No Bad Yards


Guest Rant by Rebecca Sullivan

I was just reading Billy Goodnick’s guest post, and I have to confess that by the end of it, I found myself annoyed.

What bothered me is something that bothers me about a lot of garden writing, and that’s this element of judgment, that there are (as his post title says outright) good yards and bad yards, and a bunch of us are just plain doing it wrong.

Before the accusations come pouring in, let me say I do understand that Billy’s post was meant to be humorous as well as informative. I appreciate his sound advice, and even agree with him that a lot of us are doing it wrong.

But how exactly are we meant to know how to do it right? Go back a hundred years, and a lot more Americans had a deep connection to the earth–by necessity. Many folks depended on their gardens to put food on the table. Consequently, each succeeding generation learned the fundamentals of gardening from their elders.

Today, not so much. Most of us get our food from the supermarket, and gardening is mostly an elective pursuit. What was previously much more universal knowledge now mostly belongs to relatively few.

However, it seems that more and more folks are trying to learn. That’s why, for instance, Goodnick’s statement about the family with the fruit trees irked me: “If they had paid closer attention, they would have noticed that, a) the soil consisted of heavy clay underlaid with hardpan; b) the runoff flowed toward this low spot, exacerbating drainage, and c) if the trees survived, they would not only shade the new raised veggie beds, but also block the beautiful view of the misty mountain peaks a few miles away. Not a recipe for success.”

The problem with that statement is that it implies the owners were just too lazy to think through their plan. My guess, though, is that no matter now closely they paid attention, they simply would not have been able to suss out these problems because they just didn’t have the knowledge to recognize them and didn’t realize that putting in a few fruit trees presented so many complications. (If they were depending on their local Home Depot’s gardening section, one can easily imagine how they may have been misled.)

Apparently they did eventually realize that their expertise was lacking, though, and brought in an expert to help. That’s a good thing, right?

When it comes to professional landscapers, I’m all for mocking. After all, one assumes professionals should know and follow best practices when pruning and trimming and planting and mulching. These guys are fair game for judgment when they do a poor job: it’s their job and folks pay them for their supposed expertise.

But when writers accuse home gardeners of “crimes of horticulture,” I get up in arms. Sure, we amateurs often overplant or prune poorly or carve shrubs into questionable sculptures. Behold, a front yard  in my neighborhood.

This topiary is lovingly maintained, year in, year out.

However, what we’re talking about are mostly crimes of ignorance (such as the mulch volcano) or taste (such as the topiary above).

I’m not a landscape designer and I don’t want to be one. Yet reading a lot of the gardening literature out there, one can easily come away with the impression that we ALL should be landscape designers, that there is a right way and a wrong way to garden, and frankly if you don’t have the time or means or expertise to do it the right way, your garden will be a “source of… disappointments.” Talk about demotivating!

That feeling inspired my guest post here a couple of years ago. When I started gardening, I felt woefully inadequate when I compared my amateur efforts to the beautiful yards of experienced gardeners and professional landscapers.

With time, though, my attitude improved.  Who says my yard should be designed for four-season interest and must create a wildlife habitat composed of only native plants?  Who says anyone should be able to grow zucchini? Who says I even aspire to that? And if I don’t, then how can I be failing?

I think most of us who garden do it to please ourselves: because we enjoy it, or because we want to make our homes more attractive, or because home grown peas are, like, the best thing EVER. Maybe some of us are committing “crimes against horticulture.” But aren’t they mostly misdemeanors? I encourage the judges to let us offenders go with a slap on the wrist and some encouragement.

Meanwhile, I will follow the wise words of Rick Nelson: “You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”

As “Potato Queen,” Rebecca Sullivan rules the Kingdom of the Little Blue House with the help of her beloved Mulch Boy and their two hard-working garden assistants. Her Majesty blogs about the ongoing learning experience that is her yard and garden, but has been known to veer off onto tangents about cornbread, canning, and The Avengers. She welcomes visitors to  Potato Queen and Mulch Boy, and would particularly value any insight into why she seems incapable of growing zucchini or asparagus.


