In Defense of Plant Critics

Impatiens at the HQ of the American Hort Society.
Impatiens at the HQ of the American Hort Society.

Anne Raver covered the newsworthy topic of Impatiens suffering from Downy Mildew Disease in her usual clear-headed way for the New York Times – or so I thought.   This week they published comments by some dissenters, readers taking offense at Raver’s dissing of their beloved annuals.  Raver had identified Impatiens as “a plant I love to hate,” but here’s how some people read that:

– “Supercilious” and victimizing people who love Impatiens.  The letter ends on this revealing note:  “I suppose Ms. Raver…would see me as being utterly tasteless and unworthy of notice.”

– “Anne Raver, who strikes me as the last person to write this piece about a generous, giving, colorful little plant that is now in serious jeopardy. Her disparaging comments seem oddly smug about a plant that is so beloved of home gardeners everywhere.”

– To another commenter it’s all about “horticultural snobbery” by “self-defined sophisticated gardeners,” “Elitist, sophisticated Compleat Gardeners,” “horticultural aristocrats” who use “complicated, studied flower cultivation and garden landscaping.”

– “Not just a little mean. She seemed almost to be gloating over the loss of impatiens. I happen to love them, and I also happen to think they’re prettier than most other flowers. I don’t appreciate her snide attitude. I’ll miss them. Her, I won’t read again. I don’t need her negative arrogance.”

Okay, the Times culled these out of who-knows-how-many, but their point seems to be that some folks respond defensively to criticism of plants they love, as a personal attack by arrogant elites.  Culture wars being played out in the aisles of the local garden center

I’m sure Raver has heard it all before (as have the quoted Truman Capote and Michael Pollan) and so have I.  (I’ve been warned to keep my feelings toward chain-link fences to myself, to avoid reactions like these.)  Here on GardenRant I feel free to rant away about my least-favorite plants or gardening practices, though the accusations of snobbery never fail to appear.

Admitted Impatiens-hater.
Admitted Impatiens-hater.

I can identify with the commenters, though.  I’m sometimes irritated by criticisms of things I love. (Recently, my book club recently panned Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, which I enjoyed thoroughly, but kept my praise to myself.)  What I don’t get is taking plant criticism as a personal attack on the people who grow them.

I’ll put up with occasionally hearing my favorite TV show or movie dismissed as derivative (or fill-in-the-word) because I think criticism is important and a world without it would be boring.  Can you imagine Henry Mitchell with only nice things to say about plants?  Or Michael Dirr, for that matter.


  1. Why must garden articles ALL be hunky-f$%*(#g-dory?

    Do we expect it from movie critics? Music reviews?

    Cathy Horyn, of the NYTimes, would not have a career if she was expected to write like a garden writer.

    Read about a garden tour in a major paper? Why? Each garden will be described as of value. Rarely, are all of value.

    Better garden writing, aka honest, would result in more people gardening….more revenue from sponsors.

    Off topic, saw a 1 gallon tomato plant at walmart yesterday, $11.88. Not large. Loved it. People will begin sowing from seed!!!!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • $12 for a tomato plant??? Holy cow! I must have over a hundred bucks planted in my garden and haven’t paid a dime for them! Was it at least a variety that has the potential to taste good?

      PT Barnum was right.

  2. This constant avoiding saying what we really think because someone somewhere will be offended is diluting the media so we are all nicey nicey and turning into stepford wives. I stopped using twitter for exactly the reason that I was tired of having my head biten off for saying what I thought which inevitably went against the mass sheep like view.

    I suspect what Raver was really against was the way Impatiens are used in mass bedding rather than the actual plant itself. As ever in life those that have an axe to grind will shout, whilst those who agree or arent bothered will say nothing so we only hear the complainers.

    It is sad that the article has now become a criticism of the plant and Raver’s view of them rather than discussion about powdery mildew.

