News & Events
Discover Mid-America May 2006
Many antiquers seek vintage items as garden décor
by Terri Baumgardner
As the spring breeze warms the Midwestern landscape, Jan Vinyard's thoughts turn to her flower garden. And, the first thing she reaches for is her grandmother's cultivator to churn the soil in her garden plot.
Even though Vinyard owns a well-known Kansas City garden center, she still prefers the heirloom cultivator to modern day mechanized tools. Worn with decades of use, the cultivator employs a large wheel and two forks that dig up the earth.
"I push it through the soil to break it up," said Vinyard, who owns Longview Gardens in southeast Kansas City. "Then, I use it as a trellis for morning glories to climb. You can do that with a lot of antiques."
Regarded as a garden expert, Vinyard teaches classes and lectures on gardening. Recently, she traveled to Missouri's historic town of Lexington to speak about using antiques as containers for potted flowers.
Indeed, gardeners use antiques as tools, flower containers and backyard decor. Of course, antiquers also use vintage porch furniture and plant heirloom flowers in their gardens and backyards.
"Yes, antiques are very popular," said Sandy Slover, who manages the Greenwood Antique Mall, which hosts an annual Antique Garden Show every April in Greenwood, MO. "Most everything has a patina, a worn and shabby look. All are garden pieces you're not going to find at a Hobby Lobby or Earl May garden center."
So it is that whether you own a historic house or a modern day home, antiques add texture, character and unique qualities to any flower garden.
Vintage gardening tools
But antique tools also have stood the test of time and are often preferred by gardeners.
"The old wood-handle garden rakes and spades," said Ken Nye, an antique dealer at Greenwood Antique Mall. "It's not the new plastic stuff."
Gardeners also like the old galvanized watering cans with long neck spouts that allow the water to sprinkle over flowers like rain.
Antiques as flower pots and trellises
"When I spoke in Lexington recently, I saw a lady use a wash boiler as a planting container," Vinyard said. "They used to use the oval copper or cast iron pots to boil clothes clean in, but she used it as a planter, and I thought what a great planter."
Galvanized tubs, once use as bathtubs, are employed as flowerpots. Old baby buggies also make nice containers, as do vintage wheel barrels and wagons.
"One of the most fun things is a wagon tipped over with flowers spilling over," Vinyard said. "Wheel barrels, you can use them to sit flower pots in or fill them with soil and plant potato vines in them so they cascade over the side."
Old buckets and bushel barrels make excellent flower containers, too. Simply line the wicker baskets with plastic to prevent them from rotting from the dirt and water.
"I have a friend who uses bushel baskets as a planter," said Sandee Millett, who owns Greenwood Mercantile and Millett & Company antique shops in Greenwood, MO. "She plants ornamental cabbages in purple and green in them. Then, she puts old garden tools and a stake in there as decoration. But if you do it, you want to put the basket together in a spot where you will use it because it's too heavy to lift."
Vintage kitchen items are popular flower containers too. Antique teakettles and tall soup pots can be filled with dirt and flowers as indoor or outdoor containers.
Rather than display antique teacups in a cupboard, pull them out to sit about the home as miniature flowerpots. Some gardeners plant pansies in teacups to line a windowsill. African Violets also are a teacup favorite year round.
"Old teacups are used to plant houseplants in," Vinyard said. "Succulents work well in them, like hen chicks. The nice thing about that is it is indoors so you can control the water it, drain it or water as needed."
And if you've broken vintage pottery or dishes, don't toss out the broken pieces. The antique pieces can be glued to a clay flowerpot to create a vintage mosaic design. Or, used as garden decor.
"A friend of mine broke her yellow ware and she uses it as stepping stones in the garden," Millett said. "Or, she just scatters it in the garden to add color."
Old mason jars also make excellent planting pots, Millett said. In fact, she sells the vintage jars full of rye grass seed.
"They plant rye grass on old chicken feeders," Millett said. "The long metal trays sometimes have a lid with openings in it, and they put chicken feed in there. But it can be used as a tray of grass, and it just looks very cool."