  1. Thank you, Rebecca! I too tend to avoid the rarefied air that much of the horticultural hoi polloi breathe (and yes, landscape designers tend to make up the bulk of that group). I’m a plant collector; you’re not going to see principles of “good” garden design here because it’s about the plants. Yes, I have organized beds, but they’re not manicured by any stretch of the imagination. That’s how I like it, and I make no apology for it. This is my space, and the most important person to please is me. I sometimes teach a class in beginning floral design, and what I tell them applies here as well: if what you look at pleases you, then you’ve done it right!

  2. There are mostly no bad yards.

    Trees that break sidewalks, foundations, driveways? Many are planted by developer/builder. Sometimes the homeowner

    With eco/sustainable/Al Gore is it acceptable to not have deciduous trees shading our homes in summer, allowing sun to warm in winter?

    Movies, orchestras, museums, country music, rock-n-roll, restaurants etc all have ‘critics’. It’s done with passion/love for the topic. Are gardens not worthy of the same consideration as other arts?

    Yes, do what you want in your garden. 2 nearby neighbors have wildly different gardens from each other, and mine. We are a trinity of styles. Our bond is gardening and being neighbors. Their style? Never in my garden. Who cares? I adore those women.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Hello Fellow Gardeners : ) I thought Billy’s article was funny and the point being he actually has answers for those that are seeking them and want help with designing, installing and maintaining a lovely garden. I have a copy of his book “Yards” and it is an excellent guide book i would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an overall guide book to landscaping and design.
    I also agree with your point of view……beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I am a plant collector myself and justify some of my crazy beds saying they are test gardens. Which is actually partially true. I do keep my public face neat and beautiful but I applaud people that grow veggie in there front garden. I have designed several front gardens with lovely veggie beds incorporated in to them.
    As a landscape designer I like to help people get all their needs met in how they want to use and enjoy their garden spaces but also pull it together in a visually appealing composition.
    If you go to Billy’s website and look at his tab Crimes against Horticulture you might not find it as humorous as I did. I really did have such a good chuckle. I wrote and told him so and he said that was actually the book he wanted to write.
    As an artist and designer it is hard not to be visually disturbed by things…….like if your neighbor painted his house day glow green. But not everyone is visual and in need of things being aesthetically beautiful. And like in all my life i effort not to be judgmental and some times i just have to look the other way.
    The main things is if you are happy don’t let an of us designers make you feel defensive. The world is a collage of diversity and their is a place for each and every one of us!

  4. My garden is on the garden tour this summer. My youngest daughter was very concerned that there may be some negative criticism, and it would hurt my feelings if someone didn’t like some part of my garden. I told her that Grandpa doesn’t like our garden, and that’s okay, he likes straight and orderly, and there is nothing about our garden that is straight nor orderly. If we all liked that same thing it would be a very boring world. I did tell her that there will be some gardeners that I hold in high esteem, and it would be nice if they liked it, but still is okay if they don’t. The other thing is, it is a garden tour, if you don’t like gardens you don’t go on it. People on a garden tour want to like your garden.

    On the other hand, some helpful suggestions would be quite welcome for some of my trouble spots.

  5. Thank you for saying that it’s OK to be bad. There are probably elements in my yard and garden that would put off others, but that I think are awesome. I do think that there should be some manner of sliding scale where amateurs are given much more leeway for their “crimes” and professionals are more heartily mocked for their poor taste.

  6. I think I see a face in that topiary! Perhaps it’s a memorial for a beloved pet? Or a guardian figure?

    Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. I think a lot of us learn about gardening through our experience, mistakes as well as successes. Sometimes you even learn how to grow things in odd places, because you only have odd places to grow them.

  7. @Anne, oh if only it were a face or guardian figure. The photo may not do it justice, but alas the topiary is definitely… um… shall we say a fertility symbol? That’s as explicit as I’ll get on a family blog!

    @tara, I completely agree with your statement “Movies, orchestras, museums, country music, rock-n-roll, restaurants etc all have ‘critics’. It’s done with passion/love for the topic. Are gardens not worthy of the same consideration as other arts?” I think the issue I’m getting at is that there’s a difference between when we critique the pros vs. the amateurs. I’d liken it to having a music reviewer criticize my singing of “Digger Dogs” to our dogs when I feed them. No doubt the critic would have much to say, but I doubt that much of it would encourage me to keep singing.

