Horticulture magazine notices Garden Rant—and is slightly dismayed



Picture me last week, relaxing at the beach in North Carolina, swimming daily, using SPF 40 under a tent, trying not to mix the margaritas much before 5 p.m.—but fie! Our nicely-appointed cottage is cursed with blazing wi-fi internet access and all three couples have misguidedly brought their laptops along, leaving ourselves wide open to the evil intrusions of the outside world.

Long story short, I got an email Monday that an op-ed piece by Scott Calhoun on the back page of the July/August Horticulture (the column is confidently called High Ground) mentioned me personally and GR in general as being contemptuous of the garden design/landscaping industry. Here’s a quote:

Elizabeth Licata mentioned in a gardenrant.com post (April 10, 2008) that she very often sees gardens designed by professionals that make her think “What’s attractive/inviting/fun/interesting about this?” It’s now cooler to make your own chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden garden with a few chickens scratching around for ambiance than it is to have a well-ordered garden drawn up by a garden designer … I take issue with the notion that a garden that’s the product of working with a designer is somehow less authentic than what homeowners cobble together on their own. It’s the insinuation that gardens that aren’t chaotic, dirty, etc., are not real gardens that bothers me.

Calhoun also mentions Carleen Madigan Perkins’ earlier High Ground essay in which she also applauds unplanned gardens. He then goes on to admit that plenty of garden design is uninspired, but asserts much professional work is wonderful. And so on.

Well. There’s actually not much I disagree with here. A lot of professional garden design is bad. Just as much or more of it is very good. Anybody who has read my reverent paeons to the masterpieces of design I have seen in England and Italy knows that I appreciate great garden design as much as the next person. You need only scroll down a bit to see Michele’s admiration of the beautiful designs of the award-winning Michelle Derviss, and here’s a link to Susan’s love letter to her landscape architect.

I even paid a nursery-based design service to help me out with my unpromisingly-shaded and root-ridden front “yard.”

So what’s the problem? I guess it’s mainly our manifesto and the fact that we like to question and challenge. There is much we love about the world of gardening, both professional and amateur. There is also plenty of room for improvement. We think that a lively debate is exactly what every field of endeavor needs and must have in order to stay relevant. And we intend to continue to provoke that debate in our little corner of the gardening world.

P.S. I would love to write an op-ed for the back page of Horticulture. And if I do, can I have a halo, too?

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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 yahoo.com


  1. I’d only add that one of the reasons that GardenRant exists is because nobody really writes about the experience of the amateur gardener.

    The magazines have a professional bent–by pros, for would-be pros. So they make gardening seem rational, orderly, clean, unemotional. None of those words describes the amateur’s experience at all–which is generally about rage, recklessness, curiosity, love, filth, and frustration.

  2. And I’ll only add that while not a licensed garden designer, I do get paid to help people design their gardens, so I’m the last Ranter to criticize people for getting help. On the contrary, I only wish MORE people would.

    My nongardening next-door neighbors did (hiring my favorite landscape architect) and the results are a gift they keep on giving to the entire neighborhood – though especially to ME coz I can hear their waterfall!

  3. I love your manifesto. It scared me for a minute (would I say the wrong thing?), but it’s also what drew me to your site. And five minutes reading through recent posts puts the manifesto in context, and made me brave enough to comment. So my guess is that Mr. Calhoun didn’t spend much time on your site. Btw, my friend The Garden Curmudgeon is a landscape designer who doesn’t like much landscape design–my guess is that Mr. C. probably has similar opinions . . .

  4. A lot of professioanl garden design is not really design at all. A lot of the finished monstrosities are what the customer has asked for. I know because in my early days in the hort industry I planted trees and shrubs for customers in places that made no sense at all. But if I wanted a paycheck I did what the customer wanted.

    Otherwise I would have been the typical starving artist. There are very few in the industry who can “pick their jobs”. The rest of them fall into two categories. Get the work just to get paid weekly or the good ones who don’t let the customer dictate what goes where but get an idea from the customer what they would like their garden to look like and then desgin from there within the customers budget. That is where the business of gardening comes in to play.

    Elizabeth is right in that rant’s manifesto sets a combative tone to us in the industry when we first read it. I know. I felt the need to defend my turf in this business after reading the manifesto and the first few posts.

    I admit it took awhile to get it and it turns out that my opinions on the industry while not mirroring rants are similar.