Millett soaks the rye grass seed in water overnight. She puts a layer of soil in the chicken feeder tray and sprinkles the seeds atop the dirt.
"The seed takes three days to sprout, it can be used as an indoor or outdoor planter," Millett said.
And don't pass by the vintage furniture when shopping for antique flower containers. Vinyard's customers like to use old chairs for flowerpots.
"The old chairs that had the hole in the seat for weavings, you can set a pot in there," Vinyard said. "One customer puts burlap in the seat hole and sets a piece of green grass sod on it."
One of Vinyard's customers literally uses an antique iron bed in her flower garden. The antique gardener simply places the bed's frame — including the headboard, footboard and side frames — on the ground. She fills the bed frame with soil and plants flowers in it.
"So the antique bed is a flower bed," Vinyard said.
Antique beds can also be used as trellises.
"People like to use the headboard for a trellis, like to put clematis on," Millett said. "Some people use them in the yard or set them up against the house."
Vinyard's customers also use antiques as trellises. One customer employs an old hayfork while yet another gardener stands an old ladder in her garden.
"Old ladders are fun," Vinyard said. "One customer planted a moonflower vine on it so it climbs up the ladder to bloom in the evening."
Of course, wagon wheels can be used as trellises for vining flowers too.
"One lady made a fence of wagon wheels," Vinyard said. "She welded the wheels together and uses them as a trellis for clematis to grow on."
And don't forget to use your imagination as any antique can be employed in the garden.
"One year, I found an old bicycle and painted it bright yellow," said Sharon Theriot, a co-owner of Rusty Gate antique shop in Greenwood, MO. "A lady bought it to put at the edge of her garden with vines growing over it."
Sections of antique fences are quite popular as garden trellises.
"Iron fences can be used as trellises or to outline a garden space," Millett said. "Of course, old wood picket fence is still strong."
Of course, the old fence gates can be used in modern day gardens.
"Iron gates can be used as garden decor or trellises," Theriot said. "Sometimes people use them as a garden gate, attach them to their fences. Or, sit them along side the house as a trellis. Sometimes they have a martin house on a post that they attach to the gate for vines to climb."
And don't forget, antique gardening items can still be used as plant containers.
"Like old plant stands you can hang a basket on," Nye said. "In my backyard, I have a Ferris wheel that you put clay pots in. Old plant stands, made out of iron or steel, they last forever. Typically, those plant stands come from the ‘30s or ‘40s."
Vintage concrete birdbath stands also can be used as a pedestal for a flowerpot or a gazing ball, Nye said.
Then again, vintage birdbaths can be used as birdbaths or as flower containers.
"You can use them as planters for flowers that don't require lots of soil," Theriot said. "Or, people put water in them and float flower heads and candles in them. Cement birdbaths were made around the turn of the century, in the 1920s and 30s. You can tell the difference between the old ones and the new ones made today. The old ones used coarse concrete, they're not smooth and have old moss stains. Cast iron ones are hard to come by, and expensive. Victorians loved cast iron, they come from the 1800s and the turn of the century."
"Antique farm equipment can be used in planting beds," Vinyard said. "One of my employees uses her grandfather's old disc as a center focus for her flower garden. Wagon wheels are often used, too."
While some gardeners seek out new yard art at garden centers, others visit antique shops for vintage items.
"Bird baths and plant urns, some are footed and some not, and maybe the chicken or duck grandma had in her garden, you know, a frog with peeling paint, those are popular," Millett said. "They're like grandma garden decorations."
Vintage gazing balls and birdhouses are popular garden decor, too.
"We're talking about birdhouses from the ‘30s and ‘40s, most are hand made," Nye said. "They have a certain patina. I've got one hanging on the fence."
"My grandmother always had rows of cosmos, zinnias and cockscomb along the edge of her garden," Vinyard said. "It helped bring in the bees to pollinate the vegetable crops."
Other vintage annuals include pansies and violas.
"In Victorian days, pansies were called Heart's Ease," Vinyard said. "Because they were given to people with broken hearts. I took a pot to someone recently who was bereaved. But sitting a pot on the porch brings us back to the days of our grandmother and great-grandmother, who candied pansies and violas to decorate cakes."
