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Germany's Garden Gnomes

They spend their summers 'working' in the garden, but when damp autumn air replaces warm balmy nights, all over Germany little red cheeked, bearded folk in workman's trousers and shoes, red pointed hats often bent at the tip, are taken into homes. Germany's Garden Gnomes. The time will have arrived for most of the country's 25 million to begin their 'hibernation' until those first days of spring.

For a Gartenzwerg cold weather quarters are often a clearly visible spot in the home. Not for them a battered cardboard box or dusty shelf in an outhouse or attic.

In a land which for generations has produced talented landscape gardeners and famous garden architects, including the prince who inspired the creators of New York's Central Park, the 'Garden Gnome' is king.

Perhaps sitting incongruously on a perfect lawn or peering out from an otherwise faultlessly coordinated flowerbed, sometimes in the rafters of farm yard sheds protecting the farmer's crops and livestock, and believed to bring "Good Luck" when either inside or outside the home, the Gartenzwerg, garden dwarf, has been a part of German culture for over a century.

It was in the mid-nineteenth century when craftsmen living in Graefenroda, a Thuringian village, who were specialized in the production of ceramics took advantage of legends that gnomes helped and protected gardens at night, and began mass producing in terracotta Gartenzwerg which had been made from clay since the early 1800s.

Suddenly a gnome, (pronounced nome), was the must have garden ornament including, until the end of the 19th century when the general public began to follow the trend, those of ancient and stately homes, and to keep up with the increasing demand for them across not only Germany but also France and England, German manufacturers of all sizes and capabilities began to produce them.

World Wars, an East German government which considered them symbols of capitalism, together with changing tastes and circumstances, including the advent of plastic replicas and, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, inexpensive poorly produced designs from the Polish and Czech Republics and then China flooding the market, led to the industry almost being destroyed.

Only one of the original German manufacturers remains, the fourth generation of Philip Griebel's family, and on the 'birth certificates' of those Graefenroda garden gnomes their species is given as Nanus hortorum vulgaris, 'common garden dwarf'.

The garden gnome's history has passed from garden status symbol through kitsch, and is back to becoming something of a cult, but in Germany they have never gone out of fashion.

What are they, and why put them in a garden, on a windowsill or hanging from rafters.

One of several theories for the tradition stems from 'Priapus', a fertility god in Greek-Roman mythology, who with wooden sickle in his hand was reputed to protect gardens, farm animals and agriculture, and 'in real life' was used as a scarecrow in Roman gardens. And garden gnomes are indeed effective small scarecrows.

A German myth however describes gnomes who during the night frighten away any two or four legged prowlers, while also helping with the weeding and the rest of the garden work.

The word gnome is based on a Greek phrase for Earth Dweller, as in ancient times not only were certain gods believed to live underground but later strange and wayward beings were supposed to inhabit the woodlands, living in burrows and coming out only to cause chaos.

Something which was not difficult for people to assume with the cold, dark and overgrown European forests of those days.

Even the Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling describe garden gnomes as "wretched creatures to be cleared away at every opportunity", although in 'The Gnome', the collection of stories by The Brothers Grimm, there are both kind and malicious examples.

France and Italy have Garden Gnome Liberation groups who Free gnomes from gardens to release them back into their natural habitat, but for a terracotta gnome this is rather unfortunate because close contact with soil and inclement weather will shorten his or her life considerably.

Some Britons have taken to traveling with gnomes and photographing them in front of the Taj Mahal or sunbathing on Bondi Beach, and Amelie, is a French film that features the world travels of a stolen garden gnome, while in 2002 summer solstice, June 21, was established as International Gnome Day.

However in Germany apart from a few digressions which have been dealt with swiftly, such as garden gnomes dressed as Nazis, a German Gartenswerge just continues to do what folklore decrees that it does best: wake up as darkness falls and start work in its garden, keeping the soil moist and healthy, helping plants come into flower, leaves to change their colors, and frightening away those two and four legged prowlers.

So as temperatures dropped and daylight decreased over Germany worker gnomes such as Instus with his Wheelbarrow, and leisure and culture gnomes like Heinz the fisherman and Willi with his book, were brought inside, dusted down and carefully placed somewhere warm and dry to wait for the spring, just as they have been for many years in the past and as they will continue to be for generations to come.


"Gartenzweg" photos by courtesy de.Wikipedia

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