Gardening Under The Affluence



Versailles, the fanciest garden of them all. Image from Wikimedia commons
Versailles, the fanciest garden of them all. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons

I’m getting a little uncomfortable with something, and I’d like the Ranting World to let me know if I’m on point or totally off the mark.

As I look through magazines and design blogs, I see fancy gardens everywhere. Industries are colluding to make us desire an outdoor lifestyle that is better than the indoor lifestyle of many! Is ornamental gardening an activity only for the wealthy, the retired, the leisure class?

I have a sneaking suspicion that it very well may be.

I design gardens in a fancy city. I know how much the gardens seen in the glossy pages of magazines cost to build, and those prices are not for the faint of heart. And that is just for the basics! If you want the whole shebang – the custom daybed and tiled coffee tables, the sparkly Moroccan light fixtures hanging from the trees, the gurgling water feature (not just a pump in a pot from the nursery – a real design-y supermodel of a water feature), the poured concrete firepit, the outdoor kitchen … wow, you are going to be paying. And paying. And PAYING.

We as a country are inching out of a severe economic decline. People are starting to feel flush again, and the gardening industry is rebounding. But have we learned anything from what just happened to us? Should we be indulging ourselves the way we did before, when Brazilian Ironwood was our decking material of choice and a big, crazy lighting system was just the thing we needed to show off how AWESOME our fancy garden was in the middle of the night – just in case anyone missed it during the day?

Yes, we seem to have more discretionary income. And putting money into a garden is a very good thing, especially if you are doing it with some good sense and some trusted guidance. But is creating an outdoor living room and kitchen literally twenty feet from your indoor living room and kitchen the best use of resources?

If you are listening to design blogs and magazines – YES. Building an outdoor kitchen 18.75 inches away from your indoor kitchen is EXACTLY the thing to do. And the $4k custom daybed with cushions done up in a swanky fabric with puffy pillows and a throw made out of recycled saris – well, if you AREN’T getting one, start saving up, because that is what every well-appointed garden needs. And if you are an Urban Pioneer, even better! You can have your very own souped-up Dwell-approved backyard farm, complete with a rustic potting shed stocked with mason jars ready to be heaped full of homegrown abundance. Oops! No abundance? Well you can hire your own backyard farmer, with an extra charge for a beard, a flannel shirt, and a hipster beanie. They have all come from co-ops right outside of Portland, and they can grow your food for you.

I don’t know. I am really tired of the overdone outdoor spaces. Maybe I am shooting myself in the foot (which I’ve been known to do from time to time), because I make my living designing spaces like what I’ve been snarkily describing. But my eyes are hurting from the excess, and so is my heart. Seeing the differences between these “Anything Goes” gardens, with all of their aspirational swagger, and the humble immigrant gardens in my neighborhood where every inch is given over to growing food for the family – well … it gives me pause. I know there is alot of sincerity in the new ways of gardening so please forgive me for poking fun- but as our economy recovers, I am desperate for us not to lose sight of the things we learned. How to better use our resources. How to prioritize our needs. How to say no to ourselves. And how to take a little less for ourselves and share with those around us.

Surely we can enjoy our outdoor spaces without needing to create our own versions of Versaille and Petit Trianon? Or are we all gardening in the shadow of Marie Antoinette, merrily tending our chickens in our uber-cool custom super coops, while off in the distance there are people for whom having chickens isn’t a suburban fancy, but a very real and necessary food source?

I don’t know the answer, but it is something worth thinking about. Maybe we can put the brakes on gardening under the affluence … or is excess an inevitability when times are good?


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Ivette Soler


Fasten your seatbelts, Ranters, I hope you like riding rollercoasters! I’m Ivette Soler, a garden designer and writer who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. I have been designing since 1997, working primarily with the subtropical and succulent palette that thrives in my corner of the world. I started my blog, The Germinatrix, in 2004, and I have been enjoying a vibrant dialog with the online garden community ever sine. In 2011, Timber Press published my book “The Edible Front Yard“, in which I make the case for ridding ourselves of thirsty, dull front lawns in favor of beautiful, bountiful gardens that mix food with ornamentals. I am thrilled to be a part of this illustrious and opinionated group, and am looking forward to RANTING with all of you!

Let’s do a little speed-dating so you can get to know me better:

I am a Believer – I know that gardens and gardening can and will make this world a better place.

I am a Maximalist – I believe that more is more and more is better than less!

I am against Horticultural Xenophobia – If you believe that we must eliminate well-chosen exotics from our landscapes in favor of a natives-only palette, we might have words.

