Obelisks make a good point. They're an ancient garden ornament with plenty of modern style.
Obelisks give a garden a lift; they're monumental exclamation points that capture your eye and attention and help organize a space. Although the world's most famous obelisks -- Cleopatra's needles and the Washington Monument, among them -- are not exactly on the scale of garden ornaments, the dramatic form adapts very gracefully to gardens of every size.
Technically, an obelisk is simply a pointed stone pillar, but this basic definition has been broadly interpreted. Garden obelisks can be constructed of almost any material. Unlike a garden tepee for beans or peas, which is usually put together with just three tall stakes held together at the top, an obelisk is a sturdier construction, with a strong architectural presence in the garden. They are the perfect finishing touch.
A pair of obelisks at a garden gate have the stately bearing of sentries, but you don't need two: a single tall obelisk, standing proudly in a flower bed or at the bottom of a path, strikes a resounding and unifying note in a garden. Obelisks at the outer corners of a patio provide a subtle sense of enclosure, and they need not be tall to have this effect: by their very presence and uniformity, they lend a certain momentum, like chess pieces on a board, to even a simple setting.
Garden obelisks were perhaps at the height of their popularity in the 17th century, when Andre Le Notre, the great landscape architect of the palace of Versailles, set a pair of them at the gates to the French king's extravagant country estate. Within the gates, topiary obelisks held strategic echoing positions in the artful parterres. In the 17th and 18th centuries, trellis-work obelisks were used extensively in clipped and controlled Dutch gardens. Garden historians describe obelisks as "practically ubiquitous" in 18th-century English and Irish gardens, where stone obelisks framed the views. They were often engraved with commemorative inscriptions.
From European gardens, obelisks moved to America, where they took up residence especially in cemeteries. One theory about their popularity is that obelisks had a much smaller footprint and were less expensive than more magnificent monuments. Another is that obelisks evoked the great civilizations of classical antiquity to which the young nation was very eager to compare itself. They also had space for engraving on four sides, and were thus sensible choices for family plots.
In a graveyard, obelisks appear solemn and perhaps a little mournful; in a garden, they are certainly dignified, but not always quite so serious. In a tiny backyard in Virginia, a designer erected a rustic fieldstone obelisk at the back of his garden and topped it with a shimmering golden ball, like something out of a fairytale. Another gardener set tradition aside and topped her 10-foot obelisk with a charming birdhouse. Topiary obelisks of clipped boxwood, yews or other naturally slender evergreens, grown in ranks or as solitary punctuation points in a garden design, are living obelisks that need little attention. They become more and more commanding as they grow to their full height.
Wrought iron or wood obelisks are often put to work as three-dimensional trellises for clematis, annual vines, beans or tomatoes. They're great for clambering roses and evergreen honeysuckles because lanky growth can be confined within their tidy framework while the blooms shine through the structure. Small obelisks, designed to fit in big flowerpots, let you bring vining plants such as mandevillas up onto a porch, where you can appreciate their flowers up close.
Even if you're not very handy with tools, making your own obelisk is an easy project, well worth a few weekend hours. My husband and I downloaded plans from the Internet -- many styles and designs with pointed or square tops are available for free -- and made two obelisks last summer, a small one for a cucumber vine in a big terra-cotta pot, and an 8-foot-tall obelisk for a place of prominence in the middle of the garden. Once we had our materials together, it took us most of an afternoon to complete the job, but we took plenty of breaks to appreciate our progress. Both obelisks were an instant success, standing tall in the summer garden.
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