  3. No, I can’t imagine Mitchell, one of my favorite authors, without his “critical” comments (in fact, did he ever have any unreserved praise?). And I don’t mind when authors criticize my favorite plants. Instead of feeling personally criticized, one just has to train oneself to think “Wow, how stupid are they?” <>> Anyhoo, who would argue that chain link fences are good gardening practices????

    • For years there was a chain-link fence between my house and the next-door neighbor’s (it belonged to her). Both of us were gardeners. Some years she had green beans on the fence–and encouraged me to pick the ones on my side. Another time I grew luffas, more than enough for both of us. The chain link was good for sweet peas in spring and morning glories in summer. Larkspur and various other self-sowing flowers would start in one yard and spread to the other. And she and I would discuss gardens and pets and whatever else came to mind across the fence. Then she died, and her daughter sold the house. The new owner put up a wooden privacy fence–much more attractive than chain link, but too tall to talk over, impossible to see through, and I have to attach trellising for anything I want to grow on it. He left too, and the new neighbor is a lovely woman I’d like to be better acquainted with, but don’t see much since the only way to do so is to go over and knock on her door. I miss the chain link.

      • Carolyn, I love your story about the chain link fence as a shared garden space between neighboring properties. Great reminder that there are many perspectives about any situation.

  4. Hear, hear. Too often, any criticism of plants or any aspect of gardening that you may happen to disagree with is taken as an attack on the entire gardening universe. I guess it’s ok to have art critics, food critics, music critics, et. al. (as others have pointed out), but no criticism is allowed in gardening. Baloney.

    Food critics and art critics have not stopped chefs and painters from working in their fields. I do not think gardening criticism will discourage people from gardening (as has been implied).

  5. I love gardeners with opinions. Good criticism is lacking in garden writing, and whether Ms. Raver likes impatiens or not, there is serious trouble in impatiens paradise. We need to bring these diseases to the forefront and discuss them amicably. It’s no different from writing about Boxwood Blight, Rose Rosette Disease or Pine Wilt Beetle. I plant fewer roses now because Rose Rosette killed so many in my own garden. I’ve found other plants to take their place, and I don’t even miss them much anymore. Somebody will probably have a problem with that.

    Serious discussion about anything seems to be lacking. Ms. Raver has a right to her opinions too. Good grief.~~Dee

  6. I agree with Dee–we need more intelligent criticism, not less. If someone criticizes a plant you love, don’t whine and act all hurt–put together a well-thought-out rebuttal and jump into the fray. If gardening is an activity worth taking seriously, then it merits serious–and sometimes contentious–discussion.

  7. I disagree with lumping garden criticism in with music, art and food. The difference is that the majority of the criticism of plants (and gardens in general) is geared towards what goes on in private gardens, unlike music, art and food, where criticism is aimed at their commercial aspects. I would read a review of “Mary’s Restaurant” to help me decide if I want to make the time and money commitment to eat there. In this situation, an honest review is key. But I would be appalled to read a review or blog post where someone wrote that they hate the food their friend Mary served at a dinner party. How can it not feel personal to have a professional garden writer essentially dis your plant choices out of hand?

    More importantly, the criticism as quoted isn’t even helpful or meaningful. If Roger Ebert’s review of a beloved movie was along the lines of “gee, Casablanca is a movie I love to hate,” with no supporting analysis, I bet he’d get plenty of angry responses as well. If I were to criticize impatiens, it would be to help a gardener decide whether or not to plant them. I might say something like “while impatiens are attractive and an easy way to bring color to a summer shade garden, they are a poor choice for water-conscious gardeners, are increasingly prone to plant diseases and can be an expensive option as they must be replanted every year. Their popularity means nurseries stock huge quantities, often at the expense of more unusual shade perennials and annuals, limiting newer gardener’s exposure to a wider range of plants. I advise using sparingly in the garden, and instead consider adding color via shade tolerant perennials with colorful foliage like Liriope, Carex, Uncinia or Coleus.”

  8. A lovely post, Susan M. I can’t help but notice that by disagreeing with some previous posts, it supports the idea espoused in those posts: a healthy dialogue.

    The irony!