I am a Talker – I love to get into it! If you have anything you want to challenge me about, or if you want to dialog about anything I post, please comment away! My love of blogging is rooted in dialoging with a large number of passionate gardeners with diverse opinions. I will rant, and I expect you to RANT BACK

I cast a wide net – This is a big world, and I believe our gardens are more interesting when we open ourselves up to ideas other than those that come to us from the established gardening world. I am inspired by fine art, literature, product design, theatre, fashion … you get the picture. I will often bring in ideas from other areas of culture to our conversations about gardens and the way we garden.

I like exclamation points and sometimes … yes … ALL CAPS – I really talk like this!!!! I can’t help it!!!

I am eager to move the conversation about gardening and the place it has in our lives forward, so hop on, make sure you are strapped in tightly, and LET’S GO!


  1. Well. we have the homeowners who simply MUST have the state of the art kitchens even though they hate to cook. We see the property owners who simply MUST have lots of land square footage even though they have no time nor desire to maintain their property. We have the homeowners who simply MUST have a brick fireplace even though they can’t tolerate the messiness of wood, ash, and tracking in and out during ythe winter. And then, of course, the ultimate travisty! The homeowner who MUST have the prefectly designed, weed free garden.

    Gardeners, on the other hand, deal with their whims, trial and error. We know who we are.

  2. Awesome timing. I’ve got a draft I’ve been poking at now and again on a similar topic. I’ve been going through something of an existential crisis in gardening lately myself, and really appreciate seeing this. Well worded, and nicely sums up some of the thoughts I hadn’t gelled in my mind yet.

    I live in SF, very much one of these “fancy cities” where the recession never really affected us, thanks to the tech industry. Well, it very much affected us “real people” but as a whole the local economy only improved. And, I work in the design department at “the” design-oriented garden center of our town. I’m surrounded by this very thing every day. Bending over backwards to satisfy unrealistic garden “needs” because somebody wants it and doesn’t understand why their money doesn’t make it work better. Or, watching public spaces and national park land being gardened how a private investor wants it because they are paying and want it to look this way or that way, and if the public wants it another way then perhaps the public should come up with the money. THAT sort of thing. My own ethics as a naturalist and ecologist are often in conflict with the work I do. I got into gardening because of my love of nature and the outdoors, and am learning all the time that gardening is the farthest possible thing from nature. But, we all want to make a living, so we give clients what they want, and try to educate on best plant choices.

    And we’ve got this intense drought, with the state talking about fining people $500/day for wasting water. But for many, such an “insignificant amount” is simply the cost of having a lawn. They can afford it, so what’s the big deal? Just pay it and don’t bother to change.

    I design and install myself, and am impressed more by the efforts of a renter getting dirty and failing with tomatoes than by a homeowner buying the “perfect” outdoor living space that’s magazine-ready before the dinner guests arrive. Yet, my livelihood is all about the latter. Ahh, the conundrum. 🙂

    • Arg! Zann, we are two peas in a pod. Yes to everything you wrote. Our struggles are the same. I’m happy to have the company! Hopefully there will be an answer for us, or if not that then at least a place where we can feel less compromised. I love what I do, and I want all parts of my practice to flourish! Here’s to having the naturalist AND the designer co-existing in one body and doing great work!

  3. Well, in the past there WERE multiple uses for pitchforks (but those were the, uh, hay days). I don’t see today’s frugal gardeners rising up militantly to defend sense and sustainability. Change seems to come these more civilized days, like the campaign against smoking, by a gradual but inevitable public shaming. Millennials may have their toys, but they trend toward the practical and convenient, not the ostentatious. I think there’s hope.

    • Very good point Joe – solid change is incremental, takes time, and works its way into our national habits. It is very unlikely that we’ll have a garden world version of the Arab Spring or a large Occupy Garden Rooms movement. But the habits of the upcoming generation are different, with an eye towards sustainability and connectedness. And that gives me alot of hope. So I can put down my pitchfork?

  4. We seem stuck in a groove of thinking that gardens are just a personal hobby. I’d like to suggest that they are part of our wider culture, like sculpture, or theatre: and we know those don’t come on the cheap.

    If we stop just looking for ‘inspiration’ (is that what you read a novel for ?) perhaps we can help open up the pleasures gardens can offer beyond gardening – pleasures for everyone, not just those who love playing in the dirt?

    • Very nice, Anne – I see where you are going and I am in agreement. We can and should start figuring out how to get the pleasures of gardens and planted spaces more readily available. In some cities they are, and those places are like little paradises! Where I live, the fact that we are surrounded by beach and mountains means that parks and urban gardened spaces are a very low priority. But that can change!

      • Being surrounded by beauty (I live in Wales) is a great addition as a prelude to a visit to great garden. Not a substitute for it..

