Celebrating an unapologetic ornamentalist


Here's my Kirkus column from last week. Check here for Susan's post on Chanticleer.


For the past couple years, I’ve been fighting a feeling that I’m being left behind by the gardening world as part of a forgotten minority. The hottest trends have passed me by. I don’t grow food, I don’t raise chickens, I hide my compost bin, and I’ve never had a rain barrel.  Don’t think there’s a powerful movement afoot? Here’s the opening line of Dominique Browning’s review of gardening books in the Sunday New York Times: “The garden book jury has returned a verdict. You are either growing vegetables or you have become one.”

I wonder what the late Christopher Lloyd would have thought of it all. It was his books and those of British garden writers like him that seduced me into gardening. Even though England’s gentle maritime climate ensures results I can never dream of in Western New York state, I still pore over favorites like The Well-Tempered Garden, and Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers. In many ways, Lloyd’s standards are completely unattainable—it would probably be much easier to become an urban farmer superhero than to achieve what Lloyd did on five acres in East Sussex. A chicken coop would be a snap to throw together compared to a yew topiary, a carefully maintained meadow, or even the exotic mix of hot colored flowers and extravagant foliage that used to be Lloyd’s rose garden. (I do have something like that—it’s known as the rose garden that I turned into a big hot mess.)

And yet. These are the aspirational books that I’d take over any prosaic how-to—regardless of actual results. I will always love and reread them because nobody writes about flowers or gardening like Lloyd. Here’s a taste:

On gardening’s disappointments:
“When a plant dies in your garden, how do you react? Do you reenact one of the historic tragic roles: Medea, Phaedra, Werther, Macbeth? Do you lash out? Or do you, with a glazed, all-passion-spent-expression, merely comment that plants invariably die on you, and that you only have to look at one for it to wilt forthwith?”
(The Well-Tempered Garden)

On plants he doesn’t like:
“‘A grape hyacinth is a grape hyacinth is a grape hyacinth,’ as Gertrude Stein might have said. … It flowers in April—they all do.”
(Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers)

On plants he does like:
"The rest of one’s life is a love affair with lilies, but, as is the way with such affairs, constantly fraught with frustration and disappointment. It has been said, with a wry element of truth, that the bond between turkeys and lilies is that their sole ambition in life is to die."
(Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers)

On the necessity of changing it up:
"Never let your gardening become stereotyped and never take a plant or group of plants in your garden for granted. Even shrubs should be put through the hoop at regular intervals, and with annuals it a crime to grow the same kinds in the same place year after year … "
(The Well-Tempered Garden)

Lloyd grew vegetables too, of course. And there are many more books, including two that came out after his death in 2006. I keep them handy at all times, to bring out whenever I need a reminder of why I started gardening in the first place.

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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 regularly 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 yahoo.com


  1. Yep, no chickens, veggies, or rain barrels in my garden either.

    For many years I drug home armloads of beautiful gardening books from the library. It was nothing short of exquisite delight thumbing through the glossy pages of breathtaking flower garden photos. I mostly lived in rental apartments then and although I would try and often fail to grow flowers in pots, I always said to myself “someday I will have a beautiful flower garden”. When I finally found myself in a home that I owned and would live in for many years, I started to put plant roots into the ground.

    Unfortunately, I discovered that I knew nothing about gardening! What a frustration that was for a bit until I discovered that those same library books contained words that explained a lot about how to create the beautiful flower garden I imagined. I devoured all I could, made plenty of mistakes but had lots more success too. I finally got to the point where books were no longer helpful and I needed local gardeners to learn from. I’ve been completely dismayed to discover almost no local classes or groups where I could learn from real people. This has been the greatest challenge in my gardening.

    I’m still soldiering on, learning by trial and error with plant choices, the right location, and garden design. I’m a long way from that beautiful flower garden in my mind, but I certainly wouldn’t be gardening at all if I didn’t want to create a beautiful garden full of delightful fluffy flowers.

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. I have never read a word of Christopher Lloyd, but now plan to.

    Ornamentalist or foodie, it makes no difference to the enjoyment of the book. What counts here is that the guy was a WRITER.

  3. I have done the foodie thing. I am now completely an ornamentalist. Partially due to the fact that I have nearly all shade, and a much smaller lot than previously. I can hardly fit all the things that I “have to have” let alone try to grow food too. Fresh peas are sorely missed, but then there is a peony in that sole sunny spot, and I get over it.

