Confessions of an unregenerate ornamentalist


Now that the Blog Action Day professions are done, I feel it’s time to come clean about being green. After all is said and done, I am a gardener first, environmentalist second. When I started cultivating my garden eight years ago, I didn’t do it to save the planet and that’s still not my priority. Over the years, I did learn that there wasn’t an overpriced chemical in the garden center that would transform scraggly, underperforming roses into centerfold shots. I instinctively knew enough to refuse the “fertilization treatment” our predecessors had had on permanent order, and I quickly figured out that the areas where I had been told “nothing would grow” would respond to some cultivation and additions to the hard-packed soil and some tough groundcovers. But every garden presents its own special problems, many of which make it impossible to garden in as environmentally responsible a manner as one would like. So here of some of the bad things I did this season and I figure I’ll be doing again next season.

I watered—a lot

I can’t stand the look of a limp, wilted perennial, and I won’t tolerate drooping container annuals. For the containers, this defeats the whole purpose, as they are meant to provide vibrant color and texture during the downtimes of the perennial garden, as well as provide a refuge for plants my often-inhospitable native earth will not sustain. Where tree roots and shade prevail as much as they do on my urban lot, containers are a godsend. But they demand regular, often daily, watering and they get it. I could probably water a lot less in the rest of the garden, but I’d have to steel myself to the look of a thirsty h. macrophylla (one that has served me long and well) and a bunch of miserable ground covers where the tree roots prevail. I have a feeling the water will continue to flow and I’ll still look incredulously at my fellow ranters when they say they never—never!—water.

I’ve been known to use some … product

Just for the containers. They must give lush, abundant color, impressive foliage and continual rebloom—some water-soluble stuff helps them keep them doing that through mid-October. These are one-season-only annuals for the most part. Fortunately, there are now earth-friendly alternatives to the ones I used to use.

Nothing edible here

I can’t spare the room. I want a garden that looks—and smells—fabulous in mid-summer, and most of the veggie crops I see don’t provide either of those elements. Most edible crops need more sun than I can give them, but that’s not really the reason. I don’t like growing vegetables. I love flowers. Herbs are OK, but when it comes right down to it, I resent the space they take when I could have a big lily or dahlia there instead. We’ll never live off our land, but there are plenty of fulltime farmers nearby who need our support—so that’s fine.

To be honest, even the fact I don’t grow grass is accidental, but I’m glad it’s not there. More room for the fancier stuff.

Am I the only bad one? I doubt it, but writing this blog and reading all the others has inspired me to do better. Next year.

I have Susan to thank for “ornamentalist.” Apparently, this is what the hardcore urban farmers call us flower-growers.

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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. Elizabeth, how you are watering makes a big impact on how much water you use and lose. For containers, you don’t have a lot of choice, but for your perennials and shrubs, using soaker hoses makes a huge difference. For established plants, you only need to water once a week for several hours (to encourage deep rooting) maybe twice a week if we haven’t had any rain, like it’s been here in the Northeast lately. I also grow several different cultivars of Hydrangea macrophylla, and all seem to do quite well with this arrangement, even in the dog days of summer. I changed over a couple of years ago, and it’s just so much easier – a little upfront work in the spring laying the hoses before mulching – and thats it. No more running around the yard with sprinklers or God-forbid a hose! A little tidbit I picked up at school recently, when using sprinklers between 50-75% of the water evaporates while sprinkling and off the foliage, that’s where the real waste is.

  2. Sorry, Elizabeth, but despite this confession, I fail to see you as a force for evil.

    What’s really evil in my opinion–blandly evil–is failing to respect the bit of earth you’ve got enough to use it. Making it beautiful–well, you are paying the planet plenty of respect right there.

  3. Well, what’s an urban aesthete with a tiny bit of land to do but create beauty? Your garden feeds all kinds of critters, and the human soul, too. Good deal, I’d say.
    And you’re in good company coz I water everything I care about. My taste in plants just runs toward the drought-tolerant coz there’s too much garden here for me to choose otherwise.
    About the product – if the water-soluble fert isn’t made from petroleum products, is there anything wrong with using it in containers where it won’t run off into the watershed? I’m asking.

