What’s hot in garden statuary: owls and gnomes

05/10/2014 1:00 PM

05/20/2014 7:38 PM

David Van Liew of Kansas City is owner of Van Liew’s Home and Garden, 7347 Prospect Ave. His father, Clarence, and uncle Ernie started the company in 1927 at the same location it occupies today. Van Liew’s originally specialized in wooden garden trellises and archways and concrete urns and fountains shaped on a turning wheel. Today it is known mainly for concrete fountains, birdbaths and statuary made on-site. David Van Liew grew up in the house that is still next door to the store; the house now serves as the company office and storage space. This conversation took place on a tour of the company’s grounds and manufacturing facilities.

What was it like growing up in a house next door to your family’s store?

We had people knocking on our door at all hours, day and night. Me and my dad would just go out and help them.

How has the business evolved over the years?

The wooden arches and trellis business slowly went away because no one wanted to pay what it costs to make them well by hand.

In 1967, we started manufacturing concrete benches, birdbaths and urns using molds instead of the turning wheel, which took too long.

We make our own molds, using pieces we find that aren’t copyrighted, that we like. We make about a thousand different pieces ourselves.

How do you make the molds, and how do you make a fountain or a statue using a mold?

Originally the molds were made of latex rubber on the inside. That gives you the fantastic detail.

We used to use a plaster cast around the outside, held on with straps until it hardened up the next day. Now 90 percent of our casts still have the latex rubber on the inside but the backing is fiberglass, which lasts much longer.

Kansas City’s climate is rough on concrete, because of the freeze-thaw cycles in winter, yet concrete garden accessories and statuary are very popular. How can people extend the life of concrete birdbaths and fountains?

The biggest thing is how the concrete is manufactured. All concrete is not made alike. We use different chemicals to make the concrete more durable. Higher rock content also makes concrete last longer.

Design is important, too. A birdbath or fountain with straight sides on the bowl is more likely to crack than one with sloping sides.

The main thing is to keep water, including rain, out of them in winter. Turn the bowl upside down or bring it indoors.

If the detachable bowl does break, we can make another one to fit on the base.

What about birdbath warmers?

There are two problems with warmers. One, if it breaks or loses power. Two, even if it works the water that soaks into the concrete will still freeze.

Glazed pottery birdbaths will hold up better as long as your warmer doesn’t go out — but if it does, it will break right in half. Put your warmer in a plastic flowerpot saucer for the birds instead.

What trends are you seeing in statuary design?

Modern designs are becoming more popular, but traditional fountains and urns have always been very popular. Sales of most statuary are down except religious statues — Catholic saints and angels are very big. Also, statues for fairy gardens are very popular.

What’s a fairy garden?

A miniature garden with miniature concrete pieces in it and little archways and bridges. Those are really big now. And gnomes are very big.

Do statues of certain animals come in and out of fashion?

Dogs are very popular, as pet memorials.

Otherwise, pigs used to be very popular but they’ve faded. Owls were out, but they’ve come back in for some reason. Squirrels are down. Rabbits are real popular.

This comes out in print on Mother’s Day. Is that a big day for you?

Mother’s Day is our Christmas. Usually the mother comes in with the family and picks something out, or she comes in alone and sends the husband back to get it. Sometimes the husband and children will come in without the mother and pick out something as a surprise.

I think it’s because even for people who have everything they need, there’s always room in the yard for something new.

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