not be the best places to sell a house, but they aren't bad places to live.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.