Friday, June 10, 2011

Solving the Case of the Clement Urn

Old urn, new use

I’ve always thought of the huge garden urn as a family heirloom that my maternal grandmother brought to Penton, New Jersey, when she married and moved from her hometown of Philadelphia at the end of World War I. My mother always said it was the “Clement Urn.”

This family treasure looks like it’s made of marble, but I see tool gouges on the inside that indicate it probably is made of softer stone. What it’s made of, however, is not the problem. The center of the urn is not much over a foot deep and hardly that in diameter, so the urn has a long history of being an urn that doesn’t overflowing with summertime flowers as you think it should.

My dad tried to grow flowers in it—geraniums, usually, but they didn’t grow well. Usually the urn at the end of summer was just a soil-filled urn. My dad, however, did add a third part to the two-part urn. When he learned a salesman was going to discard a gravestone because of an engraving error, dad volunteered to take it off his hands. The urn has since rested on a tombstone that never was.

When my dad and mom moved here in 1997, the urn came with them. We put it together in our back yard, and dad once again added geraniums. Once again they withered and died in the sizzling summer sun.

Next we moved the urn to the east side of our house, where it’s in the shade from about 1 p.m. Still geraniums didn’t grow. Perhaps their human caretakers didn’t water them enough. Over the next few years, the urn somehow became mine. Whatever I planted didn’t grow either. My last attempt at plants for the urn was Hens-and-chicks, which I thought thrived in droughts and rotted if too wet, the perfect plant for the perennially parched Clement Urn.

Alas, the Hen-and-chicks, though I would dowse them from time to time with the hose, didn’t grow either. They just sat there, not growing, not dying, just “hanging on.” I wasn’t happy because the urn sits outside my study window, and it was, well, boring, unattractive, even ugly.

One day last year I said to myself, “Enough of this. I’m not buying one more plant for the urn. One hundred years of nothing is 100 years too many.”

Eventually I had an idea that might work. I decided to remove all the soil and turn the urn into an heirloom gazing ball pedestal. When we were visited friends in Harrisonburg, Virginia, our friend Don and I window shopped at Harper’s Lawn Ornaments, where they make all kinds of things out of concrete, and sell just about everything you might want for your landscape except pink flamingoes.

And near the office I spied what I had been thinking about—two kinds of gazing globes—10-inch silver globes glistening in the springtime sun. Should I buy a glass one—or one of stainless steel? The first was half the price, but I imagined what would happen if I dropped it or somehow it rolled off the pedestal.

I bought a stainless steel gazing globe—and a Harper-made concrete base that I thought would fit into the heirloom urn. Back home, on Monday I used crushed stone, the concrete base, the gazing ball, and river rocks to put everything together.

I didn’t like the result. The gazing ball sat much too high, like the huge head of a white chicken at the end of a goose’s long neck. Without saying what I thought, I asked Ellen if she’d take a look. She looked at the globe and then at me and said, “Well, I don’t think it looks quite right.”

It looks great from my study window
On Tuesday I took it apart. I inverted the small concrete base so the globe would sit at least six inches lower, added crushed stone to even things up and anchor everything, put on the gazing ball, and surrounded it with river stones.

It looks “right” now, Ellen and I both agree. And from my study window it looks great.

I think I’ve solved the problem of the family heirloom.  What do you think?


  1. That looks great. I didn't know they made stainless steel gazing balls!

    1. Canyou explain me what the hell is a clement urn? i'm so curious about