        We just need to begin to raise our sights and sites…. Xxx

  5. Dear Judgy McJudgerson,

    To me, a personal garden should be…whatever the hell you want it to be. If I have obscene amounts of money and I want to spend it on a a high maintenance nightmare, then so be it. If, instead, I prefer to advertise my value system by creating a humble, oh-so-morally-superior garden focused on growing only food, have at it. Or, if I just love spending time outside, digging around in the dirt, trying things, ever improving, failing occasionally, then I’ll do that.

    And I couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks. So rant away, but if it offends you….look away!

    • Yikes. I guess I hit a nerve – name calling is a pretty passive aggressive retort. But yes, your point is very well taken. We can and should do anything we desire in our private spaces, and if we have tons of money, we can do whatever – build a statue of ourselves made of $100 bills and pray to it. Why not?
      This post is obviously not written for you. If my suggestion that we take a few lessons from the recent economic downturn and maybe NOT get back on the treadmill of thoughtless consuming and spending offends you so much that you have to resort to playground tactics, well then all I can say is “I AM RUBBER YOU ARE GLUE! WHATEVER YOU SAY BOUNCES OFF ME AND STICKS TO YOU!!!
      Because really, it seems to me that the “Judgey” one here is you. You know what they say in kindergarten – SHE WHO SMELT IT DEALT IT!!!!

      • If I’m not mistaken, the first sentence in your post was:

        “I’m getting a little uncomfortable with something, and I’d like the Ranting World to let me know if I’m on point or totally off the mark.”

        If you can’t take the opinions offered, then don’t solicit them!

        • Tracy, what about my reply to you gave you the idea that “I couldn’t take it” Hahahaha! Yea, right – I mean, what was there to “take” – you just gave me some snarky name calling. If you wanted to engage is real dialog, like many others on this thread who don’t share my opinion did, I would have given you a thoughtful answer – but since you were just being bitchy and rude, I thought I’d play your game your way. Anything else you want to say? I will respond in kind…

      • Thanks Chris, I appreciate that, because (as you can see from the long answers to the comments!) this IS a dilemma and one that I would love input on. When one’s personal ethics are evolving and come into conflict with a long-held professional practice, what to do? I obviously need to work and I seriously LOVE what I do – but I also have an urgent need to stand up as a steward of the gardened world. I don’t know, maybe I’m being foolhardy! Again, thanks for having my back.

  6. This is a good topic… it strikes me where I live and I have some struggles with it myself.
    As a designer, I need patrons. I could never afford to produce the kind of work I want to do on my own. But with that said, I DO spend a great deal of my personal resources on my personal garden and often my work for clients is compromised beyond my satisfaction.
    But either way, there would be no great works of art without supportive deep pockets – no Sistine Chapel without a pope’s commission. Rich people are required to support the arts.
    And I happen to live in a great old house in a very poor neighborhood – a ghetto really. My ghetto has gardens in about the same percentages as anywhere. Little patches of handmade things and flowers planted in old tires painted white and red. These gardeners pour their resources into creating a place for themselves to love, just like the yuppies do in the safe neighborhoods farther north. Is money connected to the desires of the spirit? I don’t think poverty of pocket and poverty of the heart are the same thing.
    A garden is meant to be hedonistic – and a little hedonism ain’t bad… some of my best memories are of times gathered with good friends and good food and drink at out at my farm surrounded by sweeping views of perennial meadows and gravel gardens and our deep black pond. I made all of that at great expense – including the $50K I spent restoring my big old barn – and it only takes one birthday party with candles in jars and a big fire in the pit and a couple of worn out guitars to remind me that the investment I made in living well was worth every penny. Everyone who visits leaves filled.
    The sad thing is an empty garden where the gardenias come and go unnoticed. Bravo to anyone who builds a stupid thing from their heart.

    • David McMullin, thank you SO MUCH for your moving and thoughtful comment. I agree with everything you said, and it is the realities of the building of outdoor spaces that inspired this query to my readers. I am one of the very lucky – I get to make extraordinary gardens close to my home and far away. Extreme wealth has funded some incredible spaces that I am very proud of, and I am very grateful to my clients who entrust me with their desires and their dollars. That said, the heart and soul of my practice is small to mid-scale residential gardens, and budgets are always an issue. So much of our job is helping our clients sensibly allocate resources – and I often find myself (against the siren song of the possibility of bigger design fees) advising against certain expenditures. That said, you are SO RIGHT – a good garden should be a little hedonistic! The best gardens are magical spaces, and I don’t mean to imply that I want everybody to make humble, impoverished choices when they clearly don’t have to. But that magic often comes from careful thought and deciding what one really wants, what the specific desires and needs really are, rather than tearing out a page from a magazine and saying – THIS.
      What you describe – your barn and the parties and the vista – it made me sigh with pleasure. THAT is why we do what we do, and it is priceless! One day you MUST invite me to one of your barn parties!!!

