The curator in the garden


Here’s a story that made me think about change—even upheaval—in the garden. In this month’s Horticulture, Irish gardening celebrity Helen Dillon writes “The Great Unclutter,” which starts out “Imagine buying every plant you fancy for 36 years. Imagine planting all those plants in the same three-quarter-acre garden. Add a motley collection of containers, numerous seats, intriguing bits of mossy stone that might come of use, statues, bits of collapsed trellis, and assorted presents from friends, which you don’t like to throw away…”

You get the idea. Certainly, not many of us can say we’ve been adding to our gardens for 36 years, but regardless of how long we’ve been at it, the cumulative effect is similar. Unless you’re paying attention, you can wind up with a discombobulated mess. Dillon writes about wanting to be a creator, not a curator, and describes the total destruction of her front garden, which three years ago went from various paved areas and plantings to a large granite area surrounded by birches, bulbs, and perennials. In 2000, her back garden went from lawn to a limestone canal surrounded by plants. (I think most of these changes are reflected on the website images, but not in the website essay. It’s a bit confusing.) The fresh start seems to have worked for Dillon; her garden is called one of the best small gardens in the world. She managed to keep many of her plants by moving them into completely different configurations, or even propagating them, but she also relates going from a collection of fifty roses to less than fifteen.

I don’t know how it is with these “small” gardens and their photography, but on the website, the Dillon property looks gigantic. Nonetheless, she seems someone I’d emulate if I could: gorgeous, wild-looking borders, bursting with flowers, combined with dramatic hardscaping. How does one ruthlessly edit a garden, much less start over from scratch? That must take enormous initiative and determination. (And cash—that goes without saying when you’re a gardener.)

In her old garden, Dillon did what we all do (though with a more salubrious climate); she added this element one year, that element the next, and planted many different plants at many different times. Thus, a garden is accumulated rather than planned. Certainly, mine is an accumulation—the result of countless additions and deletions to the garden that existed before.

I always buy plants as a collector/curator. There is a huge disconnect between the passion to consume and the reality of gardening. And I have the dead and long-forgotten plants to prove it. God forbid that I would ever make a list of plants I’ve lost over eight years of gardening—simply because I had no business buying them in the first place.

A painter or an architect thinks nothing of ripping up a sketch, pulling out a clean white sheet or painting over a canvas, and starting again. It’s not so easy in a garden; even the feeblest shrub or most rampant groundcover seems to cry out, “Love me; keep me alive!”

This gardening season I’m resolving to be more of a creator and less of a curator.

Previous articleTV Jumps on the Green Bandwagon
Next articleComing to Grips with Grapple
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 regular 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 had the opportunity last year to hear Helen talk about her garden transformation. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak, go. Quite entertaining, informative, inspiring, all in a wonderful Irish accent.

  2. Thanks for the beautiful tour of Helen’s garden. All that hardscape seems a bit cold to me although the borders are divine.

  3. I can certainly respect what Dillon is saying, and I absolutely understand why someone would want to make order out of chaos…but I like being a curator 🙂

  4. I’m still on the upward trajectory, buying more plants than I have room for, determined to make it all work. (For the most part.)

    3/4 of an acre sounds dreamy to me. Try 450 sq ft and welcome to my world. At least I’ve learned to discern and avoid the crazy, inappropriate shit that will never do well in my garden.

    I think it’s necessary to really push the limits of your space for a few years to see what “too much” actually looks like. And feels like. Editing happens in my garden when 1) a bell goes off in my mind after living with something for a long time that I finally accept is not working or going to work, and/or 2) when I get impossibly angry at a plant for failing to live up to my hopes and expectations despite repeated ignorings of bell-ringing.

    (Yeah, okay, maybe killing living things that make you angry isn’t a good way to live our life outside the garden, but in the garden, I now allow myself occasional episodes of tyranny–because nothing bad ever comes of it I’ve found. I’m learning to trust my instincts.)

    I wonder if one day I’ll attain a kind of Zen-like oneness with my garden and be able to finally let go of the current trials and tribulations. Actually, I’m banking on it.