    However I am still here to defend the good guys in the business and the middle class homewowner who makes up the vast majoity of retail garden center customers.

    After all you four fine ladies wanted a revolution and need to someone to fight! After all what’s a revolution if the other side doesn’t show up.

    The (one if by lamium two if by seed ) TROLL

    PS: When I first started reading this blog there were complaints about the prices of plant material this year. Well wait until next year. Scotts has just informed me that they are raising there prices by 31% for ’09 as of late August. Lebanon has done the same and Agway has followed suit as well.

    For you ornament lovers the $99 four foot garden bench is history.
    My wholesale cost on a similar low end bench just went from $79 to $179. Bistro sets that were $199 retail are now over $200 wholesale.

  5. Hi Greg,

    Yes, I imagine fuel costs are causing the same upwards spiral in plants and gardening supplies that they are in everything else consumable. Tony Avent mentioned this when I visited Plant Delights a few days back.

    Seeds and DIY will begin to look better and better.

  6. Here’s the bit I take issue with:

    “It’s now cooler to make your own chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden garden with a few chickens scratching around for ambiance than it is to have a well-ordered garden drawn up by a garden designer…”

    This implies that our choices are limited to 1) a well-ordered garden — available only if you hire a garden designer, or 2) a dirty, chaotic, bug-fest — to which you are condemned if you, you ignorant peon, attempt anything of the kind yourself.

    I rather resent that.

  7. There will always be excellent, good, average, bad and even the indifferent people working in every profession.

    This is where both Garden Rant and the musings of Scott Calhoun come into play.

    The more informed you are , the better choices you can make.

    As to finding the heart within your garden, here’s a recent blog entry on the subject.


    I hope all can find the garden of their hearts desire , whether they had a designer to collaborate with or enjoyed the process by themselves.

  8. I like to get a sense of the person or people behind the garden. Many expensively designed and maintained gardens lack personality. IMHO.

    It’s the spirit of the garden versus the mechanics of the garden. It’s personal expression versus formality and anonymity. Again, IMHO.

    That said… aren’t chickens known for putting a damper on bugfests? I think chickens are getting a bad rap here.

  9. I tend to think there are two kinds of people: Those who pay for a design and the maintanance of their garden and those who garden for themselves and love ( and sometimes hate?) it.

    There are misaprehensions of both sides. A gardener like myself can have a very organized garden and a non-gardening person can have chaos.

    Mr. Calhoun might be upset because now it is en-vogue to garden for oneself, raise chickens and have a little chaos – but that’s fashion! What’s trendy today could lose tomorrow! Design 101, but he should know that as a designer – isn’t he the biggest slave to garden fashion!?

    The pendulum swings both ways and there is merit at both ends, but I think, Elizabeth, you have the upper-hand. Many people these days want to watch less television and get in touch with their community, themselves and be a little more “green”, and gardening is just the hobby that helps them do that.

    There will always be a place for designers, but maybe they should become a little more hip(?), surf the net for the latest “chaotic” trends, and who knows, maybe Mr. Calhoun will design a garden around an eglu and raised beds?

  10. “It’s now cooler to make your own chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden garden with a few chickens scratching around for ambiance than it is to have a well-ordered garden drawn up by a garden designer.”

    Well, sign me up. I too would like to have some of those orderly, well-behaved plants that stave off dirt, bugs, and chaos long after the designer has departed the scene.

  11. I’m sure I know their reaction to MY yard of prairie wildflowers, my rambling wood-chip walks passing through the rampant dark green woodland filled with Waterleaf, Bluebell, and Mayapple…

    …With a rather chaotic vegetable garden, a few simple flower beds, some hostas in the front…surrounded by violets and wild tulips.

    Y’all get the picture… You’d probably hear their scream of agony at QUITE a distance…

    But it’s a nice place to sit, or take a walk!

  12. You know, one of the reasons I started my own blog (and started reading this one) was that I felt like the amateur/novice gardener was not well-represented anywhere in print. I was so overwhelmed by the magazines out there that I almost felt like throwing in the towel, or spade, I suppose.

    Sure I would would love a landscape architect to come work on my yard, but there’s no way I’ll ever be able to afford it (and I’m mean never, ever)! I’m incredulous at the idea that someone would feel the need to defend the work of garden designers or architects (generally, rather than specifically—it’s OK to defend or criticize a particular design).