  4. Hey Elizabeth,
    Thanks for your rant on being a flower gardener. Like you, I want scents and colour and lushness, as much as I can achieve in this tiny garden. I also want the joy of spring bulbs celebrating the retreat of the snow and rain of winter, and the excitment of tiny perennial leaves thrusting up – none of which you get from veggies which are all annuals and need to be started indoors.
    Like you I support local growers at the farmer’s market held each week, but one of those growers provides us with veggies and fruit through the winter, when gardens here are under 3 foot or more of snow.
    So I will resist the siren call of growing veggies in containers, and thank you for support for us flower gardeners.

  5. Thanks Shira,

    I do have a network of soakers; they cover 3 beds and I love them. As for sprinklers, I have found the pulsing type provide better water delivery then the ones that float back and forth. If you know what I mean. But I only use these systems once or twice a week during dry periods, less when there is a decent amount of rain.

    Susan, I would also love to know about any issues regarding water soluble ferts when they are confined to containers. Though I think I’d do better over all if I stopped mixing so many plants in the container.

  6. Sandra, there are perennial veggies, asparagas and rhubarb are two of them, and they come up very early. I am just as excited to see them as I am to see my snowdrops and other spring bulbs poking thru the ground. They are a very beautiful sight all season. Rhubarb has big hosta like leaves and some have bright red stems. The Asparagas has the tall fern like folliage that has great winter interest, it turns richly gold and looks great with dew or frost on it. Go for the per. veggies. (of course none of the rest of the family shares my joy in the yummy asparagas or rhubarb. Oh well, more for me.)

  7. I find this post somewhat surprising. It was my impression that if you’re gardening *with* the landscape you’ve got rather than working against it, then you ARE environmentally sensitive. Banging a drum of conventional environmental wisdom doesn’t mean a damned thing if it doesn’t apply to your context (like putting “xeric” plants in a place that gets 5 times the amount of yearly rain a truly “xeric” landscape receives).

    When you water your groundcovers, you’re also watering the trees — feeder roots stay near the soil surface. They’re not tapped into some deep aquifer below your property, and their leaves shade rain from their own roots as well.

    These “hardcore urban farmers” might remember they need the “ornamentalists'” flowers for pollinators’ good health. Lots of vegetables flower in the spring (or aren’t allowed to flower at all, because it’s considered “bolting”) and then spend the summer setting fruit. What do the pollinators do then?

    Take a hike over to a flower-only garden with a season-long bloom spectrum, I guess.

    Surely that is worth more to a bee or a butterfly than a hundred acres of heirloom tomato plants.

  8. Amen Elizabeth! I cheat too. Yes, I watered (with soaker hoses) this year. And this fall when I got all those killer deals on distressed perennials, I admit, I used the blue stuff- but it was that or death for them. Other than that, I try to be good. I compost, I quit using roundup, I grow my own food and can it, but I LOVE FLOWERS TOO!!! And I’m not going to stand by and let my 50 year old trees die, I’m gonna keep watering them!

  9. I’ve always been a flower gardener and never been ashamed of it. I don’t use “product” but I will confess that the soil I use in my containers has “product” in it so in a way I do. I water when the plants need it because I’m not just watering them. I’m watering all of the wildlife in my totally organic (except for the containers) yard. Living things need water whether they are plants or animals or insects. My “lawn” is steadily disappearing every year. That’s one thing that I never water. Grass is supposed to go dormant in the summer heat and drought. Flower Gardeners Unite!

  10. No judgments here.

    I don’t water. All my water comes from my well and I am careful with how I use it. If my plants can’t survive in this climate, then they have to go. Same with product.

    In the past, I fought–critters, deer, insects, shade, drought, even aging. I’m tired of fighting. I don’t want these things as opponents anymore.


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