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Photo: Courtesy Josh Mccullough

Hens and chicks (Sempervivum), two types of sedum, and a small shell transform a high-class faux-alligator shoe into lovable low-brow art in Nancy Goldman’s Northeast Portland garden.

Be an Art Patron (or an Artist)

UNLEASH YOUR CREATIVITY. Portland’s recycling ethos has no greater expression than in its citizens’ gardens. The best art can come from your own basement. Dig up that old bike or lamp shade to reincarnate the perfect trellis, planter, or decoration. Elevate that exquisite stone figurine from Thailand on a pedestal to make an outdoor altar. That lovely gnarled branch you gleaned on a beach trip? Set it in a garden bed and add a little vine like Clematis integrifolia or sweet peas. Beautiful, funny, funky, or elegant—custom-made art makes a great conversation starter. 

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Photo: Courtesy Josh Mccullough

Northeast Portland garden designer and artist Jeffrey Bale designs each mosaic according to the site—and the aesthetics of the homeowner. Here, mosaic art in Nancy Goldman’s garden is planted with drought-tolerant Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’.

KNOW THYSELF. Portlanders are nothing if not inventive, but it’s best to leave anything technical and permanent to the experts. If you’re into sleek, contemporary concrete or the funky, bohemian look of handmade mosaic paths, but designing or building them isn’t in your skill set, find the designer or craftsperson of your dreams, ask people whose gardens you admire, or check out the Association of Northwest Landscape Designers.

BE A PATRON. Support your local artists. Cracked Pots’ annual July sale at McMenamins Edgefield is legendary for great garden finds. Pieces run the gamut from lowbrow repurposed punched tin-can lanterns to upscale recycled metal installation pieces. Great local garden shops like Digs Inside & Out on NE Alberta Street and Dig, in the Pearl, offer great locally made art.

REMEMBER SCALE. Art needs to rise to the occasion of the outdoors. Think big or in multiples, especially with small pieces, which can disappear into the foliage or landscape.

GET PICTURESQUE. Think about your garden as a painting, whether seen from your front stoop or from a chair through a window. Place art within your fondest views. Keep plantings simple around fussy art. Modern objects look great with bold, monochromatic plantings. A colorfully painted birdhouse will be enhanced by voluptuous, old-fashioned cottage garden flowers like foxgloves, daisies, love-in-a-mist, and black-eyed Susan.

Expert Tips

DIY Garden Art
Nancy Goldman | Retired PSU administrator; recycled-art creator

nancy goldman
Image: Thomas Cobb

I’d seen people use boots as planters, but that wasn’t fancy enough for me. So I tried some little shoes. I drilled holes in the bottom and filled them with soil, planted them, and displayed them on a shoe rack.

I got a lot of the shoes in secondhand stores in North Dakota, where I’m from. I got one pair from an estate sale where the husband told me his deceased wife had worn them dancing. I liked that. They don’t last forever—but that’s fine. Nothing’s permanent.

I’m a Dumpster diver, and I’ve always found things for inside my house and my garden. It speaks to my aesthetic—making something traditional nontraditional. A while back, I started using alphabet magnets. I’ve got little sayings throughout the garden. One of them is “Hortus meus culum calcitrat”—my garden kicks ass.


Plants: Sedums, sempervivums
Planters:Trawl thrift stores for funky shoes, dishes, and bits of architectural salvage.