Just call me Miss Manners in the Garden


As an organizer of garden tours and open garden days, I’ve heard my share of complaints aSuzanne_2bout garden visitors.  Oh, don’t look so shocked; they’re human, too.  Or should I say "we’re human, too" because I’ve probably pissed off my share of garden hosts – before I wised up and started my campaign save them from their visitors.  And since Stuart recently polled his readers: "Would you open your garden to visitors?" I can’t resist weighing in on the topic. (By the way, 60 percent of his respondents said yes, with only one – and from the map it looks like a Texan – answering with a definitive "no".)

So here for your review and critique is "The Etiquette of Visiting Gardens," the collective wisdom of our 200+ member gardening Yahoo group, compiled and published in our Hort Club newsletter in June of ’05.  I didn’t know you guys back then or I’d have asked for your input, too.  But now’s your chance.

  • DON’T criticize – period. Whatever awful things you may think the gardener is doing, be a good guest and keep it to yourself.
  • DON’T step in the garden, even if you think you know what you’re doing.  Stay on the grass or on paths.
  • DON’T do spontaneous weeding or deadheading — it can be taken by the host as a veiled criticism. We all share the impulse, but on the receiving end it’s not welcome, especially when it involves stepping into the border to do the clean-up chore.
  • DO ask anything about the garden and the plants in it. Just "What’s that?" or "Tell me about that plant" are welcome openings for the gardener to expound.
  • DO compliment the garden and/or thank the gardener for sharing it.

My article ended with this plea:  "While we’re enjoying ourselves this gardening season, let’s treat our hosts well and be good ambassadors for the club."

Think all this make-nice advice did a whit of good?  The incidence of visitors stepping where they shouldn’t was noticably reduced but it’s much harder to muzzle those self-appointed crusaders who inspect and critique gardens in the guise of tour-goers.  You know the type – the plant police.

[Photo:  A local garden that’s popular with tour-goers.]

Previous articleUtopia, Inc.
Next articleNature is Sexy
Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. Wasn’t this Texan. Though I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to open my garden to “tourists.” I garden for myself, not to impress anybody else, so it’s not really meant for “show,” you know? It’s all a fun experiment in pushing the boundaries of nature, not necessarily an artful, thoughtfully designed horticultural display.

    Anyway, I’ve never been on a garden tour before, but I’ll definitely keep these things in mind. I’m lazy, which means I sure as hell won’t be doing any impromptu weeding for anybody, so my challenge would be to keep the snarky commentary to myself.

  2. Thought you all might enjoy this list of tour tips. My pet peeve is the stair/entrance blocking thing. I hate that!
    This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2006 edition of the “Washington Examiner” newspaper.

    House & Garden Tour Season Starts
    Take a Peak Into Some of the Washington Area’s Most Beautiful Gardens

    By Kathy Jentz

    Always wanted to know what was hidden behind that neighbor’s brick wall or front door? House and garden tours allow you to indulge your nosiness and take a look into the homes and backyards of others – to contrast and compare with your own.
    A number of home and garden tours are coming up in the Washington region. You’ll have access to some breath-taking homes and luscious gardens in neighborhoods all over the city and nearby towns. You can also feel good about the nominal tour fee you pay as most of them benefit local historical societies and charities.
    …(list of local DC Spring 2006 tours edited out)…
    When on a house and garden tour, you are a guest in someone else’s domain, please be aware at all times that the open house or garden is a sacrifice for your host. They expect a certain amount of minimal damage from inviting in the crowds, but try to respect their property as you would have them act at your own. The following rules well help you move through house and garden tours with the greatest of ease while giving the least offense.