    I certainly don’t feel superior to anyone because my garden doesn’t look “professional.” Crazy…

  13. When I got to page 80 of the Aug/Sept Horticulture magazine yesterday, I was shocked to see Scott Calhoun’s rant. But, strangely, as I read on, I just smiled, because he proceeds to concede the main points of his own argument.

    I quote Mr. Calhoun: “I admit, a lot of the work that gets done in the name of garden design teams with all the life and entropy present in planting strips in front of office-supply stores. Also a few in my profession are financially motivated to push expesnsive hardscape options that you may or may not need. Many of the high-end gardens I see could use a few chickens.”

    Over the last few years, Horticulture has been a pathetic magazine. But a few months back they started improving the magazine. In fact, the last couple of issues have been good enough that I am tempted to renew.

    Perhaps they’ve told their editors, writers, and columnists to read Garden Rant to see what’s happening in real gardens. If so, they’re on the right track and may even survive.

    Seems to me there are enough chickens to go around — so there’ll be at least two scratching around every chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden garden.

    Keep up your fantastic postings, Garden Rant. You set a high standard for Horticulture and other garden wannabees out there.

  14. Well, I wish I had some chickens! Or even a duck or goose, because fowl are the Best at eating bugs! Alas, I am condemned to a fowl-less life.

    I’m new here, so I hope I am not offending anyone by speaking up. I am not a professional garden person but have been a gardener for most of my 71 years; while I admire some professionally designed gardens, I find that many of them lack spirit and personality. I know that there are many designers who do beautiful work, but what I see most often in my area are the “gardens” in which a landscape company is called in to “design” something for the builder who has just finished a new house and who needs it finished. Thus — a row of liriope (today’s English ivy) bordering the front walk, a dogwood with an azalea at its feet in the middle of the lawn, and some evergreen foundation plants making a modesty skirt in front of the house. These poor plants seem to be screaming “Help us! We’re better than this!”

    I gave up on Horticulture a few years ago because it seemed to me that they were all about The Latest Thing and the articles promoted impossibly polished and elaborate gardens. Keep up the good work, Garden Rant! I am so happy I blundered in here.

  15. I’m with swampgardener. I cannot afford a landscape designer for my huge yard. Instead, I do a lot of research on what grows well under the conditions that exist in my yard. And I buy a lot of plants and seedlings. This year, I’ll try and grow some seedlings myself. Sometimes, I succeed and sometimes I fail, but I learn and to me, there’s some value in that.

    However, in the income category that traditionally hires landscape designers, I’m not seeing a huge trend in doing it yourself. I still see wealthy people spending their fortunes at my local nursery accompanied by their trusted designer. They still seem to afford to buy nice ads in the garden section of the paper too.

  16. Although I’m a little miffed that I got illustrated as a monk with a halo (couldn’t I have had horns and a pointy tail while brandishing a bottle of Hornitos tequila in addition to a T-square?), I’m glad that my recent High Ground essay in Horticulture magazine prompted Elizabeth’s post and the ensuing discussion. Allow me to nuance my position a little.

    As I tried to convey in my essay, I’m not really defending the landscape design status quo, but I am suggesting that professional design not be dismissed so easily. In gardens, I’m all for exuberance, style, wit, and personality. I don’t really care how this gets accomplished so much as that it gets done. In my experience the best results come when a designer and client share a vision and passion. With this in mind, I’m including the last paragraph of my essay in Horticulture, which got deleted because of space considerations (I suppose this makes this a gardenrant.com exclusive):

    Which brings me back around the corner to that professionally designed garden in Tucson filled with deer grass and yuccas. Yes, I designed this garden, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of my clients, Larry and Margo, who were thrilled to help plant and nurture their new garden over the last three years. Larry often calls to ask about pruning this or that and for suggestions about a replacement plant for something that died. I like to come over in the evenings to photograph their superb penstemon. In the backyard, they have installed some raised veggie beds and a large rainwater collection cistern. It is really their garden now, but it is also part of me, and when I visit it feels as though I’m seeing a smart handsome child that I gave up for adoption to capable and loving parents. That feeling is what keeps me designing gardens.

    P.S. gardenrant.com is on my RSS feed–the truth is, I’m a secret admirer.

