Guest Rant: Gardening as a Competitive Sport, and Still More Free Stuff


I used to think that a passion for plants was always good.  I mean,
what can be wrong with loving green growing things?  But in the last
few years, I’ve met men and women who have gone around the floral
bend.  I know women more aroused by rose-gardens than by their
beloveds; men who sacrifice relationships to a fascination with
floribundas; parents who remember the purchase-dates for two hundred
hybrid teas more clearly than their children’s birthdays; couples who
talk about roses, and – well, that’s it – roses. 

Tommy Cairns and Luis Desamero have surrounded their California home
with 1,000 container-raised plants.  If they aren’t pruning their
roses, they’re disbudding them, or spraying, fertilizing, repotting,
and generally examining them.  As Tommy says, “A mania for roses
transcends all strata of living.  I mean, Luis and I even buy toilet
paper with roses on it.  We can’t help it.”

Can’t help it.  Horticultural obsession is as powerful and dangerous
as a fairy-tale aphrodisiac.  And in the Brothers Grimm, at least,
quaffing one always had disastrous consequences.

Steve Jones, current President of the American Rose Society, lost a
marriage to the tug-of-war between flowers and wife.  So did Bob
Martin, an Arizona lawyer whose ex-wife described his love of
exhibiting roses as an “unhealthy passion.”

Yet, rose people credit the Queen of Flowers with giving them
purpose and love, even as she sometimes withdraws it.  Tommy recovered
from heart surgery among his flowers.  “They are always beautiful,
always interesting, often challenging,” he explains.  “But that is fine
because I would rather walk into a rose garden and deadhead than take
blood-pressure medication.”

South Carolina exhibitor Satish
Prabhu actually won his wife’s heart with his roses – they were all he
had to give, and, said his wife, Vijaya, “They were exactly what I
wanted.”  Steve and Bob have each remarried women who accept their
extracurricular passion.  As Maine rosarian Sari Hou says, “There’s a
sad story behind every rose garden, and sadness becomes happiness in
that garden.”

After spending time with these people, I have realized that I’m too
easily distracted to experience obsession, horticultural or otherwise.
My garden will always comprise a ridiculous variety of plants in not
quite the right locations.

I am, at once, relieved and disappointed.  The intensity of true
devotion is a bit unnerving.  Yet, the rosarians I’ve met are some of
the most energetic, enthusiastic, purely happy people I’ve ever known.
They’ve found faith in one true plant.  So, while I am an agnostic, I
have ordered five new roses, just in case.

Wanna read the book?  Post a comment (or put it on your blog and post a link in the comments)  about your own experiences with gardening as a competitive sport.  Come on, we know you’ve done it.  Maybe you didn’t enter your pumpkin in the state fair, but we’re willing to bet you’ve dropped off a sack of early tomatoes at the neighbor’s house, with a sigh and a glance heavenward over the burden that such a bountiful harvest has imposed upon you.  Or perhaps you’ve been a little too quick to jump in and supply a Latin name when a friend didn’t know the name of the Somethingia unknownus she paid twenty bucks for at the nursery last weekend and planted in the completely wrong spot (not that you’ll say anything to her about that–oh, well, yes you will.)

Yeah. You’re a show-off.  We know you are.  So just come clean.  You’ll feel better.

Judging is entirely subject to my whims and moods, and I’ll announce a winner tonight. Meanwhile, check out Aurelia’s book tour schedule here, and go see her if you can.  Trust me, having just a couple of GardenRant readers in the audience can really make the evening.


  1. I don’t know if this is being competitive or not, but there are some pretty serious rosarians in our neighborhood, and, well, I’ve just never had the money to keep up. What I have had is extraordinarily good luck, I think, with a couple of one dollar rose bushes I bought at some nursery’s summer clearance sale. Two years later, the bushes are big and the blooms are large, and I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoy telling my rosarian neighbors, “Oh, those? You know, I bought those things half-dead for a dollar each at the nursery, and I really don’t do anything to them. They just seem to grow like weeds!”

  2. Possibly even worse than competitive rose growers are the competitive orchid growers. Not only is there the competitive growing and grooming, but also the snobbery of many growing the plants themselves, the exoticism of orchids. That’s not to say there aren’t more grounded people (orchid pun – orchids are frequently epiphytes – plants that grow in trees or other things), and I’ve met some great people. Hopefully I was one of the latter. The competitions got to me, though, and I’ve given it up, as well as many of my orchids. I’ll never give up Brassavola Little Stars however.

  3. Having luck with the half-dead cheapies is the best. My friend Sari Hou, who said the ‘there’s a sad story behind every rose garden, and that sadness become happiness in that garden’ buys most of hers at the end of the season at – horrors – Walmart. They practically pay her to take them away. Most have no labels, so she gets to spend all the next season trying to figure out what they are. I’ve begun to model on her, and do you know, there is nothing like an unidentified rose to bring out my own competitive instinct. It’s like solving a crossword faster than anybody else – something I’ll never be able to do, by the way – but when it comes to plants, I’ve discovered an unattractive urge to know more, know it faster, and then tell everyone how smart I am. Eech.

    So, having admitted all that, I want to say thank you for telling everyone about my book and for letting me rant on this fantastic website. You all are the best!

  4. Fun post! Thanks Amy and Aurelia.

    I’ve spent more money on now-dead roses than on anything else in my garden. But it’s not “exhibition” roses that get me–it’s the old-fashioned, super-double, flat-faced ones from the Antique Rose Emporium. By the way, they send FABULOUS plants–please don’t blame them for my withering touch with roses.

