Guest Rant: Gardens and Criticism


Winter garden

I’m sometimes asked to include images of my own garden in my slideshow when I give a talk. I always make a point of including this photograph, which shows what my garden looks like in the middle of winter, when all the flowering perennials are cut down to the ground. It’s beautiful in June, but it looks like crap in January. Here’s UK writer Anne Wareham, author of The Bad-Tempered Gardener, to stir the pot on the question of perfect magazine gardens–and their opposite:


It’s hard to know what the US and the UK actually have in common in our gardening. We do seem to have some interesting differences. Like edge to edge lawns fronting your houses with never even a fence in between? Very strange to the British with our fetish about privacy, and self consciousness about being seen in the garden, even fully clothed. And whoever heard of dyed mulch??? Approved Exterior Plant Selection??? And does anyone on the US open their gardens to the public?

Interesting questions. But I bet we have one thing in common – a tendency for all garden media to overdose on the positive and treat us to arm waving enthusiasm about everything horticultural? For some reason it appears impossible to approach gardens and gardening soberly, reflectively and as if we are intelligent grown ups.

Here are some examples, picked randomly by turning the pages of a magazine. Someone, straight faced, describes their own garden thus: “Suddenly it is full of twinkling colour, as though the ground had been scattered with jewels.” Someone else’s garden is “a sublime blend of pretty planting and effortless style”. A flower show, inevitably, “Despite mixed temperatures…did not disappoint” (would they tell us if it did? They would not.) Plants never turn their toes up for no good reason and none come with faults except vigour and good health described as ‘thuggishness’.

And just to annoy any of us with less than perfect gardens and some less than ideal plants, each article is prefaced by people with inane grins. Makes me choke over my cornflakes.

Garden websites are the same, all talking their gardens up, so that the hapless traveller might imagine that the UK is full of amazingly great gardens. Which sadly is far from the case. (see for greater accuracy) When I put up my new revised website for my own garden with occasional comments about my failures and difficulties, someone emailed me to tell me I ought to talk it up more.

Someone tweeted me today, with reference to a garden blog which discussed the difficulties of keeping a border going all summer, to say “Very interesting piece and helpful too, partly just because I discover that “proper” gardeners actually have same problems as me – oddly comforting!” (Jean Sherry) How many people harbour feelings of shame and embarrassment at failures and problems in their gardens which are simply ordinary. Or feel inadequate because they fail to feel the prescribed level of passionate delirium every time they step outside?

The irony is that the garden media love to tell us that achieving garden paradises is simple and that they will tell us how. They then proceed to instruct us in all the most difficult and labour intensive ways of doing everything. But that’s another story…


  1. Well Anne, I think most gardeners are all to aware of the trials, tribulations and design flaws inherent in their own garden making. Blowing a little sunshine under their mulch may help prevent them from throwing in the trowel as they strive for that ever elusive garden nirvana.

    If I need to call what passes for my front garden exuberant chaos to make myself feel better and not give up over the sheer futility of trying to tame the wilderness than I will. My garden may not get published in a magazine, but I do know it stops traffic and has been photographed countless times. That says something. What I can’t be sure.

  2. I may have to break down and buy this book. Gardening is hard (but rewarding) work and anyone who says differently is full of &#@%. Spin it any way you want to, my favorite place to be is STILL in my own garden.

  3. America has different social rules than British society; politeness is a form of egalitarianism here and its aim is to be inclusive. We don’t want people to feel badly about their gardens lest we bruise their feelings or self-esteem, etc., a view I find somewhat patronizing. We show pictures of gardens and endless macros of the same flowers like five-year-old children running to their parents for a never ending flow of approval. It seems people are more interested in getting positive feedback than honest, constructive feedback. Perhaps part of the problem is that many people don’t know how to give good criticism without sounding mean, spiteful, or belittling. Or they hold back to avoid sounding ignorant.

  4. Anne, (and Amy) you’re a gardener after my own heart and I have this book on my Amazon wish list for my next order.

    I recently started a monthly blog party for blogging gardeners to post links to their blogs where they described gardening problems; dead plants, color clashes, bad dogs etc. It’s called Thirteenth Tribulations and will appear on the 13th of each month for posting. Only had 3 posters to the first one, but I hope it builds over time and anyone is welcome to contribute a link. The first “13th Tribulations” was here:

  5. I couldn’t agree with this rant more. Gardening media would have us believe the whole endeavor is as simple as Farmville-style click and place. I feel like i spend more time in my garden with a machete than a trowel.

  6. I LOVE these comments! I am very, very weary & bored this year of “look at how beautiful this is today!!!” (Facebook friends I love you…but…)
    Amy, I was inspired by you to show it all this morning on my blog. For anyone who wants to see the real deal, check it out–unposed, unweeded and raw. I’ve spent this summer promoting my magazine and things in the garden have gone to hell. And you know what? It’s okay.

  7. Well, I can honestly say that my garden at the moment could make a whole lot of people feel better about themselves.

    Plus I traveled for work for two weeks in the height of the summer drought, and a couple of new plants just up and died outright in my absence. I’m hoping a few of the saplings will come back from the roots, but I’m not optimistic.

  8. As with most things in life and in the garden, the evolution of growth is cyclical and ephemeral.
    If you can accept that then there is no reason to get your panties in a wad.
    Just wait and toil a little while longer and you will be ready for your Kodak moment once again.
    That’s what is is all about isn’t it ? …. the journey.