  17. Thanks Scott! I am so glad you responded. I had a feeling you might. When I was first emailed, I imagined the column to be more aggressive than it actually was when I finally read it. As I said, there was not much I disagreed with.

    But it’s good for people to get riled up about gardening. Thanks also for sharing the deleted paragraph and I agree that your illustration idea sounds much more fun! Though still–a halo. Tough choice.

  18. Well, well, well. Glad you stood up and nuanced yourself, Scotty, my pal. I haven’t read the column yet, will do so in a bit. Just got my copy of the magazine.

    I have to say, I love Michele’s description of the “amateur’s experience –which is generally about rage, recklessness, curiosity, love, filth, and frustration.” When I design gardens for clients I try to behave unless they beg me not to; while at home, I am full of rage and recklessness and curiosity. And sometimes vodka and/or wine. The curiosity makes me reckless. Or maybe its the vodka. I don’t know and I don’t care.

    Alas, no halo for you Scott. I know you. The hornitos and fork will work.

  19. I don’t know how you can take Scott to task after he ledes his article with ‘Among some savvy 30-something garden writers and bloggers … .’ I’m having doubts about his vision — or at least his eyesight.

    I don’t know too many 30-somethings who have the disposable income to afford professional garden design. Or if they do, are living in a place where they intend to be long enough to enjoy the delayed gratification that professionally designed gardens provide. Thankfully, a growing number seem to like the idea of getting dirty and playing with plants within their budget constraints.

    I think caliGardengirl got it right. One axis of my garden personality test is ‘planner vs. player.’ For some folks, it’s planning to achieve a particular vision. For others, gardening is all about the process. Sure. You want it to look nice. A good design and plan can help that. But it’s more about playing with the plants.

    One isn’t necessarily better than the other. I love spending time in well-designed gardens. And there is a method to my own madness. Both ways have their benefits.

  20. Ah, Craig, I wondered if someone would notice the 30-something reference. And yes, we Ranters DO love our near-sighted readers and wish there were more of them.

  21. I think Scott meant that you all are edgy and young-at-heart. (I think he even used the word snarky. OMG! OMG!) I think most garden bloggers are young at heart regardless of their chronological age.

  22. Yes, regardless of the actual age of the Ranters (and you look more May than December to me) you all exude a youthful vibe.

    I want to make one more comment and then I’ll shut up. I’m a little disconcerted that some gardenrant readers (caliGardengirl, swampgardener) seem to think that the services of garden designers are out of their reach. Really? Most of the people I know in the biz get between $400-2000 for a complete design. Some of us have onsite consulting services that can run as little as a couple of hundred bucks (and really, what is $200 bucks these days? A trip and a half to the grocery store; two tanks of gas, 3 Monrovia plants?) That will at least get new trees planted in the right places (which in my experience can save someone a lot of time and money over the years). Also, most designers are willing to break a project into phases to be implemented (and paid for!) over time.

    My point is, the choice doesn’t have to be between doing it all yourself or using a professional designer. A designer may well just orient you send you off down a path toward your own garden adventures.

    By the way, Mary Ann’s comments are correct. I in no way qualify for a halo or a monk’s habit. Elizabeth, thanks for opening up the discussion.

  23. To echo what Scott just said, it was just $200 worth of help from a landscape architect that turned my front garden around. He helped me transform it from years of design failure to a place I’ve loved ever since. And it turned me – formerly a maintenance gardener – into a gardening fanatic.

    Subsequently, my coaching work has convinced me even more of the value of getting professional help because people are SO frustrated with the poor results of their first attempts. SO many people need help getting started and what a difference even a little bit of help can make.

  24. Ha! Scott, I’m glad you gave us the ‘exclusive’ – I read that essay, and while I didn’t get all ‘het’ up about the professional/homeowner issue, I did think that your description sounded an AWFUL lot like your design. Glad to see that it was, and it was tied in with the lost paragraph.

    Full disclosure: I’m in Phoenix, and am really glad you are out there giving us desert dwellers ideas to build on. Keep up the good work!

  25. Hey Mary Ann:

    I think it is the mixing of wine and the vodka together that sets you off.
    Imagine the mad combinations of a drunk Russian sailor on shore leave with that of a cosmopolitan french wine snob!

  26. Love that you shared the High Ground blurb here — thanks! That column’s new name will be On Gardening going forward.

    Would love to collaborate on something for Hort (I’m the managing editor…email me)

    Peace on the path.

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