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Germany's Garden Gnomes, Gartenzwerge


Garden gnomes belong to Germany like Bratwurst and football. They spend their summers "working" in gardens until warm balmy nights are replaced by damp autumn air, then the little red cheeked, bearded folk in workman's trousers and shoes, red pointed hats often bent at the tip, are taken into homes.

For most of the country's 25 million Gartenzwerge, "garden dwarfs", "hibernating" until the first days of spring doesn't mean months in a battered cardboard box, or lying on a dusty shelf in an outhouse or attic. Their cold weather quarters are often have pride of place in the home.

For generations Germany has produced talented landscape gardeners and famous garden architects, including a prince who inspired the creators of New York's Central Park, but in many regions it is the "Garden Gnome" who is king.

Perhaps sitting 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. Believed to bring "Good Luck" inside or outside the home, the Gartenzwerg has been a part of German culture for over a century.

In the mid-nineteenth century craftsmen who lived in Graefenroda, a Thuringian village, and specialized in ceramics, took advantage of a legend that gnomes helped and protected gardens at night. They began to mass produce in terracotta the Gartenzwerge that from the early 1800s had been made in clay.

Suddenly a gnome, (pronounced nome), was the "must have" garden ornament in the gardens of ancient and stately homes. This lasted until the end of the 19th century when the general public began to follow the trend.

To keep up with the increasing demand, not only across Germany but also France and England, German manufacturers of all sizes and capabilities began to produce them.

Changing tastes and circumstances almost led to the destruction of the industry. World Wars, an East German government that considered them symbols of capitalism, the advent of plastic replicas, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain a market flooded with inexpensive poorly produced designs from the Polish and Czech Republics and China.

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. Wooden sickle in hand he was reputed to protect gardens, farm animals and agriculture, while "in real life" he was used as a scarecrow in Roman gardens.

Garden gnomes are indeed small but effective scarecrows.

A German myth 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 that was not difficult for people to believe with the cold, dark and overgrown European forests of those days.

Even Harry Potter books describe garden gnomes as "wretched creatures to be cleared away at every opportunity", although in "The Gnome", a collection of stories by The Brothers Grimm, there are kind ones as well as malicious.

France and Italy have Garden Gnome Liberation groups who "Free" gnomes from gardens to release them back into their natural habitat.

For a terracotta gnome this is rather unfortunate, because close contact with soil and inclement weather will shorten his or her life considerably.

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

As temperatures drop and daylight decreases worker gnomes such as "Instus" with his Wheelbarrow, and leisure and culture gnomes like "Heinz" the fisherman or "Willi" with his book, are 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 will continue to be for generations to come.

But at the first signs of Frühling out they come. Back in pride of place to continue doing what folklore decrees they does best: wake up as darkness falls and start work in the garden, keep soil moist and healthy, help plants come into flower, leaves to change color, and frighten away all those two and four legged prowlers.


Illustrations" "Rupert und Alois maehen um die Wette" by Ludahid - Where terracota Gnomes are born by suedkurier.de - A working gnome by br.de

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Garden by the Moon in Germany
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Content copyright © 2015 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna-Klein. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna-Klein for details.

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