These can be seen as happy, cute and whimsical garden ornaments, or downright ugly and sinister figures, depending on your viewpoint. Small statues of weird little men in pointy red hats, bearded and belted. They can be traditional, fashionable, sporty, funny or evil, made of plastic, ceramic or stone, and are traditionally found in unexpected places in gardens. Commonly seen reclining with pipes, holding up umbrellas - even mooning! - or with fishing rods on the edge of ponds, or just sitting on toadstools, seemingly watching the world go by.

I bought a house once where the front garden looked like it had been taken over by concrete ornaments – a wishing well, a concrete alligator in two pieces, so it looked like it was half submerged in the lawn, and the dreaded gnomes, some playing, and one even holding up a ‘keep off the grass’ sign. My heart sank with the thought of what to do with these monstrosities, but thankfully the previous owner loved them enough to take them away when they vacated.

Who invented these gnome horrors? They were thought to protect property owners from evil spirits and to pave the way for a more prosperous future. Though they seem like a 50s/60s ‘fun fad’, the garden gnome came into being in Germany in 1872 and were called Gartenzwerge (garden dwarfs). Folklore traces them back to the late 18th and 19th centuries when gnomes were believed to be household spirits responsible for the care and prosperity of a farm or family. They were tasked with various chores around the home, and mischievously might act up if the humans didn't cater to their little gnome needs.

Wizard gardens

It is also said that gnomes are creatures that live in wizards' gardens. They are often seen as pests, and to get rid of them, they should be grabbed by the feet, swung around a few times and then flung away, to confuse them.

Wikipedia describes a gnome as a mythological creature and diminutive spirit in Renaissance magic and alchemy, first introduced by Paracelsus in the 16th century and later adopted by more recent authors including those of modern fantasy literature. Its characteristics have been reinterpreted to suit the needs of various storytellers, but it is typically said to be a small humanoid that lives underground.

In European folklore, things certainly take a turn for the worse, with the gnome being described as a dwarfish, subterranean goblin or earth spirit who guards mines of precious treasures hidden in the earth. He is represented in medieval mythologies as a small, physically deformed (usually hunchbacked) creature resembling a dry, gnarled old man.

Weirdly, they are still popular, and love them or hate them, there was a ‘gnome reserve’ in North Devon in the UK where for 35 years, four acres of beautiful countryside had been a natural habitat for a lovely display of wildlife – plus a large community of over 2,000 gnomes and pixies, making it into the Guinness Book of Records for the largest gnome collection on the planet. Here, these little pint-size woodland beings could be seen romping about in their daily lives: playing chess, reading a book, getting married, or even engaging in the space race. They could be found hidden among the trees, relaxing by the pond and stream, or at home in the wildflower garden. This quirky place was founded by a former art student who was motivated to create a refuge for the garden gnomes of Britain to roam free. Other places exist too, one in California, and even a gnome theme park exists, not to mention a board game, and numerous crafts and gifts - even clothing - with gnome themes.

These comical little models can still be added to your garden and can be bought from various places on the internet. Did you perhaps wonder what they are worth? Collectors pay the most for old iron or terra-cotta gnomes. Prices range from less than €50 for small new ones to hundreds of euros for old examples. Repainting does not lower the value, so if you stumble on one, it might be worth buying, even if you hate it!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan