Garden Gnomes: The Shocking Truth - December 16, 2015
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

As a public servant and faculty member of the University of Arizona, it is my duty to provide the residents of Yavapai County the best available science-based, horticultural information. That is why I chose to reprint this important article about garden gnomes and their unique place in landscapes around the world. It takes a special person, usually someone with uncommon fortitude, to successfully incorporate garden gnomes into their home landscape.

Gnomes are often featured in Germanic literature and are described as resembling a gnarled old man (females are less commonly encountered), living deep underground, who guards buried treasure. Throughout their home range of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe, they are known by a variety of names: kaukis (Prussia), tomten (Sweden), and barbegazi (France and Switzerland). In Iceland, gnomes (known as vættir) are so respected that roads are re-routed around areas said to be inhabited by them.

Gnomes work at night in the woods and sometimes in human dwellings. It is not a coincidence that the word gnome itself is derived from Kuba-Walda, which means "home administrator" in the ancient Germanic language. In rural areas these home administrators often live in the rafters of barns, where, if they are well-treated, they keep a close eye on the livestock as well as crops.

According to the best available science, male gnomes average about 15 cm in height, have a life span of 400 years, develop beards at an early age, are seven times as strong as a human, wear brightly colored clothing, and indulge in pipe smoking which contrasts starkly with their strict vegetarian diet. Female Gnomes tend to wear colors that blend with natural surroundings (gray or khaki). She wears a green cap with her braids sticking out until she is married after which her hair disappears under a scarf and darker cap. When 350 years or older she begins to show a light beard....she usually only stays at home and doesn’t wander about. This may also be the reason garden gnome sculptures most commonly depict males.

The earliest known production of gnome sculptures dates from Germany during the mid-1800s. Ceramic gnome production is a rare occurrence today. Instead plastic-resin materials are often used. This allows them to endure for several years, but they do not last as long as their ceramic predecessors. Most often, gnome sculptures have a pointy red hat, a blue shirt (sometimes green), and leather-like shoes. They are most commonly available at garden centers and big box stores in the spring, but discriminating shoppers know where to find them year-round. These sculptures often depict a male gnome in a thoughtful pose while holding a pipe or crouching under a toadstool. They may also be fishing or napping. Some companies are degrading the gnome’s reputation by selling statues that are engaged in uncouth activities, shouting insults, and emitting realistic sounds. While it seems distasteful, I suppose this provides consumers with choices that match their own habits and preferences.

In 2009, I reported that “real” gnomes had not been scientifically documented in North America, and immigration laws remain controversial in the U.S. At that time, the American public had to be satisfied with gnome sculptures. However, in 2010, they were captured on video near Ogden, Utah. Shortly thereafter, they were identified as an invasive species and have been known to out compete other yard ornaments such as plastic pink flamingos and pagodas. Utah State University has posted a YouTube video that details their management and eradication. I have included a link to this video below.

An emerging issue for gnome lovers is that of “gnome hunting.” This deplorable practice removes the gnome from the landscape and purports to take them to a place of refuge. Other kidnapped gnomes are made to travel while held hostage and forced to pose in photographs near famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. I dare say there may be some unfortunate gnomes whom did not make it home from the Grand Canyon. Leaving that question to future archeologists, I would like to close by stating that to the best of my knowledge, the above information is true – it has to be, I read it on the Internet.

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Additional Resources

YouTube Video: Gnome Management in the Garden,
Utah State University Cooperative Extension

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: December 8, 2015
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