  7. I wish the people in my town had the money and the inspiration to spend obscene amounts of money on a landscape. Or pay for a public space to be landscaped, even if it was in the way that they wanted. Unfortunately even if a Mcmansion goes up, they seem to forget that they should spend an equally large amount of money on landscaping. I see these places occasionally on garden tours, and I oooh and aahhh over them, but in the end they leave me flat. I couldn’t actually live with one, because there is nothing for me to get my hands dirty with.

    I wish people would skip an RRSP contribution in the fall to plant more bulbs. The world would be better for it.

    • Lisa you make such a good point! On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who seem to not even SEE their outdoor spaces! Yes, I don’t get that at ALL. When I moved in to my home the gardens were the FIRST thing I did, and I had no idea what I was doing! It just made sense to me. If everyone just did a little something – planted a tree, some perennials, bulbs, what have you – they’d be hooked. And once you spend a wonderful summer afternoon with friends eating outside in your garden, well then – done deal! Life doesn’t get much better than that, in my opinion! Thanks for your comment!

  8. There’s been a noticeable push by marketers to establish the “outdoor living space” concept. If you just have a garden, all we can sell you is a few pots, maybe some plants, and the occasional new shovel. But it you have an “outdoor living space”, by gosh the possibilities of the crap we sell you is almost endless.

    It harkens to the Home Depot ads with their “Never stop improving” slogan. It sounds good and all, but the inherent message there is that your house is sub-par and needs to be improved. Always. Just painted your living room last year? Well a new color could change everything. As long as people think that buying something is going to fill the void inside, this trend will continue.

    • John YES. EXACTLY. THAT is the kernel of what is getting under my skin. If you want something fantastical and crazy and strange, I am your designer! I love extreme gardens that say something about the owner. But I see so much marketing aimed at the aspirational, “what I have isn’t good enough” impulse – and that is where lots of money is spent, needlessly in my opinion. Cookie cutter gardens with all the bells and whistles leave me cold – unique, magical, well-thought out spaces inspire me and make me proud to be a garden designer! I don’t want anyone to be sold a bill of goods. People who don’t entertain don’t need a fully loaded outdoor kitchen – a grill and a cozy nook to eat in, surrounded by a colorful garden and a few birds visiting, well … THAT is where to spent the money. What do we REALLY need? I like what you said about filling a void – one can throw lots of money at that void and it will still be empty. But maybe a nice outdoor spot to breathe, relax, meditate, and enjoy the moment can start to fill it. The answer is always in ourselves. What are our real needs- let’s examine THOSE, not the needs that a magazine or advertisement tells us we must fulfill!

  9. Dear Angel of Clear Vision:

    Thank you for this. We are living in vulgar times and most are seeing zero uptick in the economy as it relates to their finances. These ostentatious “garden rooms” are yet another symptom of the richest and most fortunate Americans’ willful cluelessness.

    Many don’t even use their million dollar indoor kitchens while the poor buy garbage processed food and McDonald’s dollar menu items to fill their children’s bellies. The working poor don’t have the luxury to prepare many meals at all because they are too exhausted from their two (or more) part-time jobs. Having a humble food garden is out of the question as well (no time, no money, can’t afford the water bill) though they would benefit greatly from that nutrition and the joy and health of being outdoors.

    This plight also affects our long-suffering, hard-working middle class. Our country remains in crisis while others party on and blindly shop, shop, shop; desperately trying to fill a void with “things” and meaningless experiences that money and fancy possessions will never, ever fill.

    The 98% are with you, Ivette. “I’ve got the money and I’ll do what I want” is Marie Antoinette on steroids. It’s time for this country’s mega-rich to realize there is a world out there that is intricately connected to them and desperately needs their help. How many food gardens for schools and neighborhoods-in-need could one create from those bloated personal budgets? Open your eyes: helping others is the only way to fill the void.

    • Sandra, I love your spirit and willingness to tell it like it is! You are so right, and it is what you outline in your comment that gives me pause and makes me think about my garden design practice. If we have learned nothing from the bank crisis and economic downturn, then I fear for us. It was aspirational desires that were pumped up by advertisers that made people feel it was ok to make irrational decisions about their money and future (bolstered by banks and greedy marketers LYING to us!). So the entire country had to pay the price. And now, as we slowly come to a better place, I am fearful that those who can spend will get right back on the treadmill and create the same whirlpool of desire that will drown us all – AGAIN. In my profession, I am charged with making outdoor dreams come true, and I love that – but I want to always advise thoughtfully rather than be an enabler of ostentatious “outdoor living” garden crimes. One CAN strike a balance, I believe. Gardens can be beautiful and simple. Every once in a while, a garden can be crazy! Those uplift the heart! But I would like to think that we have come out of the economic crisis with more sense than we had before, that we learned lessons. Even if I am making a fancy garden, it doesn’t have to be ostentatious. And maybe a fruit tree can be planted in the front yard specifically for gleaners. Small changes make a difference! If we all make those changes, then we might one day achieve a balance in our society, rather than one that swings back and forth between booms and busts. I hope the word “sustainability” doesn’t get forgotten just because some people have a few extra dollars in their pockets. Thanks so much for your comment Sandra!

