Vintage View: Go softly on greened-up garden statues

Go softly on those greened-up garden statues, says Kya deLongchamps.

If you like the mature look of greened up statues, put them in full or partial shade (under trees is ideal). Photos: iStock
If you like the mature look of greened up statues, put them in full or partial shade (under trees is ideal). Photos: iStock

Natural stone and concrete (reconstituted stone) garden statuary can come out of winter looking either totally charming or completely shook.

In the great gardens of the World, important statues are often wrapped in breathable sacking over the winter to shield them from slings and arrows of vicious weather.

If you placed something tenderly in the garden in recent years with a very smooth finished surface, chances are it came sealed against water and frost damage and organic surface growths.

The sealing process should include the underside of the base.

With the attrition of the wind and rain, this seal (a wax or painted on water sealant) will shed, and should be replenished to keep the statues completely immaculate each summer. Keep in mind that raw concrete is porous –- whatever touches an untreated surface can be pulled into the fabric of the piece.

Valuable items, in particular marble, should be professionally cleaned and sealed.

The truth is that the natural accumulation of algae, lichen, liverwort and moss adds character and texture to vintage statuary.

It’s actually a very useful way to hide both damage and repairs and it gives the statue, urn, sun-dial or bird bath a nice hint of salvaged archaeology. Lichen is often valued for its elegant colour and intricate patterns.

It is a very slow growing plant and its presence is a comforting sign of clean air.

A neighbour of mine spent two weeks rubbing liquid cow manure stirred up with yoghurt in buckets to add age to her new concrete garden benches.

She even cheerfully slopped this stinking confection over the final render of a new extension. It worked!

Small botanical growths on statues do not actually cause any damage. On a stone trough carrying heathers or succulents – they are really essential. If you like the mature look of greened-up statues, put them in full or partial shade (under trees is ideal).

To let nature keep them cleaner – let the sun bleach the surfaces in an open, south-facing position.

When nature’s creep starts to obliterate artistically applied detail of a granite, marble or reconstituted stone, that nostalgic patina of years can start to read as slimy neglect, softening carved features and darkening to a gloom.

Some triffid-like gelatinous algae are really not pretty at all. You can free up at least some of the surfacing without worry. Just pick it off carefully with your fingers.

For a full clean down, there’s no place for patio cleaner, power-washing, washing soda, chemicals or bleach in the process. Don’t attack even concrete with a wire brush or pad –- they are simply too aggressive around finely carved detail.

Some stone cleaners for headstones and bird-baths contain toxic biocides –- steer clear.

If the statue is sealed under paint or wax, go easy, as we’re trying to preserve any protective coat as much as possible.

If you are working outside, don’t even start until the last frost. Water used during well-intentioned cleaning can be worked into cracks and divots, potentially damaging the item if the moisture then freezes overnight.

Hold smaller pieces gently and securely on soft ground. Don’t use the extended arm of a statue to hold it up, or you may up with two pieces instead of one!

Don’t lean into even large statues with elements that could break off under pressure.

Look at the statue as a whole. If there is growth on the piece, consider if you want to pick away just some of it and leave the rest for added character.

Brush away any loose debris. Try rinsing the fragile green muck off with a gentle garden sprayer (hand pumped type) filled with pure water.

To more seriously clean the statue, work softly. Try a mild eco-friendly biodegradable detergent like Ecover dish-washing detergent, without surface agents, and petrochemicals.

Used in a highly dilute amount in warm water, this won’t leave any harmful residue on the statue or poison the surrounding ground.

Work over the piece with a soft plastic, soft silicone or soft bristle brush and avoid any growing spots you’re saving.

You may need to do this several times and expect to leave the odd black stain here and there. Rust stains can be hit with a 50:50 vinegar/water solution, but wipe over with clean water to finish.

Once the piece is clean and dry, look out for fine cracks anywhere on the body that could potentially open up and amputate Cupid’s wings for example.

Cracks can be filled with a suitable 2-part epoxy adhesive to stabilise the damage and protect it from further wreckage by frost next year.

An older piece may be cemented to a base or held on an iron spike. Examine it for safety.

Even a small stone or concrete statue is a hazard when it unexpectedly falls. A proper brick or stone footing will prevent a statue sitting on wet earth.

In a flower-bed, you can simply put it up on a concrete block or two and fluff the planting to hide the support.

New concrete products that include resin threads and good old (in fact ancient) terracotta are good choices for robust alternatives to stone and concrete outdoors without vouching for plastic.

When choosing a concrete statue, old or new, look for designs that won’t catch water that could potentially freeze and then thaw, weakening the material in a severe winter (open vessels for example).

Next year, drain that antique bird-bath and turn it on its side in November. The birds will enjoy an upturned bin lid for drinks and dunks just as well.

Sourcing: For vintage stone and reconstituted stone items try Centurion Stone, Carrigrohane, Co. Cork centurionstone.ie, and Eurosalve, Bleach Rd., Kilkenny, eurosalve.com.

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