Homeownership comes with many responsibilities, and many joys. Chances are your property has some outdoor space fit for a garden, lawn or landscaping features. Perhaps you take pride in your killer-looking lawn or tending a garden that regularly grows produce fit for the brightest of summer salads. Not only are these satisfying accomplishments in their own right, but they’re also sure to earn you approving glances from your neighbors.
However, maintaining the perfect yard isn’t easy, and we all need tools to help us get there. Whether it’s a lawnmower to keep your grass trimmed to a T or pruning shears to tame the shrubs, having the right gardenting tools is essential. While many of these tools have a clearly defined purpose, there’s one common garden accessory we’ve been curious about here at Spy: the garden gnome.
What is a garden gnome, and why do these strange garden guardians exist?
Don’t get me wrong, they’re adorable. But why are they here? How did they get here? What do they want from us? Are they purely ornamental or is there something deeper to the story? I decided to hunt down the details of how these cherubic plant companions came to be and why they’ve stuck around for so long. It turns out, they’ve got a history just as eccentric as they are, and in recent years they’ve even become sassier than they were at their origin.
Note: The original lawn gnomes were handmade in Germany from clay. While these are hard to find online nowadays, there are plenty of modern garden gnomes made of various materials that’ll bring the same folksy, playful energy to your outdoor space.
Today, I’m going to walk you through the history of garden gnomes and explore some of my favorite gnomes available for purchase today.
What Is a Lawn Gnome?
A lawn gnome, or garden gnome as they’re sometimes called, is a small clay statue of an elven man or woman usually dressed in colorful clothing. They sit in your outdoor space and watch over your garden or lawn. Traditionally, these little friennds symbolize good luck and have been touted throughout history as protective of precious metals, gems and other treasures underneath the soil. While some view them as unsightly and hopelessly kitsch, others enjoy their presence and the silly tone they bring to perfectly manicured gardens.
According to the 1976 book Gnomes, illustrated by Rien Poortvliet, gnomes are also seven times stronger than human beings, rub their noses together to say “hello” and “goodbye” and live to be about 400 years old. At their origin, they were gentle in nature and cared for all beings. They carried around knives to cut animals out of traps and remove thorns from their paws, and journals to document their travels within the natural world.
Garden gnomes have been around as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve always had a fondness for their presence whether it was on a front doorstep or in the backyard keeping a watchful eye over the herbs. So, where did they come from?
The History of Lawn Gnomes
In order to track the history of lawn gnomes I actually had to go all the way back to the second century AD, to the Roman emperor Hadrian. Apparently, he enjoyed hiring hermits to live in the vast gardens of his villas and watch over the plants. He required these individuals to not speak to anyone, live in an unheated outhouse building, not shower or bathe and grow very long beards. Sound familiar?
While this practice wasn’t entirely humane, I’m guessing these folks became the inspiration for the German folkloric obsession with trolls, gnomes, fairies and other garden creatures that preside over outdoor spaces. Germans began physically preserving these individuals in clay and by the 1600s they were well-known throughout Europe as “gobbi” which is an Italian word for “dwarf.”
By the 19th century, the image of the man with the pointed hat, rounded belly and long white beard was commonplace, and it was further solidified by the 1937 Disney classic feature film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Sir Charles Isham is an English landowner credited with bringing 21 terra cotta lawn gnomes to England in 1847 to decorate his property, and he’s credited with starting the garden gnome trend that’s still going strong today. There was a brief hiatus of popularity when many of the original German manufacturers of lawn gnomes were destroyed during WWII, but due to public obsession, they quickly rebounded.
Nowadays you can find them in gardens throughout the U.S and other countries around the world, as well as in the spotlight in advertising campaigns for brands like “Ace Hardware” and “Travelocity.” They’ve been featured in movies like the 2001 film Amelie and have been the subject of countless gardening and children’s books. We have a feeling they’ll be around for a long time, in one form or another.
Modern Interpretations of Garden Gnomes
Gnomes have evolved in terms of their personalities from the magical, whimsical creatures of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. They’ve become, like many of us when we age, a bit more curmudgeon. There are plenty nowadays that flip you off, moon you and drink too much. Whether this is a commentary on their innocent nature or a reflection of the energy we all embrace as we age, we’re all for it. If I was doomed to live all of my days outside watching grass grow, I’d probably embrace the same sass and attitude of the modern lawn gnome.