  10. Here in my neighborhood, we are in week 4 of the building of what is essentially a stone flowerpot yard across the street. If you can endure three weeks of stonecutting starting promptly at 8 – even on Saturdays- my hat goes off to you. I cannot, but I have no choice.

    This is a gentrifying community, suffering from the worst of affluenza. My house is now the Little Red One, but it was big enough for my Grandparents to raise 5 of their 7 children in. (with 1 bathroom). I am ever so slowly converting the foundation plantings from meh to native plants. We use stone here too..but as Mother Nature eroded them. The frontage and my beds are lines with them where they can be (cement sidewalk – remember cement? Shall be moved by no woman). But the rocks can be rolled, as the gardens widen, until
    Someday our never been pesticided or fertilized lawn is gone! Or replaced with a native grass lawn.

    But across the street – where the owners are having the stone-cut yard-pot installed? They have not impressed me as people who like to garden. They have in their occupation removed trees. Quite a few trees.
    The Sun on my frontage has changed yet again. (This stone/garden thing has happened All around me) this is the last I hope.

    So the outcome? Well it looks like sprinklers are being installed today. Maybe, maybe they will put in a native lawn? Doubtful. The plants I see staged to go in are those ornamental lilies and other Lego-like plants, not native.

    And if this sounds judgmental. Yes, I will admit it. It is. This thriving working class community is gone. Replaced with yards that sustain? Nothing… I have butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Guess what? They don’t like the sound of stone-cutting either. One swallowtail, who finally realized that the only safe way in to this yard was over my house left after a single circle. Along the property lines, so much permerthrin is used that it is a wonder any bees are here. They showed up finally, about two weeks ago.

    Every day, as I water and observe my cottagey plantings (can cottage gardens be comprised of natives? I hope) I wonder if this area has reached tipping point? Will the wildlife return? Why would they? There are too few oases for them now. And that is sad. Of course, I can only do this during lunch break, because otherwise the noise is unbearable. Good for the tradesmen, and the industry, but bad for ecology. And gardening and ecology are what it is about for me. May it be so for you and your neighboring yards.

    • Denise it sounds like you are creating a wonderful space for yourself, your family, and our shared family of wildlife! Thank you for that! About judgement – you know, yes, you and me and Sandra may come off as judgmental to others, but sometimes one HAS to judge. Someone HAS to say “Come on, folks – we can do better!” or “Wow, your weird stone pot is … WEIRD”. Part of our problem as a country is our insular nature, in my opinion. What we need is a little more community, a little more cross-talk – why not? Judgey? Ok, I can live with that. There are worse things to be, like selfish and entrenched in a personal ideology that makes it ok to squander resources that are shared by all. In the way-back times, when things made more sense, a community would come together and help each other with decisions, there would be discussion and advice. Maybe your neighbor would have realized that there were better ways to use the stone than creating a big pot! We don’t like to acknowledge that we are interdependent. We think we can do whatever we want in our homes and it is OUR BUSINESS. But the neighbor that waters their lawn twice a day is using up a dwindling resource! That is the kind of Marie Antoinette thinking that has to stop! I know it won’t stop this afternoon, or tomorrow, but I like to think that if more people do what you are doing, Denise – creating an important habitat that benefits our pollinators and wildlife – and they talk about it and share their experiences with their neighbors, there will be less of that sense of “I am the King of MY CASTLE”. The neighbors will want a native cottage garden instead of a stone pot. (hmmm – there is the beginning of a really good fairy tale here!)

