Performance anxiety


In two days, 70 of YOU will be filing into my garden, with
(I am sure) highly critical eyes. It’s not the first time, though; every year I
open my garden up to many more people than that—during Garden Walk Buffalo—and,
although the common remarks include “very nice,” “beautiful,” “thanks,” and
“lot of work!,” I know that there must be very many unsaid comments that aren’t
so generic, and maybe a lot more negative.

So be it. We must all stand by our own ideas of what a
garden should be, and what works for us. And, basically, if we’re happy with
our own gardens, then who cares what others think? Well, sure, but when I
deliberately open up my garden yearly—including, this year, a separate opening
for the garden bloggers this week—than I am sort of implying that I think my garden is
worth seeing. As are the other 350-plus Buffalo gardeners who do this. And I do
imply such a thing. Mine is by no means a show garden, but to me it
demonstrates how a small urban garden can include big-time drama. It may be
messy, it may be weedy, it may be lacking in basic design principles, but what
it does have is way too many lush, leafy, and (often) fragrant plants. I’m
happy that such a verdant spot can be created in the middle of the inner city,
and so I volunteer to show it. 

There are, however, certain small actions that may
significantly enhance the appearance of a garden before hundreds or thousands
of visitors converge upon it. A few things you can do. I try to find time to:

1. Edge. I don’t mean necessarily using a weed wacker, just
pulling away stuff that extends significantly beyond the beds into walkways or anywhere else intrusive. (Though I find it nearly impossible to cut away flowers, like the ones that
extend from my hydrangeas and lilies.) Maintaining some kind of boundary is easier than weeding. People don't notice the weeds as much if there is order. Of a sort.

2.  Mulch. Mulching seems to have
fallen from favor in certain circles, but I find it essential. I could
virtuously say it smothers weeds (maybe) or helps retain soil moisture
(perhaps), but I must be honest and say I like the way it looks. Today I bought
a fine-grained dark (undyed) mulch that seemed like it had been naturally aged.
Whatever. When I spread it around a bed that hadn’t yet filled in, boy, it made
those hakonechloa grasses pop. (Winter gives these such a setback. I hope some day to have a mature stand of them.)

3. Always have a few unusual plants. Over the years, I’ve found I routinely get
comments on plants that visitors have never seen before—two, in my case, are the species
lilium henryi and the annual foliage plant strobilanthes. Orange with
protrusions, and iridescent purple, respectively, these have never failed to
stop traffic. It’s great because it shakes people out of their norm, and maybe
even brings some business to local nurseries. Can a cute plant solve all your
garden problems? I guess not, but it gives you something to get excited about.

And being on a tour is the best way to get excited about your
garden that I know. Do others who do this agree?

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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 love an opportunity to open my garden to the public. I created the space for my enjoyment and relaxation first and foremost, but to see it through others’ eyes is refreshing. It is the best motivator as well! I can grow complascent as time goes by, not noticing the plants that need dividing or deadheading or pruning back – until the whole thing looks like a weedy jungle. An overall meg-trim and a fresh layer of mulch shines the garden up to its Sunday best and after the tour is over I can enjoy its beauty all to myself.

  2. Really looking forward to this trip!

    I love having visitors to my garden. We’ve had house&garden parties with 70 people. But the “public” I’m not so sure of. Maybe next year.

    That said, I know from experience that garden tour people and house tour people are different breeds. Think people are critical of you garden? Just put your house on tour. This is true, at least, in Brooklyn.

    My first rule of urban gardening: When someone invites you to see their garden, say “yes.” You never know what you’re going to find. And you make a friend of another gardener. Which never hurts.

  3. My garden is totally fronted by the sidewalk, so I hear the gamut of comments while I am working. Most comments are pleasant and rewarding, but I tend to blog about the complaints. Ha! Those are more fun to deal with in writing than all the ‘Thank you for doing thises’ and ‘lovely gardens’.

    Take in the critique and discard what isn’t useful. I think the audience is great!

