Rust is the latest rage in the garden.
The trend has been building for some time, but has reached enough momentum to register as one of the top three most influential garden trends, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Landscape Professionals. The other top trends were pergolas and maximizing tiny gardens with spaces designed for multiple uses.
The growing trend of adding rusted metal elements has been noticed at London’s world-renowned Chelsea Flower Show where designers are incorporating dramatic features made of weathering steel that develops a durable, rust-like appearance when left outside. Known by U.S. Steel’s trademark name COR-TEN (sometimes written as corten), the two syllables refer to the two distinguishing properties of this type of steel: corrosion resistance and tensile strength. The material gets harder over time when exposed to weather. Like Kleenex brand name for facial tissues, the name COR-TEN has become synonymous with any weathering steel.
Designers are incorporating this material with its beautiful, mottled brown patina in many ways. Garden elements made of weathering steel include large slabs for tables or bridges, water tanks, fire pits, raised beds, edging, arches, pergola structures and beautifully oxidized steel retaining walls.
In Portland, Oregon, this latest design trend has been active for at least 10 years. Laura Crockett of Garden Diva Designs in Hillsboro, Oregon, was one of the first. She said she was inspired when she saw a rusted out old car emerging from the green undergrowth in Hawaii. She was struck at how beautiful the oxidized metal looked against the lush tropical foliage.
In her own garden, she repurposed sheets of rusted expanded metal that had been removed from the roof of a remodeled industrial building. She used them to create a screening wall surrounding her patio. The pierced pattern allows air to circulate and gives a scrim-like view to the garden space on the other side.
The entrance to her front garden is framed by a modern, rectangular arch made of square metal girders. These girders also serve as the structure to secure the polycarbonate walls that surround the space.
Michael Schultz of Michael Schultz Landscape Design in Portland created a pergola for a narrow space between two properties. The arching steel beams reach down to wedged steel capitals that top wood-clad support posts. The rusty browns of the metal and stained wood make the greens of the hostas, rodgersias and astilboides planted along the length of the long walkway pop with freshness and life.
At Smith Mountain Lake, an arbor or gazebo built of oxidized steel would be an appealing echo to the steel posts that support most of our docks. Farther from the water, consider a raised bed or retaining wall made of weathering steel or edge your beds with steel strips. The one caveat is that water running off weathering steel will stain surfaces such as patios and decks if they are too close. Solve the problem by placing weathering steel features where water running off the metal won’t end up on the paved surface.
In the right setting, COR-TEN is both durable and beautiful. The warm tones of the burnt orange patina are a pleasing contrast to the cool greens of most plants and create a visual richness that occurs when you combine colors opposite each other on the color wheel. The overall effect is the epitome of what gardening is — the human touch on the natural world brought together in harmonious combination that will make your flowers and foliage look their best.
Experiment with rusted elements in your garden. Not only will you beautify your outdoor space, you’ll also be hip to one of 2019’s top gardening trends.