For me, the obsession began with sparkling rosaries that were so plentiful in my grandparents’ home. My affinity for rosary beads evolved into hippie love beads in my teens. Together they represent roots of the affliction: a fascination with beautiful beads from around the world.
Beads can be a great source of zest in your garden, too. Those made of glass, ceramic or metal stand up to climate. They’re particularly at home in jewel box gardens where glass is often an accent for succulent plants. This name was coined to describe dense compositions of succulent plants and glittering slag glass or beads that resemble the contents of your grandmother’s jewel box. These gardens help us reclaim that childlike sense of wonder at beautiful shining things while they enhance the form and colors of close range, high intensity points of the garden.
What I learned the hard way is all beads aren’t suitable for outdoor use. Many will fade in direct sun. Those imported from China are colored by ephemeral chemical dyes. The tints won’t hold up here either. Contrasts and patterns often fade so the bead you fell in love with becomes progressively paler over time. In comparison, very old Italian millefiori beads from Africa are all glass and colored through and through so they retain their hues nicely.
African import sellers at swap meets sell oversized beads for gardens from recycled glass. A strand of golf ball-sized cobalt blue beads sells for a hefty $40, but retains its beauty indefinitely.
Recycled glass is also available in other shades of azure, gold or turquoise. They’re produced in smaller bead sizes, too, and all are strung on fiber cords. These are the best for outdoor use because their color is integral, translucent and does not bleach out.
Fountains are a fine place to integrate beads, particularly if it’s a festive Mardi Gras design theme. Another method fills wall-mounted pots with numerous strands for overflowing color and interest without the need to water plants.
Other beads I drape over the edge of my succulent pots to give these plants a bit of glitz.
Many creative folks are making their own glittering wind chimes or sun catchers with beads upcycled from castoff costume jewelry. These become a dangling collage of glass beads that literally glow when the sun hits them at different times throughout the day.
Many gardeners blend their beads with crystals salvaged from old chandeliers. These pieces of faceted glass drops or panels, many of them vintage, do more than just cast light. They reveal rainbow-colored prisms in direct light throughout the day.
Rain chains that dangle from your roof in lieu of a downspout also feature big beads and slag glass. Creative dangling art pieces are easy to make yourself. All you need is fine wire, needle nose pliers and a bucket of small chunks of beach glass.
Think twice before you consider tumbled glass gravel in lieu of stone gravel. One cobalt-colored example looked great until the first big wind storm littered the dark blue field with bits of grass and palm, which spoiled its beauty forever.
For all bead lovers, take another look at your old costume jewelry for beads that stand up outdoors. Keep an eye on garage sales for great vintage finds.
But for my money, I will always relish flea market tables heaped with African beads that are larger than most, vividly graphic and most importantly, they’re affordable.
— Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com