  9. I’m not familiar with this woman, but given the level of snark, I think I definitely need to be. Her book is now on my wish list!

  10. Since the comments are all smiles and nods here, including my earlier one, I feel compelled be a contrarian for the moment.

    There are many, large well-visited, world-class public and private gardens in Britain, so criticism can be afforded. In America, we have few garden institutions and they are struggling. The Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, one of this country’s best glasshouse gardens, is desperate to get donations to help repair devastating damage from a hailstorm in June. Government funding for our public gardens is getting slashed. Most Americans still see gardening as a past time for the wealthy or retired. The last thing we need is a garden cognoscenti going around making exclusive and elitist declarations about what is good and what is not. And I doubt that in this economy struggling garden designers/landscape architects would appreciate people criticizing their work when their business depends on good press and word of mouth. If anything gardening in this country needs encouragement, even if it is given with half-open eyes.

  11. I recently shared pictures of my decidedly imperfect and haphazard garden on the blog I contribute to for work (work is a garden center). I felt like all the pretty and inspiring, sparkly pictures painted a dishonest sort of picture for new gardeners, who I deal with frequently. I enjoyed pulling the veil off to show that the struggles and the ugly are part of it, and yes accepting that makes the good stuff even better.
    I enjoy Anne’s blog a great deal, because it does go below the surface. I was blown away the first time I read it, because of the honesty and the desire to get at something that I don’t think is common in American garden blogs. I look forward to reading her book.

  12. Didn’t a number of people post comments about wildly unsuccessful color combinations in their gardens a while back? It’s one of the things I enjoy about this blog: that people do occasionally let their failures show.

    I doubt that even gardens that seem perfect are really perfect. Some plant(s) will always die or do something strange. And Mother Nature always has a surprise or two up her sleeve, like the Spring the forsythia and the lilacs managed to bloom at the same time. Sometimes these surprises can be pleasant. Other times, not so much.

  13. I don’t even mind the magazine perfection as much as the idea that you have to pay someone to design a perfectly manicured garden for you that then you have to pay someone to maintain for you, then combine that with the fiction that the gardener did it all themselves.

    My yard isn’t perfect, and I don’t need to see the imperfect gardens displayed on magazine covers, but I do need for people to know they can have a mostly great looking yard without a lot of time and expense and someone else to design and maintain it, and it doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s or always be gorgeous.

    And that’s ok.

  14. Thank you all for your comments and I would love to respond to each individually but feel rather overwhelmed with all the ideas and thoughts you have brought me.

    And I am clear that in my ignorance of the USA I am not qualified to dispute what may or may not be good or helpful there.But I love learning more – so thank you for the feedback.

    I am left at the moment mostly with thoughts about ‘the journey’ and arrival.I know we are supposed (in life as in gardens) to stay in the moment, appreciating the journey. But I strive towards perfection all the time, however helplessly and hopelessly, and cannot quite resign myself to the idea that it is just good to travel.

    After all, the journey can be so damn painful – if you’re stuck in an airport you can’t help but wish you were on that sunny beach, glass in hand…

  15. One thing I love about blogs is the gardeners’ willingness to show the warts. It’s not just a comfort to those of us gardening in the real world, but often a learning experience of what to do when confronted with such a situation.
    I do enjoy eye candy and garden porn, desperately seeking inspiration for garden tweaking. A balance is what is needed. Too much sugar is sickening.

  16. My idea of a perfect garden tour- only gardens designed and maintained by their gardening owners. Can you imagine?

  17. Jennifer then you should come to the West Asheville Garden Stroll on September 10th, 2011. Gardens designed and maintained by the actual homeowners is exactly what you will see on this garden tour. Real gardens by real gardeners.

  18. It’s good to remember that each garden belongs to and is the result of the efforts of individuals, so no two gardens will ever be the same. The fun of gardening is the relaxation you get being there with the good plants, the weeds, the butterflies and the hummingbirds. When it comes right down to it what we want is to grow the plants we love well and it’s work to do that.

  19. Hilarious – my garden includes the native grass mixed in with my flowers (no – those are NOT weeds) the pest inclubation area for the study of pests, etc. The idea behind gardening is to enjoy nature and have fun.

  20. We were always taught that you can almost always genuinely find something pleasant to say about just about everything (English mother taught me that) without being dishonest. I never shame clients or other landscapers work by saying it’s terrible even if most of it is as there’s usually something positive if but just one lovely specimen shrub. I like to lead by pointing out the attributes first and then I work towards pointing out the negatives and then make a plan for correcting them. It usually works out well and is good for business. Gardening is a trade and involves a lot of skill sets – and there is a lot to know and I don’t like to discourage people. Everyone has to start somewhere.

  21. I felt like the Bad Tempered Gardener was all complaints and none of the actual criticism that the author talks about so much. I couldn’t read the whole thing. After the first couple of chapters, I skipped ahead to hear some of these much talked about critiques and only found more complaining and the book still awaits with more than one bookmark of where I was so I can make another attempt. (By the way, the library is a great way to test out a book to see if it’s worth adding to the permanent collection.)
    I don’t think there is a lack of critiques out there at all. If you don’t like the magazine/book that shows the lovely pictures, find something that suits you better. The blogs dedicated to discussing problems and issues with gardens are numerous.
    Definitely stop complaining and start critiquing if that is what you are looking for.

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