  9. A person must be pretty insecure to get defensive over a difference of opinion on a matter of taste. A secure person wouldn’t feel the need to defend their tastes or attack the other person. They’d simply say, “To each his own.” I feel sorry for anyone who takes a difference of opinion as a personal attack. The chances of being agreed with all the time are pretty slim. It can’t be comfortable to be always on the defensive.

  10. I grow and like impatiens and even plan to grow it this summer–our Botanical Gardens says it has some disease-free varieties, and anyway I’m crazy that way.

    However, I am able to bear with equanimity the fact that others dislike plants and styles of gardening that I like and may even write about that dislike in public forums like newspapers and blogs. In fact, I urge them to do so!

    Susan M., could you have read the Raver article? It is very comprehensive for a newspaper piece, and does offer some thoughtful alternatives for impatiens as well as a lot of very useful information about the disease.

    The only scary thing here is that there are WAY too few garden writers as conscientious and intelligently opinionated as Anne Raver.

  11. Excellent comments and advice!
    If life gives you a chain link fence -make it into a trellis.
    And gardeners, as far as criticism goes, please, put on your big girl panties.

  12. We all have our favourite plants and those we dislike, mine in particular is the potentilla. After deadheading these on an almost daily basis at the nursery so they always looked good, I honestly do not care for them at all anymore; but some people love them. Face it, in your garden you are not going to be deadheading them, but I still have a strong dislike for the plant.

    A person’s opinion is just that, an opinion. Whether it be that of a home gardener or a specialist, it is an opinion based on experience. It should not be taken personally nor as an offence. Like another commenter said, we don’t take an offence over book or movie reviews, but when someone disses on our beloved plants, well they might as well be criticizing a family member!

    It’s not intended to be taken personally, it is just an opinion, folks. I’m sure all who took offence at Anne’s comments over impatiens, have a plant or something that they love to hate/dislike that others will oppose.

    I have to agree with Sandra’s last comment! We are all adults, right?

  13. Come on, people. This is America where we were founded on the beauty of free speech. I believe in a free market of ideas by where everyone throws out their thoughts and it’s up to us to accept what we choose to believe. Don’t belittle the speaker or their ideas.

  14. People go nuts if you think you’re attacking one of “their” plants. There are still people who will throw screaming conniptions if you suggest butterfly bush is invasive (despite being listed as such by numerous states) and whole wars have been fought over the best form of heirloom tomato.

    Eh, go figure. I guess it’s like having a pet or something–I have a beagle who’s a wretch, but somewhere there’s probably a beagle owner who will tell me I’m a subhuman monster because I think they’re a lousy pet breed.

    • The invasive issue is hilarious. Gardeners should worry when watching them unwelcome plants taking all the space in their garden. Most people disregard any advice from others, until…they have to spend hours under the sun solving the matter.

    • UrsulaV, you subhuman monster, beagles are the BOMB! Oh sure, their howling causes splitting headaches, and the rolling in dead baby birds thing leaves much to be desired, and the shedding… but look at that sweet hound face AAAAWWWWWW!!

      But aside from our VERY DIFFERENT OPINIONS on beagles, I’m right there with ya. Actually, even on the beagles: I love my little wee beastie, but it certainly is no skin off my nose if anyone else does, or whether others (gasp) don’t like dogs. For the record, I kinda hate impatiens, too–but only in the sense that I’m not a fan of annuals in general. Any plant that’s not coming back next year is wasted labor to me. On the other hand, I love a big bed of fragrant petunias…

  15. It’s not worth going back to quote it exactly, but the crack in the article about the man who loved his impatiens, but didn’t know the name of the tree they were planted under, was very snotty. So what? Why does a gardener have to be a “serious” gardener? He beautifies his yard, it gives him pleasure. In the words of John Prine, “He ain’t hurtin’ nobody, he ain’t hurtin’ no one.”

    • Naming, recognizing our surroundings are a sign of curiosity, intelligence,
      perception, introspection, seriousness is not the issue. Ignorance shows a lack of interest, contact not only with the environment, but the self.

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