It began in the Old World when ancient Roman urns were unearthed around the time of the American Revolution. Most held ashes of the Romans whose empire once governed much of Britain and Europe. The urns ended up decorating formal 16th- and 17th-century manor house gardens.
In China, centuries later, the Jiahu site yielded funerary urns that were 7,000 years old. Those beauties are inspiring designs of decorative urns flooding garden centers today.
Urns are among the most universal of elements to bring elegance and an aged look to any garden, from a palatial estate to a small condo courtyard. If you look at the urn as a freestanding art element, it can serve as a pivot for the surrounding plants.
When buying a decorative urn, you must consider size, shape, texture and color. Larger landscapes need big urns able to stand out in expansive spaces. In smaller spaces, you’ll see the urn up close and personal.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Think of the urn as an interior decor item that will add visual interest where there is no view. You can spend more on a small urn with an exciting glaze or get an age-old look with a real antique.
How the urn is finished is important if it is to blend into architecture and garden style. Natural clay urns, like Roman amphoras with two handles, provide Old World Mediterranean appeal.
North African water jars imported by Moroccan traders and heavy Mexican terra cotta are often similar and go well with desert and xeriscape gardens.
For more contemporary looks, seek bright modern glazes that create a contrast between texture and form.
Today’s imports often come with the textured surfaces of excavated urns from Asia . Agave and bamboo sticks are sometimes added to create a strong vertical effect.
If you plan to put plants in your urns, the size of the mouth and body are crucial. Plants are rarely planted directly into urns, serving instead as a cachepot that holds the smaller nursery pot the plant came in.
Filling the urn directly with soil could cause oversaturation in the bottom of the urn, which is deadly to succulents and affects the overall weight of the plant, making it harder to move.
Larger urns typically hold five-gallon nursery pots. You can buy a new plant each year to give your urns a fresh look. Support the nursery pot by stacking similar pots upside down inside the urn until they bring the top of the five-gallon pot to the right level. You want to see the plant but not the ugly nursery pot it came in. Be sure the urn’s drain hole is open, so water doesn’t build up inside.
Small urns can hold a variety of traditional patio plants, from tall, spiky sansevieria (aka Mother-in-law’s tongue) in one-gallon pots to cascading petunias in a hanging basket. Just snap off the hangers.
Be prepared to spend money on your urn. It can move with you if you relocate.
For gardens suffering drought, consider this the ultimate improvement for a beautiful yard with little demand for water. If rains return, you can turn your urn into a fountain.
Move your urn to a spot that’s visible from inside your home to enjoy your creativity every day.