  11. I cannot speak for affluent garden owners. I am not affluent. I am a common, self-taught gardener who has always wanted to surround myself with garden beauty. And unfortunately, my financial literacy was sorely lacking during my formative years. That meant I wasted a lot of time buying cheap decorative imported products to gussie up my garden. None of these fast and cheap thrills gave me the long-term harmonious well-being I sought. After years of studying garden design books from the library, as well as reading garden designer’s blogs, I finally realized those myriad garden tchotchkes weren’t doing it for me. I got rid of them. With age and self-taught financial education I came to realize that I coveted a handful of well-made and expensive garden accoutrement and elements. I stopped buying junk, sometimes doing without a much needed garden piece until I saved enough to buy one of great quality. Please note I did not say I bought it on credit when I desired it. I would even have been willing to save up for a landscape designer to assist with my property if I didn’t feel they wouldn’t return my call after hearing my address. I’ve experienced something similar with shopkeepers looking down their noses at me despite my walking in the door with hundreds of dollars in my pocket ready to spend it on an upmarket product. I understand that I’m an atypical customer. I understand that landscape designers/architects market their products to the affluent of their community knowing the less financially solvent are unlikely to purchase their goods. And I also understand if they did take on those smaller jobs then they would have to work much harder for more clients for the same amount of money. So they go for the highest tax bracket clients they can find. That’s understandable but it doesn’t do much for the working middle class who could also benefit from good design. For fiscally poor garden owners, financial literacy can bring the dream of good garden design by a professional within reach. When working poor gardeners stop spending every dime on inferior products to brighten bad days and save for the things that matter, then garden professionals might have another avenue to make money besides building often underused and under-appreciated garden rooms for the affluent.

    • Felicia, you are wise. I get TOTALLY where you are coming from, because it is very close to my story. I spent SO MUCH MONEY on “things” I thought I “needed” for my garden in the beginning – omigod the STUFF I got and the projects I tried and all of it always having to be changed out because the next garden trend would sweep me away. And then I got serious. Read books, not magazines. Started taking classes. And things changed. My decisions became simpler, not more ostentatious! I realized I was spending money to make myself feel better, not to improve my garden. I was making my garden suffer through my inferiority complex!
      You know, as a designer, I often lament the fact that I can’t take on more smaller jobs. It hurts me to have to pass on cool, young, interesting clients because I can’t make it work for the business. I try to always be available for consultation Nov – Feb for people who can’t afford a big design fee, but who want solid advice. You bring up very good points and I want to think on them and see how I might be able to address good design for those who need it most. Thank you for that! I appreciate it very much.

      • You’re welcome Ivette. It’s fascinating to hear your gardening back story and I would love to read more about you and your garden adventures. I miss your posts on The Germinatrix. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion about how to reach those less affluent clients? I would recommend you look into teaching a Continuing Education class on garden design through a local college. Often you can arrange to schedule the class as you would like either as a one time event or as an ongoing series or even just over a couple of weeks. Instructors can set the fee for the class and decide how many will be needed in order for the class to make. This might be an ideal way to reach many less affluent gardeners at once with minimal time investment all while garnering a little income. I would certainly pay to attend such a class if it were offered in my area.

      • “I try to always be available for consultation Nov – Feb for people who can’t afford a big design fee, but who want solid advice.”

        Let me note to lurkers, this is invaluable advice to those wanting to hire a landscaper/designer/installer. Both times I have made contact in January or February (holiday season is intense as part of our family).

        It gives you time to get a design, and then the work done before the spring planting time. Note that I live over a thousand miles north of Ivette. We try to plantings in by mid-June.

  12. I love this post!

    Just to chime in — I think there is also pressure for homeowners to view their property as an investment. Since outdoor living/outdoor kitchens have only grown in popularity, people have to keep up with the Jones’s, so to speak.

    Another consideration is that since people have less money to travel and vacation (still recovering from that economic downturn), taking advantage of the property you already own and getting the most out of you dollars is really important. If I build an expensive oasis in my backyard, I am actually saving money by not traveling, not dining out, etc.

    In the long run, I think some of the outdoor living space stuff will actually pay off (at least I hope it will in my case). Of course, tastes change, and my tasteful firepit and raised garden beds will probably be ripped out and replaced with the next fad, so who knows what will happen.

    • Best of luck with your project Steph! I’m sure it is going to be awesome, and I don’t want to take any of the joy you will undoubtably experience in your new garden away from you. Like I said in my post, money spent in the garden is a good thing. Spent wisely and with your specific lifestyle in mind. I seem to be railing against outdoor kitchens suddenly – but there are many instances where they are desired and needed! Your point is a good one, many people are fixing up their garden spaces to be “destinations” – a place to enjoy instead of vacationing in far flung places. In the end it can be a savings. That is a specific use of funds! If a family came to me and requested a “vacation garden”, I would trick out that space like nobody’s business, because it is a specific need being met. It is also an interesting design challenge.
      What leaves me a little cold is the idea that one HAS to trick out an outdoor space to increase the value of the home. When we hear these things, we need to think – who benefits? Sometimes the actual increase in value from home improvements is shockingly low, to the contrary of what builders and designers will promise. I’m not saying let your garden go feral because improving it will bring no return on your home improvement investment, what I’m saying is that investment/return may not be the best reason to create gardens. It is my belief that a garden is a very specific interaction between the homeowner and the natural world, often the only interaction with nature many people have. So why not allow our outdoor spaces to look like planted zones where nature is not only welcome but is encouraged and collaborated with, rather than looking like facsimiles of indoor spaces.