  4. Your posting made my day. I too have been feeling a little left behind as of late. I am an avowed ornamentalist, and a flower devotee at that. Veggies and foliage are not my “thing”. How we all can dream reading the heady words of Lloyd, Jeckyll, and the like. I read and re-read them all, along with Henry Mitchell throughout the winter plotting and planning for a floral display that will never amount to 1/100th of what they achieved. Sigh. Thank you for the reminder that I am not alone,in both my gardening efforts and the dreamy sense of wonder our treasured books awaken.

  5. Thank you thank you thank you! I live in an area of Texas that is do or die about when it comes to veggie gardens. I actually got made fun of once for saying I like formal ornamental gardens. It’s just a garden people! Plus it’s so easy to pick up good healthy local veggies these days because my fair city is crawling with amazing urban farms and markets. What I can’t find are local grown, organic flowers; herbs are also hard to locate. So I’m focusing on beautifully laid out ornamental beds and cutting gardens (inspired by British Garden mags, of course) as well as some lovely herb beds.

    Thank you again for reminding us that aesthetics have a place in the garden!

  6. I’m a veggie person, but I’m not part of the trend (Mom and Dad have been growing veggies since the 70s).

    I think the reason why I like growing veggies so much is that you get a tangible product from your labor, you save money, and no one expects a veggie garden to be beautiful. In fact, quite the opposite.

    I love flowers too, and I harbor hopes and dreams of one day having a Great Dixter-esque border. But right now my aspirations are thwarted by the bunnies, dear, and my own mother who has a very different design aesthetic.

    So that’s my answer–we grow veggies because they’re easy and no one cares if they’re planted in straight rows and the colors clash.

  7. Interesting post! I have ornamentalist tendencies, but have tried out some veggie/herbs in one garden bed. I also have a small raised bed for my 5 year old son, who likes to plant to his whimsy. I like to use herbs in cooking, but also for cut flowers…..and I am growing much more for cutting than I used to.

    I will check out some of those books! They sound lovely.

  8. I got to stay at Great Dixter for a couple of days and socialize with Christopher and his other guests. Olives and champagne before lunch (it was tongue), whiskeys before dinner. Teasel and Verbena bonariensis romping through the otherwise botanically complex garden rooms. Awesome.

  9. One advantage of growing ornamentals is that you don’t have to cook ’em. But seriously, it’s possible to do both: food AND ornamentals. And ornamental food.

  10. When you’re a kid and the best you’ve got going on is you’re parents yard to carry on.
    Christopher Lloyd was a pompous gardener.
    It would be fun to be pompous.

  11. I reckon I’ve read most of his books, looked at the photos till the my eyes glazed over and my heart broke or both…..I just love the way he loves plants, that’s it in a nut shell….Some of the flowers I saw or read about in his books grow just fine here in Alabama and some of them, well they don’t and now I know it…..and some, well some I either ain’t found yet and I’m still on the hunt for them or experience and common sense, of which I was born with only the minimum of :)) tells me that I ain’t got a chance in hades of not only growi e any particular one well but keeping it alive at all…… I ain’t going to make it to England I reckon in this lifetime but I got his books to tide me over……

  12. As a vegetable gardener from the start (40+ years) I have done only the most basic forays into ornamentals. I don’t have the design gene, and most flower beds I have created have been so lame as to be embarrassing. I still grow mostly edibles, because that’s the kind of person I am. Nowadays, I add to that my firm belief that very, very soon, we will not have access to the cheap food we have all mostly grown up with — as transportation, fertilizer, etc costs go up in response to our planet running out of cheap oil. Even farmers’ markets will not be the answer, particularly for people living in large cities, or even small towns in areas (like mine) where climate is not conducive to extensive agriculture of an edible kind.

    But I do struggle on with my flowers, encouraged and inspired by the occasional garden tour in our growing area. I recently read my first book by Christopher Lloyd — and omigosh, what I have been missing. The wit … the humor …. and obviously, the amazing depth of knowledge and creativity and skill. I am in love.

  13. Are the two mutually exclusive? I have been an avowed ornamentalist for many years as shade had been my portion as a neighbor of Susan’s in shady Takoma Park. I have now moved to a near-by community and have shocked myself into almost full sun. It has its pluses and minuses, but it has allowed me to fulfill a long time family tradition and have a vegetable garden. It may be chic right now, but it goes back many generations in my family and it feels fabulous to be able to do it. As gardener’s we are pulled in many directions by popular writers. I say, use what advice comes in handy and follow your own inclinations. My vegetable garden looks beautiful as does my nascent ornamental garden. Don’t obsess and do what is right for you.

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