Living in denial—and loving it


I still love old-fashioned borders like this.

Now that gardening (more and more) equals a.) a bigger focus on growing your own vegetables, and b.) not watering, feeding, or otherwise unnaturally fussing over your super-hardy, sustainable (native where possible) perennials, trees and shrubs, I’m beginning to feel a bit left out.

For me, gardening has always been an artificial business, and not what anyone would call sustainable, except in that it sustains my need for a garden with plants I like. I’ve always tried to create a lush, colorful oasis where such ought never to have existed. My first garden was on a third floor porch, and I guess I’ve carried on from there, making the previously impossible possible, embracing tropical plants, exotic blooms, and in every other way denying the reality of my surroundings: pavement, urban noise, cold winters, and too much shade from buildings and trees.

That’s why I love the Victorian garden ideal and my model gardener continues to be the late Christopher Lloyd, who—even when he tried to create a “meadow”—followed one of the most continually staged and labor-intensive regimes I have ever heard of and loved to bring in tropicals whenever he could. The only thing where I am maybe a bit ahead of the curve is that I have no water-and-chemical-devouring grass. Yeah. Except, truth be told, there wasn’t any grass when I moved onto the property, so bragging rights may not apply.

Even today, when I went to a nearby garden center on my lunch hour, I spent almost all my time in the greenhouse, picking up a jasmine and some weird-looking houseplants that will accept shade and cover the knees of my big banana plant.

All this is not to say that when I write about native plants, veggie-growing, and conservation, no one should pay attention. Quite the opposite. As Michele has just implied (funny–I was just thinking the same thing about the Times), we are living through a very exciting moment in gardening—being part of that discussion is valuable for its own sake, whether one follows all the recommendations or not.

Um, why did I get into all this? Oh right—I got a comment on my own blog that Buffalo’s old-fashioned botanical gardens were OK if you were 70. Ouch.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’m with you. Gardens are an artificial business, and only sustainable as long as a caring and energetic gardener is willing to keep them in hand. This is true no matter what we plant, whether it’s drought-tolerant natives, organic veggies, or English perennial border stalwarts.

  2. Well, whether your garden is feeding your soul or your tummy its still a positive endeavor – us ornamental gardeners bring joy to ourselves and others just by creating beauty. I think the best of both ‘artificially created’ worlds is to invite your veggie gardener friends over for a potluck in the garden! Ahh, summer.

  3. Yea! for the Lloyd club…I really miss him. I’m with you all the way on strenuously intensive borders that delight in their reaching for an ideal.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more, Elizabeth. Ornamental gardening is thrilling–and no less when you become an ornamental gardener despite yourself, as I have.

    It’s an endless frontier, a million new plants to try, and a powerful form of self-expression–in those corners, of course, where the experiments actually work.

    Plus, making an ornamental garden in a city is a civic act. You’re saying, “Buffalo is BEAUTIFUL!” with every lily you plant.

  5. Oh. I agree with you absolutely. Not only do I have a ridiculously labor-intensive meadow but I grow all sorts of plants just because I like them. More often than not, I pay the price for not playing by the rules. But that’s part of the challenge–the joy of experimentation and exploration. I’d rather have the joy even if I end up losing the plant than to never try something at all. Nope, gardens are not natural.

  6. I agree with all the above, gardens are an artifice. I used to grow mainly veggies and fruit with flowers mixed in in my prairie garden but in my current garden I decided to grow ‘flowers’. The garden is a constant source of pleasure, beauty, interest and discovery. I think that as is the way with fashions, vegetable gardening and native plants will hog the headlines for a while and then flowers will get their share of the limelight and gardeners will go on making every sort of garden despite fashions.

  7. I have vegetable and herb gardens and grow lots of small fruits, and I guess I’m known to friends and neighbors for those things — probably because I tend to show up with baskets of produce.

    Most of what I grow, however, is ornamental (however utilitarian from a wildlife perspective) and I take great delight in propagating flowers and shrubs and probably spend more time on those borders than anything else.

    So, I’m always a little surprised myself when this comes as a surprise to friends and neighbors. Just last week, I was having a drink with a friend before a concert and mentioned something about some rugosas I’ve added this year. She looked at me and said “you grow flowers too?” Now, she’s seen my yard many times and it’s pretty obvious that I “grow flowers too” but I guess she never really thought about how all that stuff got there.

    Gardens and gardening to many people mean vegetable gardens. Anything else is a flower bed.

  8. Gee, I didn’t realize I was now 70. I have an English cottage garden with plants fairly easy to grow in Oklahoma. Still, it looks pretty English. Oh well, I’ve never been hip anyway.

    And, I still grow veggies, but they’re boring.~~Dee

  9. Gardening is artificial but you spend your lunch hour in a garden cneter. Talking both sides of the issue again.

    If I thought my customers were artificial I would be out of job.
    I love my customers and their questions they ask about gardening.

    Were Monet’s water lillies artificial? What is sustainable aboutgardening is that the cycle repeats itself every year. What is not suatainable about that?

  10. What is the plant with the big, reddish-maroon maple leaf shape leaves? At the New Orleans Botanical Gardens in the Spring, a wonderful volunteer, Rosemary, gave me one of those (man, does she know her plants), and made me promise to bring back seed. I forgot the name, and from a 2 inch pot it is now about 4 feet and beautiful.

    Anybody know?

  11. Greg, I think you’re misunderstanding what I mean by artificial.

    Naomi, that plant is Castor Bean (Ricinus communis). I am growing it this year too–it is awesome (annual in our zone, of course). Keep in mind, the seeds are VERY poisonous, much more so than the usual toxic plant. You may want to cut off any flowers before they go to seed.

  12. Ok Clue me in what do you mean by artificial then. I make my living in the garden biz and find nothing artificial about it. This wonderful business has given me and my family a nice modest home as well as a small weekend home in the Adirondacks. I am lucky enough so that my wife only works when she wants to.

    So I am always in defense of my industry which has been in my families blood for over 100 years as my grandfather was President Roosevelt’s gardener.

  13. Greg, I am happy to elucidate.

    I believe you are confusing “artificial” with “fake,” but the two words are not at all the same. Artificial basically means “a product of human endeavor.” Nothing wrong with that! And most of the gardens I know, including mine, are just that.

    Words are my game; I probably go as far back with them as you do with gardening.

  14. (rhetoric) And just the hell’s supposed to be so bad with being 70?(/rhetoric)

    Aimed at the snark you referred to that was posted on your own blog, of course. I could say that I hoped that turkey never had to endure that dreadful fate, but it would be wrong.

  15. Thanks, Elizabeth. Rosemary must have used the botanical name. She allowed me to have it on the condition that I bring the seeds back to the New Orleans Botanical Garden, so though I won’t keep it from producing seeds, they will be collected.

  16. Ok Naomi,

    Just so you’re aware. Ketzel Levine posted about small dogs dying from eating this plant. I’m not normally paranoid but a it was made quite a deal of.

    The seeds are quite commonly available BTW. Select Seeds has them; and they are often seen on seed racks in garden centers.

  17. I will be careful. (Or, alternatively, maybe the nutria will get it instead and stop eating our coasts.) Looking at those in the picture, I can see they are greener. Mine is almost black burgundy. Perhaps that is why I was told it was fairly rare – the coloring may be unusual? I did turn down the black cotton plant, as the same requirement was made to acquire it, and I’ve tried to keep cotton from flying before.

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