    @John: I’m right there with ya! I’ve often thought that , once I started having mulch delivered by the square yard to my driveway (instead of trucking back and forth from the Dee-Pot with a trunk full of bags) I surrendered my amateur gardening status and could consider myself A Pro. However, I’m definitely in the Minor Leagues, Class A at the highest when it comes to skill (although I might rate myself as Double-A for confidence these days). Maybe we need a hat with a logo…

      • I think the topiary looks like an angry cartoon kitten with its ears back. Cannot find the phallic or fertility symbolism, but maybe that’s because once I saw this angry cartoonish being it won’t look like anything else.

  8. Thank you Rebecca. We need to encourage our fellow gardeners. Information, education, inspiration and suggestions work so much better than belittling. How do those who have been publicly humiliated feel after one of Billy’s “humorous” postings?

  9. I garden to grow the food I like and to hang out in the yard. I have a very limited budget and I often make mistakes, and honestly articles like Billy’s humor aggravate me. I saw him laughing at the lovely flowers one person planted in their bed and how much work they were and it didn’t strike me as funny, it struck me as mean spirited.

    I grew up on a farm. I’m pretty good at getting plants to live long enough to harvest, but I have chronic pain issues and I always struggle to keep up with the maintenance jobs. Nonetheless, I share my veggies with friends and neighbors and have plenty left for myself, and I enjoy my yard, ‘ugly’ as it might be.

    ‘Humor’ based on belittling others isn’t funny, and it doesn’t help grow the gardening community.

  10. Everybody, go read (again!) any of Henry Mitchell’s great Earthman books. Good advice offered in excellent low-key prose; but what always strikes me is the pleasure he took in simple, unambitious, sometimes faintly tacky garden design, all out of his own head. The labor, and the usually pretty results were enough, and he wasn’t ever trying to impress anybody, just please himself and his family. The honest satisfaction, and frequent frustration and failures he records are a fine antidote to the pressures we seem to have taken on to be top-notch, cutting-edge, always elegant. One of the great garden writers, who recalls to us the real pleasures of gardening.

  11. Thanks for writing this. Gardening is a difficult passion (lots of love, lots of work –coupled with many joys and disappointments). We should all be encouraged in this pursuit as getting your hands in the soil in the first place is what counts!

    I saw your blog, pq, and loved your list of “The Dearly Departed.” I thought–what? It’s only that long? It’s painful enough just learning what works (and keeping up with weeding, and feeding this divine habit with our toil and paychecks). Learning by doing (and making mistakes) is the best teacher of all.

    • Ha! Sandy, those are just the ones I knew the names of; there are others whose names are lost to history who have fallen victim to my inexperience or unreasonable optimism.

  12. I agree that gardeners should plant the garden that pleases them. There is no point in trying to please anyone else. We do not apply the same standards to judging someone learning to play the clarinet to a professional jazz musician, so we cannot use the same standards to judge a novice gardener with an experienced gardener, much less, heaven help us, a professional. New gardeners will learn as they go along, from their own experience and their own investigations and talks with other gardeners. As for design, some have a ‘better’ eye than others, but really, the garden is just to please ourselves.

  13. The part of my garden that I share with the public – i.e. my front lawn garden –
    is deliberately designed – yes, strategically planned – to make the passing visitor feel good. I appreciate the powerful positive effect that beautiful gardens have on others and I am determined to celebrate that experience every time I plant. How callous, inconsiderate, and selfish it would be for this passionate gardener to plant only to please myself.

    On the other hand, I understand that not every one shares my opinions and views. In an age when hate and viciousness towards those who disagree with us have come to define our dialogues with each other, I hope that the subject of gardening will remain untouched by the prevailing rudeness.

  14. I believe that everyone who gardens (successfully or not) wants a space that meets his idea of “good.” Poor plant choices, unfavorable conditions, unusual taste, failure of execution aside — nobody sets out to create an ugly space on purpose. Information and experience make every garden and gardener better. Experience takes time, but information, specifically sharing it, is where all the energy should go.

Comments are closed.