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BellaOnline's German Culture Editor


Germany's Garden Gnomes, Gartenzwerge

They spend their summers "working" in the garden, but when warm balmy nights are replaced by damp autumn air, little red cheeked, bearded folk in workman's trousers and shoes, red pointed hats often bent at the tip, are taken into homes. "They" are Germany's Garden Gnomes.

When the time arrives for most of the country's 25 million Gartenzwerge, garden dwarfs, to begin "hibernating" until the first days of spring not for them a battered cardboard box, or dusty shelf in an outhouse or attic. Cold weather quarters are often a clearly visible spot in the home.

For generations Germany has produced talented landscape gardeners and famous garden architects, including the prince who inspired the creators of New York's Central Park but in many areas it's 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, "garden dwarf", has been a part of German culture for over a century.

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

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

To keep up with the increasing demand, across not only 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; after the fall of the Iron Curtain the market was flooded with inexpensive poorly produced designs, from the Polish and Czech Republics followed by 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, 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 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 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 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.

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 the summer solstice, June 21, was established as International Gnome Day.

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

But as soon as first signs of Fruehling appear, out they come. Back in pride of place to continue doing what folklore decrees that they does best: wake up as darkness falls and start work in the garden, keeping soil moist and healthy, helping plants come into flower, leaves to change their colors, and frightening away those two and four legged prowlers.

"Zwei Gartenzweg" by Cornelia.K via fotocommunity.de and Garden Gnome 3 via de.Wikipedia, "Rupert und Alois maehen um die Wette" by Ludahid

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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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