Rich People’s Gardens


Am I jealous of the wealthy owners of this pool and garden?  Gawd, yes.  I imagine my life lolling around this gorgeous pool as pure bliss. (Notice that’s lolling, not swimming.  Very stress-reducing, that lolling.)

628mcleanSo all this was on my mind when I read in today’s Washington Post Magazine a column by Jeanne Marie Laskas describing her reaction to an old friend’s new Enormous House: “Good God, how much money do you people make?”  Of course she’d never ask that question because despite our culture of Oprah and Phil and open discussion of prostate glands, marital infidelities and stints in rehab, we don’t talk about money coz that’s personal, ya know.  (And believe me, any regular user of public transportation can tell tales of truly cringe-worthy personal details they’ve unwittingly overheard.  It’s enough to drive us all to iPods – or XM Radio.)

But back to Jeanne’s reaction to her rich friend.  The Enormous House in question has “no trees yet, no landscaping” in its newly developed neighborhood and despite acknowledging that “a palace without trees hardly cries out in welcome,” Jeanne tells us she experiences “hot jealousy.”  Well, Jeanne, you lost me there because I save my hot jealousy for homes with trees – and stonework and pools and spas and waterfalls and patios and gazebos and great masses of plants – but never for oversized boxes in barren, unwalkable neighborhoods.

I know it’s only natural that my rush of jealousy comes from seeing rich people’s gardens and I assume all gardeners feel the same way.  But to my surprise, the reaction I hear most frequently to professionally designed, installed and maintained gardens is resentment and grousing that the homeowners aren’t real gardeners.  To which I surprise myself by leaping to the defense of wealthy checkbook gardeners with this irrefutable logic: You’re rather that nongardeners did nothing at all with their property? Or maybe: What would you prefer they spend their money on?  Fast cars and flat screen TVs?

So to all my wealthy readers (you never know) I offer this sincere suggestion.  Hire the smartest, most talented designers you can find and write them a blank check.  Then DO enjoy that slice of heaven your money has enabled you have.  And maybe once a year how about inviting the public, including some of us real gardeners, to enjoy it, too?  I promise I won’t ask if it was paid for with drug money or Enron-style accounting tricks.

[Why no link?  Why indeed, and I’ve written to WaPo to ask what’s up. Not accepting trackbacks?  Meanwhile, article-seekers should Google “Washington Post Magazine” and click “The Big House.”]


  1. You’ve asked the very question I asked myself reading some of the earlier posts at Garden Rant. Do gardeners want really want non-gardeners to give up homes that have yards? Do they want non-gardeners to stop landscaping? Are only those with a passion for gardening allowed to take shovel to dirt?

    I think the reason why publications and large nurseries market gardening the way they do is that the majority of people simply do not have the time, energy, or inclination to garden in the way that we rabid gardeners do. However, despite their flaws as gardeners, non-gardeners do want to have a pretty yard, either for themselves or to show off to their neighbors.

  2. I agree with M Sinclair Stevens that “the majority of people simply do not have the time, energy, or inclination to garden…” If you are a large publication or nursery you operate on volume catering to “most people”.

    When I was in college I worked on a 2000 acre estate in Woodside, the largest private land holding on The San Francisco Peninsula. This was “old money” and they do act differently than “new money”. I helped the head gardener care for the property. The lady of the house was into “gardening” and we worked hard to keep the old estate looking good. They were at the end of a mile long driveway, and few people came up, yet we worked on the garden like it was ready for a tour any time. A gardener, is a gardener no mater how much money they have.

    Money does not equal taste. Yet, many people act as if a great amount of money spent equals class.

    I get so bored at those garden tours that are behind gated communities, where every body looks impressed at the landscape basically because the house is huge and the owners must have money. “Can you imagine how much this all costs?” So what! Talk to the owner and many times they are more interested in looking important and wealthy than talking about their landscape.

    It’s all o.k. though. At least they have a “landscape” and are keeping it up. We in the garden blog world know what a real “garden” is.

  3. My brother lives in a modest suburb on Bay Farm Island near Alameda, CA, across the bay from San Francisco. Last time we visited, I went strolling among the huge houses in the nearby development, along the canals, and noticed that the only people out in the beautiful gardens were the hired landscape crews. I guess the homeowners were out earning the salaries necessary for buying and maintaining large houses and yards in the Bay Area. More joy to them if they have that kind of dough — I wish I did — but I still had a totally wicked desire to buy one of those houses, paint it purple, and set up blowsy, gaudy garden with brilliant flowers, pink flamingos, garden gnomes. Just for fun.

    ::sigh:: I could SO love living on an estate with a Georgian manor, a mile-long drive, and a hired staff to do the cleaning and gardening. Dear Lord, please let me prove to you that living such a life wouldn’t spoil me. Pretty please?

