After her sons nicknamed her “gnome,” Kathy Penner made it a theme in her charming Midwestern garden.
Once a plain white farmhouse on a former dairy farm, the Penner home and landscape now radiate color, creativity, and charm.
Kathy and Larry Penner share a laugh in front of their Iowa home. Kathy stands tall at 4 feet, 11 inches and when her youngest son hit a growth spurt that sent him towering over his mother, all three of her boys started calling her “gnome.” “So that stuck with me the last 13 years,” Kathy says. “My garden theme became gnome related.”
After Kathy took a class on how to combine broken terracotta with hardy succulents, tiny gnomes found new landscapes to call home.
Miniature conifers and succulents are perfect for tiny gnome or fairy gardens.
The garden shed is an original building on the edge-of-town farm where their 1906 home stands. When the Penners bought the place in 2000, the shed was a pink falling-down wreck with no doors or windows. Over the course of a couple of summers, Larry revived it, giving it a hunter green paint job with brick red trim to match their home’s siding. It now houses many of Kathy’s garden tools and treasures, all arrayed artistically. “It’s like a playhouse,” she says.
Kathy didn’t set out to collect gnomes, but being a good sport, went along with the joke when her kids started showering her with statues of the diminutive dwarves. Still, there are times when you just know a thing is right. Kathy and Larry were at a flea market in Minnesota when she stopped in her tracks. In front of her was a 6-foot wooden totem pole of gnomes in the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” formation. “Larry,” she told him, “I’ve got to have this, it’s speaking to me.”
Kathy uses every space in the garden, including the side of her shed to create vignettes that include some of her favorite finds. “There are a few things I focus on,” Kathy says. “I love to collect sprinklers, nozzles, flower frogs, and watering cans. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to do with something, I just bring it home.”
The Penners’ 1 1/2-acre yard has been featured on a number of local garden tours. As their landscape has evolved over the years from mostly shade to partially sunny thanks to the loss of three large trees, Kathy has learned to use new plant material.
“I’m trying to get to a lower maintenance landscape,” she says. She’s replacing lilies with ornamental grasses and tough-but-beautiful oakleaf and panicle hydrangeas.
Kathy’s aware that it would be easy to get too caught up with collecting gnomes. “I don’t overdo that look,” she says. “I like to take vignettes and do them all differently so as you’re touring through my yard, you see many types of things.” For example, when an old maple tree needed to be removed, Kathy asked that the stump be saved. She found this barbed wire nest first, then, spotted the eagle at a garage sale.
Boy and girl gnomes partner with a pair of cracked pot arrangements, creating a symmetrical grouping. Don’t give up on broken terracotta containers. Save and stack the pieces, then tuck in tiny succulents.
The red siding of the Penners’ home creates a vibrant backdrop for a tall vignette that includes one of Kathy’s favorite gnomes, chicken feeders, and creative containers. When she creates a garden scene, Kathy often starts with an old table or makes one with a plank and two tall objects. Then she starts adding things like a birdhouse, a watering can, or a potted plant and goes from there. “It’s almost like I’m landscaping with them,” she says. “I love detail.”
The weathered chair not only looks inviting, it serves as a piece of garden art.
The potting bench anchors a setting of terracotta containers and various antique finds.
Larry uses five castoff windows to create rustic, garden-sized versions of Wardian cases, favored in the Victorian era for housing rare plants. Shells collected by Kathy since childhood spill across the bed at the feet of the classical statue. Bee balm and hosta thrive in a part-sun location.
Grouping collections, such as vintage metal trivets, floor grates, and a cultivator wheel adds impact. The old-time favorites mix with whimsy along the cedar fence that lines the back yard. Kathy changes the displays every year in this outdoor gallery.
A vintage scooter hangs on the cedar fence alongside an iron frog and an old metal feed company sign.
Pretty pottery figurines and china fills a birdbath but the same birdbath next year may be filled with seashells or simply hold water again. Mercury glass globes surround the birdbath like bubbles.
A rusted toy truck filled with old spigot and valve handles seems to await a driver as it adds whimsy to a flowerbed.
Galvanized tubs planted with begonias and herbs are the perfect hiding spots for toy vehicles and the mischievous gnomes that await visitors. If you’re looking for more ideas for repurposed plant containers, check out our flea-market container post here.
The vintage pedal car was Larry’s childhood toy. It now seems a temptation for this gnome, poised to motor off into his own little world.
Populating your garden
Gnomes, fairies, elves, animals, and other offbeat, interesting characters add personality your yard. Consider these strategies for displaying them to best advantage.
Be consistent in choosing your favorites. Having a garden replete with only frogs or cats, for example, creates a strong theme. And it gives others good gift ideas for you!
Make it an enchanted setting. When you include whimsical elements such as gnomes in a garden, consider adding other miniature furniture or garden ornaments.
Each statue can become a focal point. Place items where you want your visitor’s eyes to be drawn.
Hidden items are also garden assets. The tip of a gnome’s hat peeking above a growing plant is a tantalizing draw. Know how many are hidden and challenge guests to find them.
Produced by Susan Appelget Hurst
Photography by Cameron Sadeghpour
© Caruth Studio