      • “It is my belief that a garden is a very specific interaction between the homeowner and the natural world, often the only interaction with nature many people have.”

        As you may have noticed in this thread, we replaced the kid play gravel pit with a patio surrounded by raised planters (there is a link to a photo on this thread).

        One bit of the natural world I have discovered is if I sit at the little table around dusk and a bit later I can watch the bats. Apparently they are living just a wee bit north of me and fly by to their buggy feeding grounds. Though I did get out a bit late the other night and saw two bats doing their aerobatics above the neighbor to the north, and between us and our south neighbor.

        Though not quite this:

  13. High art has been the purvue of the wealthy for thousands of years. At least now you don’t have to be a king or a duchess in order to get a bit.

    • Hi skr – interesting, because I have been in quite a few conversations lately centering on the idea of gardens being or not being art. warning – my answer may be off-topic, but I like the point being brought up so here I go anyway. I don’t think gardens are art. They CAN be, but they have to give something more, they have to grapple with new problems and new ideas. I am very lucky to be a frequent collaborator of artist Jorge Pardo, who is a MacArthur Grant winner (so he’s a certified genius), and my work with him is to create the gardens that accompany his architectural interventions. These site-specific projects are definitely ART with a capital A, and my gardens become part of that art. These projects are painstakingly developed over years and are very different than the work I do for my residential clients. I’d never say a fancy outdoor living room would qualify as art – it all depends on its context, intention, and process. The access of “art” to the middle classes usually comes in the form of kitsch – reproductions of recognizable masterworks rather than real art, which btw is readily available to people with modest means, if they educate themselves about contemporary art and buy from small, reputable galleries. So I think your comment opens up a very interesting set of issues – but the premise of ostentatious gardens being art that is available to the masses is one I don’t agree with. But awesome for bringing up the topic! It is a very good one to chew on – and I love chewing on a complex idea!

      • You are right – it takes a lot for a garden to be art. Same with a book – plenty of chick lit out there and the rare masterpiece. But if we want great gardens maybe it’s critical to begin to learn how to make that distinction?

        • All it takes for a garden to be art is the creation of an aesthetic experience. A created aesthetic experience is the most broad an inclusive definition of art. Anytime you try to narrow that definition you end up discarding entire art movements as ‘not art’ which delegitimizes the narrow definition. The distinction you note is not one of ‘art’ or ‘not art’ but one of high quality or compelling art on ine end of the spectrum and low quality or not compelling art on the other. The subjective quality of a not compelling aesthetic experience is personal and idiosyncratic and as such is not sufficient cause for the removal of the experience from the realm of what is art.

      • You seem to have a high regard for art. I think that is a problem. When you put art on a pedestal, you create a situation where art that does not meet your lofty ideals is cast out of the realm of art. The only necessary qualities of art are that it be created and provide an aesthetic experience. It’s not that those outdoor spaces are not art, they just aren’t very compelling art. Just like a lot of the kitschy objects aren’t very compelling art. Kitsch by the way has been a part of art since at least the Rococo. Kitsch is a word that is very often misused. It doesn’t mean a bunch of cheap knickknacks. Kitcsh refers to a quality of the art that is supportive or reinforcing of existing biases. Kitsch is unchallenging comfortable art.

        • You and I have very different ideas of what art is, skr. Aesthetics in art is a tertiary consideration (at best), and what I consider art is much more complex. But you can have your art and I can have mine. And yes, I do have a very deep relationship to art. It doesn’t matter to me in the least if you (whoever you may be) thinks that it is a problem. whatever floats your boat, dude

          • A tertiary consideration? I would love to hear what the primary and secondary considerations are so I can trot out an entire movement that is in opposition to them.

            Give me an example of an artwork that does not create an aesthetic experience.

      • I almost forgot to add that those lofty notions of what art is are completely subjective. Each person’s pedestal is different. Because of the subjectivity of the experience, excluding work that doesn’t meet one set of idiosyncratic standards from the realm of art is illegitimate.

        • skr, nothing about subjectivity is illegitimate. In fact, the opposite. And sorry to say it, but there IS a standard in the art world – there is an art market where art is bought and sold at enormous value and where artists are critically written about in art journals. This is the contemporary art market, and it is thriving in an enormous way – most of the money that went out of the housing market is now parked in art. But not just any art, art that has been vetted and valued. So on one hand sure, art is lots of things to lots of people. I don’t know, when you said “art” in your initial post, you could have meant a concrete statue of a cherub peeing into a fountain. When I say art (especially when speaking of landscape) I tend to mean Robert Irwin, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer. There IS a standard. Just like there is a standard of good design.
          But please, argue away – I went to art school, I love nothing more than discussing the art market with people who need it clarified for them.