    • Wear comfortable shoes that you can easily slip on and off. You will be doing a lot of walking and stair climbing. Also, many home tours ask you to remove your shows before entering a house so wear clean, mended socks or get a pedicure if needed.
    • Dress is layers and where a hat plus sunscreen. Going from home to garden and back again can involve a number of temperature changes as well as more sun exposure than you might expect.
    • When entering a home, room, or garden gate, allow those who want to leave to exit first.
    • When approaching a flight of stairs, look up first to make sure there is no one wanting to come down first. If there is, allow them to exit before you ascend the stairs.
    • In general, home and garden tours are not designed for young ones. They are easily bored and exhausted as there is a lot of stair climbing, crowds, and adult conversation. Please leave your children at home.
    • This same applies to pets. Please do not bring them. Garden hosts and homeowners thank you for your consideration.
    • Take along a camera and notepad plus pen to take copious notes and record of all the great ideas you’ll see. Digital cameras are ideal for taking images of plants and their labels.
    • When you stop to take a photo or notes, do not impede traffic and try to step aside to make way for others. Conversely, if someone is trying to take a photo do not jostle them or push past them. An “excuse me” works most every time.
    • Listen and read. Nothing is as irksome to a host as repeating the same information 15 times that is already printed in your tour program. Additional questions are always welcome, but please keep them on topic and limit them to just a few to not monopolize their time.
    • You have the same plant, paint color, or furniture at your home? Who cares! The home owner does not need to know this.
    • Watch your step! Keep to the garden paths and inside a home stick to the designated tour areas.
    • Keep your hands to yourself. Do not pick flowers, seeds, or branches. Do not touch household items. In addition, leave the plant labels exactly where they are.
    • Watch your backpack and your bags. Do not smack them against other people, household furnishings, or plants. Leave big bags at home and pack as light as possible.
    • Leave the “weeds” alone. The gardener-in-residence may not agree with your assessment of what a “weed” is nor will they appreciate the veiled criticism your grooming implies.
    • Take your trash with you. Most tours also provide a rest stop, so use that opportunity to dispose of any items and use the restroom if needed.
    • Do not expect refreshments, though many tours may have a break area or children selling lemonade and cookies to raise funds – many others do not. Bring a bottle of water and a snack to hold you over until your next meal.
    • Park only where directed to – be aware of neighbors’ driveways, fire hydrants, plantings, and street signage.
    • If the home or garden is not to your taste or liking, please keep your comments to yourselves. If you must voice your opinion, do not do so until you are well away from the tour and other tour attendees. That person near you in the next home or garden could be the previous home’s owner!
    • If you meet the home owner or gardener compliment them lavishly and at the very least thank them for opening their spaces up to public scrutiny. It is a lot of hard work and takes a great deal of bravery to do so.

    Home and garden tours can be delightful experiences for all involved. Not only will you see examples of beautiful homes and gardens, but you will learn what grows well here and what doesn’t. Get ideas for plant combinations and positioning. Most of all get inspired to get out there and plant a wonderful garden of your own.

    Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at http://www.washingtongardener.com and welcomes your gardening questions.

  3. It would fun to compile a list of outrageous things we’ve seen people do on garden tours. Here’s mine from last weekend:

    I saw a woman sample any edible plants/fruits she could find at each garden along the route even after being asked several times to restrain herself.

    Later I noticed people helping themselves to raspberries after the host said he would be picking them himself when the tour was done.

    Other times I’ve seen people sit down on the outdoor furniture/hammocks and settle in.

    Another obnoxious one is (asking the host), Oh, is that [name of plant]? — I HATE those.

    God bless those who open their gardens for tours. I love and thank them all. And keep my arrogant thoughts to myself.

  4. Just want to say I cannot even begin to fathom the impulse to deadhead someone else’s flowers! That is so beyond the pale, I would be stupefied if someone did that in my garden. There are dozens of reasons to leave dead flowers on your plants and it’s noone’s place to make that judgment for the gardener. I’m speechless.

  5. I have 2-3000 visitors come though every year during the last weekend in July. None have purposefully stepped on or cut plants, left trash, or made a less than complimentary remark. Now, those are the strangers, and they couldn’t be more polite or civilized.

    My friends are another matter.

  6. This falls under the heading “you never learn unless you ask.”
    Melissa wrote: Another obnoxious one is (asking the host), Oh, is that [name of plant]? — I HATE those.

    Why is that obnoxious? Is it rude for guests to assume they know what a certain plant is? Or is it just annoying to have to answer questions posed by people who aren’t knowledgable about plants but think they are? Educate me please. Thank you very much.

  7. Hi Pam J.,

    My point was not that it’s a problem to ask a plant name (that’s always fine). I am irked by visitors who announce how much they hate certain plants in a host’s garden…to the host.

Comments are closed.