  4. Although I’ve only seen a few Rich People’s Gardens, I enjoyed looking at them, especially if there was lovely food and wine involved! There are some fabulous houses here with the no-edge [maybe it’s called zero edge??] pools, so that you can swim while seeing your Hill Country view unimpaired by any visible retaining wall. Because it’s fashionable right now, many of the moneyed folk are using lots of native plants, too. It’s fun to see what someone could do with a nice pile of dough, although like Susan, I’m always sure that there were ethical issues involved in amassing that wealth.

    Since most rich people like to hang out with other rich people, they’ve generally sequestered themselves in their ghettos of gilt, away from the rest of us.

    Homes with old-fashioned or very plain landscaping of the sort posted by Michele in her story about Cool Yards and Uncool Plants
    don’t get many complaints from me, either. They can be neutral, perhaps even restful elements in their neighborhoods, and can fit in beautifully.

    It’s the non-gardeners who come into an established area and try to make their property look like a just-built new subdivision that irk me. For these berserkers it’s not enough to mow the existing grass and prune overgrown trees, and just live there. In some anal need to banish nature, they’ll chop down the trees, take down hedges that gave privacy to the neighbors, build decks high above grade like prison watchtowers, banish anything that might attract a bee or caterpillar, rip out everything but chemically tended grass, and throw Round-up around like salt on popcorn. I’m not talking about renewing an old garden, or making space for a new one but of deliberately disappearing any semblance of a garden. They are not NON-gardeners – they are ANTI-gardeners.

    Those are the people that should never get to own a piece of land on God’s green earth.

  5. The one thing that I admittedly drool over in “rich people’s gardens,” and the one thing that I think really makes them look better (no matter who does the pruning and plant maintenance) than what I can do here at my house is the hardscape materials used.

    Seriously, look at the picture in Susan’s Rant above… and then picture that back wall of the pool replaced with beige retaining wall block from a big-box store. While you’re at it, mentally take out the stone walkway between the bog and the pool and put in some concrete. Replace the well-spaced board fence in the background with humble 6ft. preassembled spruce panels. You know, the kind with the little arch at the top of every slat.

    I simply cannot afford to put in bluestone walkways and patios or line my borders with stacked limestone retaining walls, even if I would have a quarry nearby to buy and haul said stone myself.

    So I reuse the “Windsor Wall” big-box store bricks that I inherited with this house as innovatively as I possibly can, making curving border half-walls that are largely hidden with plants during the growing season and using other blocks as a sunken mowing edge. I know that it would look better with “real, honest” materials like true stone, but I do the best with what I can. And I hide the “bad stuff” whenever possible.

  6. If it would make any of you feel better, goggle “Hilbert Mansion” to see a home for sale in Indianapolis for about $20 million. The owner had money, but his empire collapsed around him, and the courts and lawyers are now settling things and trying to sell this property which has “17 different landscapes” around its 22 acres! It was on a tour this spring, but I missed it!

  7. Reading Dirt came closest for me to the source of that envy. Real gardeners like to say we enjoy getting out there and getting dirty and sweaty and being in the garden and on some level we do. In the back of our minds however we know it is a lot of HARD work. It pisses me off and makes me jealous that these rich people can pay someone else to do all the hard work for them and then loll around and enjoy the results and act as if they did it all themselves.

    For the garden professional who comes home from a days toil in the fabulous gardens of the wealthy and is too exhausted to tend their own it is a double whammy and a major conundrum.

    If only I were wealthy enough to hire a gardener to do all the hard work in my garden so that I could putter around directing the fine tuning then loll about and just enjoy it when I came home from work.

    I hope ranting here is appropriate.

  8. Great ranting, everybody. And yes, this is the place to do it.
    Ditto to the hardscape that we can’t afford and have major lust for. Huge boulders – I want ’em!
    And what somebody calls fine-tuning I always call tweaking and it’s exactly what drives me to do all the grunt work, dreaming of the days I’ll just be tweaking. So for creating beds and building structures, I bet we all wish we could hire it out, absolutely. A little anecdote: Recently I started paying one or two workers to help me mulch the garden in spring, which now happens in 6 hours instead of 6 weeks.

  9. Here in Hawaii “Tweaking” has a very negative connotation. If I were tweaking I could do the work of four men and wouldn’t need to hire a gardener. I could dig the footing by hand and lift large boulders all by myself and build that beautiful stone wall my neighbors paid $80,000 for. We got plenty rocks here, no need pay, just go find a quiet spot to collect from.

  10. Love this rant. Makes me really appreciate what we have and what we do. Money couldn’t buy what we all got. Thank you everyone!

    I live in the Bay Area, the weather is great……….. but my husband was born and raised here……….. we could NO WAY afford to purchase a home here today. If you look at my blog, you’ll see I have a beautiful garden, lots of stone, etc. all patiently scavenged, salvaged or recycled over the past 10 years.

