What autumn garden scene doesn’t have a scarecrow or harvest figure?
Spooky Halloween creatures aside, sculptures of human figures have long played an important role in gardens. These ersatz people have reigned for centuries, from ancient Buddas, saint statues, carved gnomes and facial features hung on tree trunks, and classical marble gods and goddesses. Some of the latter, including dozens at the Palace of Versailles, are so anatomically correct that I have to watch my camera angle or I wouldn’t be able to show photos during staid garden club meetings!
What I see around the countryside are mostly simple homemade scarecrows. For hundreds of years, gardeners have set out working stick-and-cloth people-shaped creatures with wind-blown features to help keep crop-hungry critters at bay. From ancient Shinto crop protectors to the rag-tag armies of simple scarecrows still used to stand guard over crops in English farms, they all have two things in common: a basic clothed human figure and long, loose arms that flap in the wind.
Not that a bird will be fooled for long; I’ve seen birds perched on scarecrows. It takes motion, reflected light and random noises to keep wildlife alarmed.
Beyond crop protection, human figures are often used symbolically or as accessories. I have photographed countless faux folks, from contemporary to whimsical, in nearly every top award-winning design at garden shows from every corner of the U.S., England and Europe; most are more ornamental than ominous.
In my own garden, I have a statue of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners; an effigy of myself welded by an artistic friend from various bits of metal; a rebar man looming out of my compost; a dozen or so partially hidden gnomes; and a mannequin clothed in a sparkly cape and wig. And every Halloween I set out a leering jack-o’-lantern made from an inverted ATV tire painted orange.
Mostly what we see in home gardens are less scarecrow, more harvest figure, commonly set up in the autumn amidst dried corn stalks, hay bales and pumpkins, and gourds to celebrate the end of the season.
Those that aren’t seated or lounging are usually a cross made from an upright post with a shorter shoulders piece. The simplest of all, which I use with children, is a broomstick with a clothes hanger taped near the top, draped with an old long-sleeved shirt or dress and no legs at all. Fluttering tape on sleeve cuffs, some Mardi Gras beads around the neck, and kids can have a blast.
I’ve seen countless variations of heads: a plastic bag or pillow case stuffed with more bags, a wooden cut-out, soccer ball, half-gallon milk jug, gourd, an upturned flower pot or just a mophead or cheap wig stuck on top and finished off with a hat. And, actually, there’s no real need for a face, though any expression or mood can be made with an indelible marker, paint or a Halloween mask. Odd bits can be hot-glued on.
The saying that “clothes make the man” applies doubly to scarecrows and harvest figures. Old jeans and a long-sleeve shirt stuffed with grocery bags and straw sticking out of the leg bottoms and sleeves will do nicely and can be accessorized and held together better with a vest or T-shirt; a long-sleeve dress would work well even with no legs.
Taking advantage of our tolerance of seasonal yard accessories, making a homemade scarecrow, harvest figure or other temporary yard folk this waning season can be a fun family project.
Too bad there isn’t something I could put on a stick that would scare away weeds!
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.