1. LeCementCollection Relaxing Garden Gnome
If you want to go with the conventional lawn gnome look, this is a great option. He’s got the classic red hat, classic long white beard and is handmade out of solid cement so he’s built to withstand the elements. This is a jolly gnome who’s in a relaxed position so you can place him anywhere in your garden and he’ll keep a watchful eye over the place. He weighs about 3 lbs, 8 oz. and is about 8.5″ tall. He’s been hand-painted with bright, durable colors and a sealer has been added for protection as well.
2. Alpine Corporation Outdoor Garden Gnome
This is another classic-looking garden gnome who’s got a mushroom accessory and is gazing out across your yard, making sure everything’s in order. He’s got the classic red pointy hat, white beard and laid back clothing and is both rust and weather-resistant so his colors should last. This outdoor statue is 12″ tall and comes with realistic lifelike features so he’s sure to catch visitors’ eyes. Legend has it he’ll keep your lawn lush and green and keep you safe from evil visiting spirits.
3. Alpine Corporation Bird Garden Gnome
This jolly-looking garden gnome has a bird perched in his hand, evoking the gentle nature of these mythical creatures and how symbiotic they are with outdoor spaces. He’s got the classic look and a polyresin construction that’s weather-resistant and rust-resistant as well. He’s also 12″ high so he’ll be large enough to notice without taking up too much space.
4. Design Toscano Sunflower Sammy Garden Gnome Statue
This bright, sunny lawn gnome is named Sammy and is a member of the elfin variety of gnomes known for their cheery spirits. Here he is holding a huge sunflower that’s sure to brighten up your outdoor space. He’s made of real crushed stone bonded together and is hand-painted with designer-quality resin that’s bright and durable. The sunflower also doubles as a bowl that you can fill with water to create a small bird bath or birdseed as a small feeder.
5. TeresasCeramics Nordic Garden Gnome
This Nordic lawn gnome has an adorable look and is painted with bright colors, flowers and is throwing up a peace sign for the ultimate laid-back vibe. You can customize the paint color scheme for your gnome and each one has been sealed with an acrylic spray so you can place him outdoors or indoors. He’s smaller than other options at only 6.5″ tall so he’s perfect for indoor gardens or smaller garden beds where he can be seen.
6. Big Mouth Inc. Game of Gnomes Garden Gnomes
There are only a few of these gnomes left, understandably, but I couldn’t not include it in this round-up since it’s too adorable. This lawn gnome has his own miniature Iron Throne and is a must-have for all G.O.T fans who want a little piece of the show in their garden. He sits 9.5″ tall and keeps the watch so you’ll know precisely when it’s time to water your lawn or when the weeds are coming.
7. DiyCraftProjectCo Funny Garden Gnome
This is a quirkier gnome is hilarious and part of a line of humorous gnomes that engage in more modern activities like drinking, taking selfies and texting on the toilet. He’s quite small so he’s better on a desk or bookshelf as a whimsical decoration than an actual guardian of the garden. All of the gnomes from this maker are handmade from resin and there are five different styles you can choose from.
8. TERESA’S COLLECTION Flocked Garden Gnome Statue
This is another Nordic-style lawn gnome that’s on the larger end at 13 inches tall, and comes with its own shovel for helping you with your yard work, and lantern for lighting up the night. The gnome itself is made of resin material and has nylon faux grass all around him for a woodsy effect. The lantern lights up at night automatically and is solar-powered via a built-in solar panel. The entire gnome is hand-painted and has a protective coating on it as well that makes it more resistant to weather.
9. LaurelArts Concrete Gnome Figurines
These teeny gnome figurines might not command a large presence in your outdoor garden, but they’ll make excellent decor in a small countertop herb garden, bookshelf or desk. They’re made of concrete so they’re essentially little durable pebbles with faces and beards, and they come in a gift box so they’re a great gift for anyone in your life who enjoys miniature things. They’re hand-crafted, hand-painted and sealed to withstand outdoor elements.