  11. I think we are loosing perspective in these rants. It is social suicide in wealthy area’s to do anything for yourself. I get strange looks from nieghbors when gardening in my modest neighborhood. And whatever you do don’t mention that you change your own oil on your own car yourself, or fix your own washing machine when problems arise. I work in the local hospital with other professionals (md’s, etc) and admitting to these type of activities is not something I would recomend.
    I think it is wonderful that these people are landscaping their homes differently and nicely. They are taking an active interest, that is better then the majority of people out there.

  12. Enjoyed reading this very much!

    Isn’t the grass always greener…or something like that.

    I guess when I have the chance to visit something out of the lifestyles of the rich and famous (not very often…hmmm, maybe ever, anyway), I sorta expect it to be fabulous and wonderful. There’s nothing worse than going on a garden tour and seeing a fabulous house….and a whatever garden or even no garden.

    I visited a wonderful historic home (privately owned, so very rarely does the public get granted the opportunity to see it) during Garden Week…home is from Colonial times, still in the family, etc…..except the family is not into gardening…shall we say, at all…it had gardens at one time, but gone, gone, gone. Very sad, I thought.

    On the homefront, I get that neighbor thing. I had a neighbor stop to tell me that her husband had wondered what we eat…meaning, we must be putting all our food money into plants! Lol! Of course, that was also an appreciation for what plants, especially fabulous ones, cost…which most of my neighbors wouldn’t have a clue.

    So, that says something else, doesn’t it…only those of us who really garden can appreciate the expense, time and effort that goes into making a fabulous garden…be it a wealthy one created by others or one created by an owner.

    As to wealth, I say good for them. These days, I don’t covet the big house (too much trouble), but I do lust after the land…land to plant all my seedlings and room for my dogs and cats to do their things without worrying about neigbors…and room to not have to breath neighbors’ cigar smoke…oh, but that’s another rant! Lol! Sorry.

  13. I also loved this rant. The comments reveal a lot about each of you — and not just about your gardening philosophy. Yesterday I printed it out, read it over very carefully, and made notes in the margins with insightful and interesting comments. I re-read those comments today and they are all rubbish. But one thought lingers: I don’t for one minute believe those of you who profess to be envious of homeowners who can afford to pay someone to do their gardening. Maybe you would like to have someone dig the holes and haul around the mulch. But I suspect you are all true gardeners and therefore would be incapable of “lolling” about while someone else tinkered in your gardens. That’s why you’re gardeners: You LIKE to roll around in the dirt.

    One more observation/question. Now that blogs have raised my gardening consciousness I find that I’m reluctant to let serious gardeners see my own pitiful plot of land, replete with the dreaded annuals, badly pruned bushes, trash trees growing in remote corners, and awkwardly placed plants. Tell the truth: when you visit friends who are, shall we say, less than diligent about garden upkeep and planning, do you tsk-tsk over their bad taste, laziness, or general lack of gardening pride?

  14. Good points all, I also am enjoying this topic.
    Pam, I agree with you, I really do not want real gardeners to see my yard/garden right now. Too much of a work in progess, it is almost so personal that I would feel really really bad if someone ripped it apart. My wife will have friends over (mom’s club stuff) and their kids to play with our son Peter (2 years old), and I freek. They are not even gardeners and always have positive things to say… but it still bothers me.
    Must be an insecurity thing. Its very funny because I would say I am a very dedicated(nuts) gardener, lots of work on the yard. Exotic plants and all, and I am still nervous about people visiting our house.

  15. Just stumbled onto this blog – I absolutely love it! This is a great rant. I am not envious of non-gardening people with large homes and beautiful landscapes – they don’t really know what is involved and so can never truly appreciate what they have. I am envious of the avid gardner who is blessed with a decent amount of land, knows what to do with it, and their care and nurturing is evident everywhere you turn.

  16. Ok, please be kind to me…….

    I am so over this rant. I really could care less how the rich garden or do not garden. Better things to do I guess. So imagine when I read this post by Susan! Really, I could care less about the owner, I am jealous of the Landscape Architect who got to built it.

    Susan, you do get that you are writing an article for gardeners? The moment I can’t deadhead my roses is the moment I should be shopping for my coffin.

    When Susan asked, “Is this even legal?” I almost spit out my coffee. What in the heck does that even mean? Susan, breathe. If you are going to be so envious of things that do not matter please don’t bring gardening into it. Life is just to short and gardening should be one thing you can do anything you want with it.

  17. Rich people have full right to spend their money on great gardens. Some of the best gardens in the world are done by rich people. It is great to be able to see them, and get inspired. We gardeners just need to keep dreaming of every new season, as we don’t see a simple plot of land, we all see Versailles. This creative process, hope, meditative quality and occasional success is what keeps us happy, healthy and keeps us gardening.

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