Marigolds, impatiens and begonias also are old-fashioned annuals.
"Begonias like Angel Wings have been around a long time," Vinyard said. "They came from England with the immigrants. Impatiens, the old impatiens are taller than the contemporary ones."
Favorite old-fashioned perennials include peonies, daylilies, lilacs, iris and daffodils.
"Many times you'll drive past where an old farm used to be, and see daffodils blooming," Vinyard said. They are antique flowers. Daffodils can be tucked into old pots and survive the winter nicely. And, antique roses, I have an old rose I call Becky and Cecil because it came from Cecil's farm in Missouri."
If you are seeking a vintage rose, however, you don't need to visit a farm. Garden centers are beginning to sell the old-fashioned blooms again.
"The David Austin series incorporates the old roses with colors and fragrances," Vinyard said. "He is an English rose breeder, and bred them for our weather."
Vintage roses often bloomed in shades of salmon pink and mauve red. But if it's blue flowers you seek, there's nothing like an heirloom hydrangea bush.
"They were dried in mid-to-late summer and used as decor for the winter," Vinyard said. "They can be planted outside, or in containers. I could put a blue hydrangea in a pot, it doesn't need sun, and water it once a month through the winter."
Hollyhocks also are an heirloom flower.
"Hollyhocks are mid-summer bloomers," Vinyard said. "If you go to the historic Shawnee Mission in Kansas, they have a black hollyhock there. It was a medical mission there, and hollyhocks are medicinal."
Sweet balsam also is a great vintage plant with historic legacy.
"It's in the impatiens family. It has a double flower," Vinyard said. "It was called 'Touch Me Not's' because if you touch it, they sling their seeds on the flower bed and reseed."
Vintage vines to climb atop antique trellises include moonflowers and morning glories.
"Morning glories are heavenly blue for the daytime and the moon vine blooms white in the evening," Vinyard said. "They have been around for many, many years."
And a historic garden wouldn't be complete without herbs.
"Herbs were brought here by the colonists for food and medicinal purposes," Vinyard said.
While some herbs can withstand a Midwestern winter, others needed to be nurtured through the cold. That's why some herbs grow best in the ground while others make nice container plants.
Native plants also are heirloom flowers. But, they do not grow well in containers so consider these varieties for your vintage garden.
"Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Spiderwort and Gayfeather have been here historically," Vinyard said. "Native sunflowers are historic plants."
For more information on heirloom or native plants, visit Vinyard's Longview Gardens website at www.longviewgardens.com or check with your local garden center.
Vintage porch furniture
If you like the natural look, twig furniture may be the vintage porch furniture you prefer. Although it is mass-produced as reproduction furniture, vintage twig furniture can still be found at antique shops.
"Original twig furniture was made around the 1930s during the Depression" Theriot said. "A lot of this look originated in the Adirondacks back east where city folk had weekend homes."
Old-fashioned ice cream parlor tables and chairs are used as porch furniture.
"Every town had an ice cream parlor," Theriot said. "Sometimes the stools were tall and fit up to the counter, some tables were short. Iron furniture, with heart shaped backs and twisted wire legs are popular."
Of course, a favorite is the metal lawn chairs that were popular in the 1930s through the 1950s.
"They've been really popular," Theriot said. "I think it's because they're so sturdy and hold up through the winter. They just reflect the old-fashioned garden because everybody had them. They probably originally only cost a dollar."
Although some antiquers refinish the metal armchairs with a fresh coat of paint, Theriot prefers the chairs with chipped paint.
"Green and white are the most popular colors," Theriot said. "Some people like the red. In recent times, people like aqua, yellow and pink but the old-fashioned colors were green, white and red as those were the most common colors when they produced the furniture."
Either way, the vintage porch chairs just add a special touch to a garden.
"They're just charming," Theriot said. "Especially if you have an old-fashioned garden."
Terri Baumgardner is a Blue Springs, MO-based writer. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
> Discover Mid-America Archive Past cover stories