The most delightful gardens have that personal touch to them, a certain ethereal quality that can't be manufactured by a big-box home retail store. It's as though Mother Nature herself shared her secrets and provided a bounty of flora. Sometimes these secrets are interpreted through ambassadors of the earth, in the guise of jolly little fellows with pointy hats and beards. They are gnomes, and they make for a whimsical addition to any yard.
Myths suggest that these woodland humanoids originated in Scandinavia more than 1,500 years ago, according to Wil Huygen's 1977 classic folklore book, "Gnomes." Characterized by their jovial, hardworking nature, they gained popularity throughout Europe, especially Germany. The Brothers Grimm often told fairy tales featuring the creatures, in which they would merrily assist cobblers and other tradesmen. These attributes crossed over to gardening in the early 1800s, when Phillip Griebel began mass-producing terra-cotta gnomes for the town of Graefenroda, Germany, to figuratively aid with the horticulture there.
They began their westward colonization in 1847, when Sir Charles Isham of England brought some of the statues back from a trip to Germany, according to various sources. From then on, gnomes have sprung up in popular culture, from the 1980s cartoon series "The World of David the Gnome" to the omnipresent nomad in the Travelocity commercials.
Lawrence Ticotin -- proprietor of Gnome Town USA (http://www.GnomeTownUSA.com), based out of Stanhope, N.J. -- knows just how in demand these tiny mythological men have become. He says that since he started the Web site -- four years ago -- his company's gnomes have appeared in such films as "Gran Torino" and the TV show "Weeds." Furthermore, his blog tracks the journeys of adopted gnomes. One story even led to Iraq, where the figurines kept a platoon of Army soldiers company.
Of the dozens of products he offers, "the most popular has been TH Rumple," Ticotin says. Rumple embodies the Every-gnome, with a cornucopia cap and an affable grin. He is made out of marble resin and priced at $58.
With growing demand comes a growing variety of gnomes. Some bricks-and-mortar stores, such as the Garden Center in Marina del Rey, Calif., sell small quantities of the earthy characters in the springtime, according to multiple employees there. But for niche shoppers to be satisfied, online is the place to go. GnomeFrenzy.com boasts a huge collection, from breast cancer awareness gnomes ($39.95) to humorous "mooning" gnomes ($17.95) to gnomes dressed in Major League Baseball jerseys ($26.95). The site even will create a gnome with your own logo design.
Not sure where to begin with your new gnome garden? Ask other enthusiasts, recommends Liz Spera, creator of Gnome Habitat USA, in Auburn, Calif. She's turned her 5-acre ranch into a sanctuary for the dwarfish beings -- more than 2,000 at her last count. She also runs The International Gnome Club, where hundreds worldwide discuss trends and relics. Spera notes that Australia hosts a yearly meeting of gnomephiles that rivals the devotion of Trekkies. At a recent gathering, she says, a Lampy replica (part of Charles Isham's batch, insured for 1 million British pounds) was flown in from England to wow fans. "I think he had a guard," Spera recollects.
"We do seem a little bit out there," she says. But, she adds, there is something for everyone in the realm of garden gnome collecting. And in this era of "going green," they're an ideal component for brightening a yard.
"They are getting lighter and lighter, more durable for outdoor use," she says. "They try to educate us about being environmentally friendly."
Have an outdoor dog or cat? There are even gnomes made to withstand their animal brethren, Spera tells us.
Kimmel gnomes "have good paint on them. If you have leg lifters," she says, "or arctic temperatures, those are good."
Despite the joy these creatures may bring to some, Spera and others warn, there are renegades who might try to take your garden dwellers. Gaining momentum over the past decade, especially in Europe, have been groups dedicated to ending what they call "enslavement" of gnomes. The Chief Liberator behind Southern California's FreeTheGnomes.com, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that exhibiting the statues is a form of oppression.
"We encourage our liberators to assist the liberated gnomes with safe passage and return to a gentle woodland, their natural habitat, where these noble creatures may live out (their) days in peace and freedom," Chief says. Free the Gnomes also sells T-shirts and other "abolitionist" memorabilia.
Freedom fighters aside, collectors say that gnomes bring a tranquility and vibrancy to a garden in a way that no other element can. And with such a wide spectrum of prices and personalities, there's "gnome" doubt that there's one especially for you out there.