Garden Gnomes: The Real Story - December 23, 2009
Jeff Schalau, Associate 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 landscape 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. This proves their existence in the Old World. Recent evidence also suggests that they have become established in Australia.

Gnomes work at night in the woods and sometimes in human dwellings, it is not sheer 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 is likely the reason that garden gnome sculptures most commonly depict males.

To my knowledge, no “real” gnomes have actually been documented as immigrating to North America, and this will be unlikely given the current fervor surrounding immigration. Given the political climate, the American public must be satisfied with sculptures which may or may not depict gnomes as they truly appear. 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.

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.

The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on gardening and pest control. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 ext. 14 or E-mail us at and be sure to include your address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or submit column ideas at the Backyard Gardener web site:

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: December 15, 2009
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