  5. I have a relatively new garden that I keep stuffing different things into in order to see what works. Eventually, it will edit itself, with only a little help from me, as the thriving plants take over, the weak plants die off, and the ugly ones are yanked out in a fit of pique.

    But I’d hate to have missed this crazily experimental phase.

    Henry Mitchell once said something very wise about this very issue. That his garden would be much more beautiful if he stopped trying to stuff so much into it. But that gardening is about a lot more than merely making a beautiful landscape.

  6. Halloo, I agree with Michele and Henry Mitchell. Gardening is a process, not a goal. Just as with any art or spiritual path, the process is in many ways far more important than the outward manifestation. And a garden is a living entity in and of itself — constantly in change and flux.

    I think curating really comes into play when you buy a landscape designed by somebody else and just maintain it. Instead, I prefer to create my own, over time, by hook and by crook.

    But then again, I usualy see most recipes as mere suggestions too… 😉

  7. After 36 years of gardening I don’t blame Dillon for giving it up — but that’s exactly what she’s doing. Landscaping is not gardening. See the refreshing column by Carleen Madigan Perkins in the same issue.

  8. I don’t think she’s giving up. Like me, she probably wants a better-looking place to stuff plants into.

    Well, that’s what I want anyway, and that doesn’t happen without being open to change. Which is hard, sometimes, for gardeners.

    And I don’t think landscaping and gardening contradict each other, by any means. Though I’ll definitely check out the Perkins piece. I’d be happy to find two good things to read in any gardening magazine.

  9. I’ll always be a curator–I buy on impulse and stick it in the ground. Having said that, I do rearrange things from time to time and try to impose some order. And I’m not afraid to rip something out and either give it away or throw it in the compost pile. It’s funny–if somebody asked me how to design a nice garden that they could just “install” in one weekend, wait, and enjoy, I could tell them exactly what to do. I could choose the plants, arrange them, whatever. But when it comes to my own garden, I’m totally unable to stick to a plan. The result is chaotic, but at least it keeps me interested.

    If I had a bigger garden (here we go…) I might be better with design, because I could create four or five gardens and find a place for everything.

    At least, I think I could.

  10. I think that being a curator for a couple of years might be a good thing for my garden. Man, I wonder what all of my plants could look like, if only the gardener who tends them would stop moving them around all the time and leave them in one spot to grow… 😛

  11. Now that I have saved the planet I can get back to gardening.

    3/4’s of an acre is not a small garden. You can put an amazing amount of stuff in that kind of space. In those 36 years I bet nature did a lot of editing for her. It sure has in my garden in half that time.

    You can collect and add for a long long time with nature doing your editing and not have it be overly discombobulated if the traffic patterns and flow through the garden of paths and beds are sound. Having a sound grasp of the mature size of trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers helps a whole lot too.

    The easiest way to start over from scratch is to move. Preferably to a larger garden. Yippee!

    Except for a good hardscape gardening doesn’t have to be super expensive. If you can live without the latest fashionable patented hybrids when they first come out, with a little patience most of your plants can be acquired by propagation and a modicum of pilferage of small parts. Most gardeners are a generous lot too.

    It sounds to me like Helen is just settling in to enjoy her years of work and experimentation in a garden that gives maximum pleasure and less work and constant fussing with.

  12. Gardening ,landscaping, and or naturescaping has always been about selective editing, whether it is done by the gardener or by mother nature.
    It’s a process of continuous development and redevelopment.
    For some is is an effusive endeavor while for others its an experiment in controlled restraint .

  13. I am incapable of eliminating a plant that is making any effort to grow although I might move it to a less visible spot. And I am definitely a collector who needs to breathe deep and visualize the limited space for new aquisitions before I pick up a plant. But I do believe everyone should get to try growing pretty much anything they want to try…that is how we learn what we like, what does well for us, what things really look like (instead of the photos that may or may not be based in reality) and that is one place we find joy…in the new and different and the challenge. There is always time to be restrained later!

  14. I’ve always been a creator when it comes to my yard. Always starting new projects and changing things around. No project is too big. The problem is that I’m not much of a finisher. Maybe I need to hire a curator to tidy the place up. 🙂

Comments are closed.