  4. I always feel privileged and honored when invited to visit a garden. I may have to remind myself that gardening is not a competition but a personal expression by the gardener. This reminder is so my garden won’t suffer by comparison. I am looking forward to the weekend with thanks to you and all hard working Fling committee members.

  5. Edging and mulch are what I’m always recommending to clients to make their fledgling gardens look more like gardens – to them. Great ideas, E.

    I used to be bothered by visitors’ different aesthetics than mine, as evidenced by their tight-faced questions. Neighbors, too – some wanted me to keep the English ivy, some lobbied for no fence.

    I usually don’t care but I’ll admit to wishing that Adrian Higgins had liked my garden more when he visited last week. Boo-hoo!

    Our gardens had better be for our own enjoyment because others may or may not even like them.

  6. “what it does have is way too many lush, leafy, and (often) fragrant plants”. . . Impossible! I love what Cassandra Danz said about how she loved when a garden reminded her of a woman falling out of her top–that’s what I love in a garden, too! Plants that are lush and full and crowded together so they look like they might just take over at any second. . . beautiful! 🙂

  7. From my experience tending a public garden for five years, you are spot on. If the walks were freshly raked and the arbor path swept, visitors’ first impression was a well-tended garden. I would see the weeds; they wouldn’t. I also found a source for partially composted extra-fine hardwood mulch; it not only made the plants pop but gave a unified look to the beds. I also learned not to say, “you should have seen this bed last week,” or “just wait until next week when this bed blooms.”

  8. I don’t like institutional gardens. I like gardens that are a form of personal expression. Your garden is lovely. It says, “Come sit and relax and chat,” which is just about the best statement any garden could make.

  9. Enjoy the tour, I love the comments from visitors in my garden.In the end,sharing a garden is a lot of fun,not just for the visitors.

  10. I think that any garden is beautiful. I know how hard it is to make one. I do not care if it is a vegetable garden, rock garden or flower garden. They are all very creative. Thanks for inviting us into yours.

  11. Even having a group I bike with walk through my garden brought on performance anxiety, but I want to believe most visitors don’t see the weeds or whatever. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the Buffalo gardens this weekend!

  12. It will be fabulous, Elizabeth, thanks for all you have done to make the Buffa10 marvelous. We can’t wait and I am hoping to see that L. henryi for comparison. 🙂

  13. I wish that I were one of the 70! And I can completely understand your performance anxiety… Leslie of Growing a Garden in Davis stopped by my place on her way to Buffalo, and I had only a few hours to try to make up for months of neglect. (Working two jobs, and all that.) But you know what… meeting Leslie was like meeting an old friend, and I was still apologetic, but instantly at ease. I’m guessing that you’ll have the same thing happen when the bloggers visit your lovely garden. No worries. 🙂

  14. A year ago I had agreed to have my garden on tour then had emergency spinal surgery. Couldn’t walk, couldn’t bend, couldn’t lift. They had to either like my garden or lump it. It turned out v fun.
    Wish I was going to the Buffa10 Blogfest. Pls post pics of bloggers in your garden afterward.

  15. My garden has been on more than several tours over the years. We have about an acre & a 1/2 filled with really unusual plants — you know — like the ones from the old Heronswood Nursery, Sunshine Farm, & from Plant Delights. During the last tour, 750-odd people trooped through over 2 days. 700 of them asked “what’s that plant?” — answer: “nigella”. Most people don’t pay too much attention to the details on a garden tour. They’re out for a stroll with their friends, trying to fit in all of the gardens on the schedule. They notice what’s very tall, large-flowered, extremely unusual in terms of shape or color, or really brightly colored. You can plan for that & direct peoples’ eyes to what you hope they’ll focus on & away from what you hope they’ll overlook. Mulch (though in this mature, tightly-planted garden there isn’t much need for that), re-gravel the driveway, edge the beds, & cut the lawn — that’s about all the extra effort we ever go to for a tour. My best suggestion for those whose garden is on a tour: if you’re going to be home, have your lunch ready in the fridge. Close the doors & shades & take time to eat it. Oh — and have fun!

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