    I’ve got four on my back porch now waiting to be planted–and room for exactly two.

  5. Well, that post is interesting and I didn’t relate until I read the ‘latin name’ game portion. I often can’t remember the common name, not bragging, just the way it is and, more often than not, now, I forget them both but Latin is the language of flowers and it is the only time I feel that I am competitive which I hadn’t thought about until this post. Each garden is a representation and reflection of its’ head gardener/owner and as such should just be admired and celebrated. What fun would it be if all gardens looked alike! Oh, but my compost pile IS bigger than yours!

  6. Gardening as a competitive sport? Chance to win a book? I’m in.

    I don’t have time for a new post today, but as evidence of some obsession on my part I offer this previous post on the firt tomato of the season,

    And I know I have more hoes than anyone else out there gardening! Count them here:

    And I bet my compost pile is better than Layanee’s. It’s a 3 bin system!

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  7. Well, I know nothing about roses, but I’m about to learn, having just ordered three “Carefree Beauty” roses for the front yard.

    I don’t quite know how to put this, but I used to live across the street from you, Aurelia. (I was the second-floor porch with all the morning glory vines.) Alas, I never got to visit your garden (I always managed to miss the “Hidden Gardens” tour), but all the hard work you did with the front yard garden is one of the reasons I have a garden now.

    So … thanks! and good luck with the book. I’ll be looking for it this weekend!

  8. Okay. Although my true inner geek will be way too apparent in this comment…I am the recepient of a Tomato Oscar in the category ‘most likely to raise public awareness of global warming and then defuse the global threat of terrorism’ category in Dr. Charles’ (of The Examining Room) annual tomato contest.

    A Tomato Cluster’s Tale:

    Annoucement of the Winners:

    Tomato Oscar Acceptance Speech:

    Okay – you’re right, I feel better now. The fact that I got caught lying on the floor of the lab, photographing a tomato cluster clinging to a safety shower, well, that made me realize that I was really wanting to win that award. The tomato glamour! The tomato applause!

  9. “As Maine rosarian Sari Hou says, “There’s a sad story behind every rose garden, and sadness becomes happiness in that garden.”

    Redact the word “rose” and this statement, more than anything else I’ve read in long while, very closely approximates the way I feel.

    Competitive gardening? No thank you. My gardens for me… and only me. Thank heavens for them.

    What a well done post. As usual.

    Thank you.

  10. Thanks, Aurelia – I’m buying the book! And competitiveness is such a good topic for us. I guess I prefer the glory of just showing people my garden. Though they’d better say something nice, the nicer the better, and if they don’t I assume they’re total pinheads.

  11. I don’t want to be in the competition for the book, thanks anyway, but I avoid garden competition except in one category – as other people mentioned, I love getting cheap plants! My pride and joy is my one ‘Knockout’ now flourishing in my front yard (my only rose), that I got for #3.99 (2 gallon pot) one October from a nursery that didn’t know any better……it wasn’t even half-dead; they just wanted to get rid of their stock!

  12. Competitive gardening…not something I had thought about until I mentioned to my DH a certain awkwardness I was feeling toward a neighbor. I had considered us gardening friends, but something was amiss. He hit the ball out of the park when he simply said, “She’s competing with you.” This had never occurred to me but once he said it, it was as if a light bulb went on in my head. And, while I had not considered myself competitive, once this was made known to me, I no longer felt a desire to show her my latest find…

    As far as competitive shows, I’m betting there are lots of them for lots of different flowers. I belong to local and national daylily societies and just sent in a daffodil society membership. Both hold competitive shows. In fact, I’m slated to attend a class in June to learn how to groom daylilies for a show…and, yes, q-tips are involved! Lol!

    While I may not be a plant Latin type person, I am pretty competitive about names. This is surely evidenced by the hundreds of metal labels in my garden. Anything I collect, I tend to label. At this point, besides the daylilies and daffodils, there are heucheras, phlox, lilies, iris, clematis, toad lilies, and a new epimedium collection (only four varieties to this point).

    And yes, I do have roses. I have a small collection of English roses (my very favorite) consisting of around 12 currently, four of which traveled with me when we moved from Washington State back to Virginia almost eight years ago. I also have a few old garden roses.

    Recently, I went on a garden tour with a group of gardening friends (we all volunteer together in a historic garden) and I seem to have become the name-that-plant person. There were two plants we saw on the tour I didn’t know, although I knew I had seen both before. Upon returning home, I checked some notes/photos…and presto, I had names for both! Okay, I’ll admit it…it gave me great satisfaction!

  13. The rest of my generation can have their baseball, hockey, ringette, but put me in a flower competition and I’m going for the jugular. Very, very sad but true. I eye up the competition, I tour their neighbourhoods, examine their Don Juan climbing rose, peer over their fences to see if they put in new varieties of tulips. My husband is soooo embarrassed. Most of the people I am competing against are old enough to be my grandparents, but put us in the floral ring together and the gloves come off.

  14. Firefly, so glad that my garden offered inspiration! I always admired your sky-blue morning glories, and missed them when you moved. In fact, they’re why I started to grow morning glories on my fence. Now, of course, I can’t dig up the trillions of seedlings fast enough – naw, I’m kidding. But, I must say, thank heavens I like morning glories. Rather than dig them out, I’ve decided to go for broke and plant lots of different varieties. Must be crazy.

  15. Thank you! I’m honored to win! Watch for my little satin “tomato throne pillow” to return sometime this summer.

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