The Sartorial Garden

Metal Patinas: a Primer

Exposed to the elements, the surfaces of Brass, Bronze, Copper, and Iron will gradually develop various, strikingly-attractive patinas. And, as years pass, the finishes of objects made of Lead or Zinc will also weather, but with more subtlety.

When metals are exposed to air and moisture, surface changes in color and texture accumulate; these natural signs of aging result in highly desirable Acquired Patinas (as opposed to Applied Patinas, in which chemicals are directly applied to metal, to speed the aging process). Ornaments in damp environments will develop patina layers faster than ornaments placed in dry climates.

For garden-lovers who would prefer that their ornaments remain NON-patinized, regular, light-touch cleaning will help to maintain metal surfaces in something close to their original states.

BRASS is most often kept polished, to emphasize its golden, decorative sheen; without regular buffing, Brass will darken to matte brown, with tinges of green if a more organic look is preferred.

From 1904 through 1908, William Waldorf Astor transformed the 125 acres of Kent marshland which surrounded Hever Castle (Anne Boleyn’s family home) into a phantasmagoric sequence of gardens, parklands, and waterways. The central feature of Astor’s Tudor Garden is this over-the-top Topiary Chess Set, which is anchored by a spit-polished, brass Armillary Sphere.

Hever Castle. Courtesy of

The surfaces of BRONZE, and to a greater extent COPPER, will both develop a vivid greenish-blue pigment, which is called Verdigris.  Even small bronze ornaments can pack a large, visual punch, as is proven by this salt-air-weathered Sundial plate, on Cornwall’s southern coast.

After the sundial plate, we show an old copper cistern that has been re-purposed as a garden feature.  These old pots were used to boil water over the fire giving it a bit of soot patina mixed in with the verdigris.  To make a water garden, nothing could be simpler–or more functional, or more spectacular—than filling a large, copper cistern with aquatic plants, as has been done at the Old Vicarage Garden, in East Ruston, on Norfolk’s northeastern coast.

  • St. Michael’s Mount. Courtesy of

  • Old Vicarage Garden, in Norfolk. Courtesy of

IRON surfaces will age to a deep red-brown: aka Rust.  Once iron is exposed to the moisture in the air it will start to rust and eventually lift and peel any applied paint giving these old cast iron pieces their wonderful old look of layers and layers of peeling paint.

Antique American example of Cast Iron Patina

LEAD surfaces, which are uniformly gray to start, will acquire a pearly, gently mottled complexion.

The first stone of Parham House, a great Elizabethan manor in West Sussex, was laid in 1577. The Estate—875 acres which contain working agricultural land, a deer park, forests, pleasure grounds, and formal gardens—has remained intact, since its beginnings. Adjacent to the House is 4 acre walled garden, and tucked into a corner of that enclosed space is this Herb Garden. A simple, circular pool is decorated with a classically-styled lead cherub; clay pots filled with medieval and Tudor herbs surround the pool.

Dumbarton Oaks, in Georgetown, is landscape architect Beatrix Farrand’s most acclaimed work. Her master-plan for these gardens, which cascade down a steep, terraced, 10-acre slope, is equal in quality to the best England’s gardens. One end of the sprawling Pebble Pool, which was designed in 1923, is enlivened by a trio of lead figures; in summertime, fountains issue from the trumpets of each figure.   The pictured Merboy has a lovely pearly grey patina.

  • Parham House, West Sussex. Courtesy of

  • Dumbarton Oaks. Courtesy of

And even ZINC, which is relatively inert, will age into loveliness, as its matte gray acquires soft, silvery accents.  Whether used to form planters, pedestals, laundry tubs, or baskets, zinc is the always-affordable option, when it comes to garden décor.  As it weathers, zinc’s surface appearance softens from a deep gray to a light gray with whispers of silver…and blends pleasingly with its surroundings.

Old English Zinc Watering Trough

But remember: be patient! Truly beautiful, acquired patinas can only result from the passage of time.

Lead ornaments, which do not rust or crack, are ideally suited for use as fountainheads, or reflecting pool accents.  Additionally, a body of water protects lead ornaments from the one aspect of the natural world which is most likely to cause damage in the winter: Squirrels.  For unknown reasons, these critters might gnaw upon lead: whether it’s the metal’s sweetness, or the alloy’s soft texture, a lead ornament which is easily accessible to Squirrels will may become marred by their tooth marks. For lead ornaments which will not be mounted in water, we recommend placing the pieces on high pedestals, which are not under a canopy of nearby tree limbs.

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