A few years ago, when I was wedded to stylish outdoor living spaces, I went in mortal dread of anyone giving me a gift for the garden. What would I do, I worried, if someone gave me a hypertufa sculpture of intertwined mermaids with seaweed round their necks? Where would I hide a hand-made corrugated iron guinea pig?

I learned my lesson one day when someone highly recommended a garden to photograph for the garden magazine I published and I took it on faith and turned up with my photographer.

The suburban backyard was a spooky combination of curvaceous concrete paths painted high gloss placenta pink, snaking their way around garden beds filled with alien-looking succulents. There were also several small, arched bridges, a plethora of fishing gnomes shaded by savagely bonsaied Japanese maples, and a family of alarming ceramic hens in colours hens were never meant to be.

The elderly couple who had created this work of art were of course thrilled to bits that their creation had been chosen to feature in a garden design magazine and I was incapable of disappointing them.

The photographer did her best and four pages of what I thought was the most hideous garden I had ever seen appeared in our December issue. I hoped all my readers would be too full of Christmas cheer to notice. They weren’t. They loved it. They saw straight past the gnomes and the spooky plants and found the humour, the quirkiness and the love that make a garden fantastic.

I can’t say I went home and filled my own garden with garishly hand-painted plaster figurines, but it would be fair to say the scales had fallen from my eyes. I began to appreciate bizarre things in other people’s gardens, and I stopped telling people that the lovely terracotta Santa Claus combined clock and rain gauge they gave me got washed away last time we had a flood.

Now when I visit gardens, eccentricities make me smile. I’m always on the lookout for something that’s quirky or silly or even downright ugly that obviously means something to the gardener.

And I’m inclined to beg, borrow or buy anything I see that takes my fancy as a piece of garden tat without worrying about whether it has something to contribute to the overall style of the outdoor living space.

On my birthday recently, a couple of friends gave me a miniature sheep. I’d been coveting one of viticulturist Peter Yealands’ baby doll sheep for weeks and lamenting the fact that they cost about $3000 each, which is quite big for something quite little. The sheep my friends gave me is smaller than Peter’s, and inanimate, and I love it. I’ve named it Janome and it is sitting right outside the French doors on a carpet of magnolia petals. It shares space with the strange carvings of squatting men with tufts growing out of their heads that my cleaning lady generously gave me.

In the garden at our entranceway are what one might, on a good day, describe as some rather interestingly shaped pieces of driftwood. The guy who came to plant trees around our stream bank risked life and limb (well, a wetting, anyway) to fish them out of the water for us.

And when anyone wandering around our garden asks me “what the hell is THAT doing there?”, I always have a story to tell. Which is what gardens are really about.


(Order number: eccentricities 6)