          • You went to art school? Which one? I went to Otis.

            I certainly don’t need an education about the art market. My wife used to be a gallerist.

          • I didn’t say subjectivity was illegitimate for evaluating art. I said that using subjective values to determine what is or is not art is illegitimate. This is because one person’s opinion can remove an entire movement from the realm of art. The evaluation of art is absolutely a subjective experience and therefore subjectivity is legitimate is the appraisal of the quality of the work.

        • skr, I spend most of my evenings discussing art with people who make it, write about, and live it. I collect art. I went to art school. I was married to an art theorist. To be honest, getting into a sinkhole of a back-and-forth with somebody who, from what I have gathered from your comments to me and other ranters, is a contrarian and just likes to argue – well, I just can’t. I will be happy to discuss gardening til the cows come home, but I am simply not interested enough in your ideas about art to engage with them. So sorry, no further discussion from me on this topic.

          • You’re right, I do love to argue but I don’t take contrarian positions just for the sake of argument. I defend contrarian positions because I actually believe in them. This one however is only contrarian to you, ‘art is aesthetics’ was pretty much day one in art school. All of that theory we had do read was aesthetic theory fist and foremost. Even the titles of the chapters from the philosophers were titled aesthetics. I don’t know how you missed all that in that unnamed art school you went to (still waiting to hear which art school you went to since you started that particular genitalia swinging competition). Maybe you were in a design department and missed all that (foundation year should have covered that).

            All my artist friends love to discuss art and the best discussions are the ones where everyone disagrees. A bunch of people sitting around aggreeing with one another is rather boring don’t you think?

        • Last comment, to rest put your mind at rest. I went to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia California.
          I totally don’t mind debate – I love it in fact. But I’m here to write about gardens. Art will often intersect with gardens in my writing, as a couple of the gardens I have made are in functioning art installations – the most recent being Jorge Pardo’s “Tecoh”, right outside of Merida, the capital of the Yucatan. Sternberg Press put out a book on it, so you can check it out if you want.
          I’m really comfortable with my position on art, since my views have been honed and tested at spirited and spirit fueled dinner parties, vacations, and hanging out with some great scholars and makers of contemporary art. I’m lucky that way. And art is how I came to gardening, and the ideas / theory / rhetoric surrounding contemporary art make their way into my gardening work all the time, so in many ways, discussing art and gardening is perfectly legitimate. But I find this particular discussion tiresome because you ask everything and give nothing but pointed criticism. I am here, out in the open, as myself, willing to engage. You are hidden, all I know about you are 3 lower case letters and that you are probably a landscape contractor who lives in either Central or Northern California. How about you share some of your credentials? What art school did YOU go to? Not that it really matters, I find some of the best thinkers are heuristic, auto-didacts – I don’t think what school you went to says anything other than how much money you paid for your particular experience. So you know what school I went to, I’ve given you a collaboration I did with an artist of significance – how about YOU give something? If you want to continue this, I hope you’ll be as generous with your personal info as I am with mine. Otherwise, you seem to be a troll.

        • skr, sorry -I must have missed the comment where you said you went to Otis – WHEN? We might have known each other! When I went to CalArts Otis was Otis/Parsons, so I guess it was after that split happened? Who were your teachers? I bet we crossed paths more than once if you spent any time here in the LA Art world! I know TONS of people who teach, taught, and graduated from Otis.Tell me more!!!

          • I’m glad you called it CalArts this time around because I never knew anyone that went to CalArts that actually called it by it’s full name unless they were talking to their grandmother.

            I went to Otis in the 90s for Environmental Art under Coy Howard. I have been working in architecture, landscape, furniture design and land art in LA since then.

        • Hahaha! Yes I called CalArts by its full name b/c I didn’t know if you’d be familiar with it, the easier to google. Eeeww – nobody would EVER call it by it’s full name, of course!!!!
          So you live and work here in LA? What gallery did your wife have? My ex is an art writer and has been writing for art forum for about 20 yrs, so I have been to almost every opening at every gallery since forever – I’m sure we must have crossed paths SOMEWHERE. We must find another avenue for conversation! You know how the gardening community here is so disparate – the opposite of the art world – so I never know my colleagues. If you’d like to step from behind the screen and reveal yourself to me, email me! I’d like to continue the conversation!

  14. Here we are again hating gardens on Gardenrant!
    A garden is never necessary and always a frivolous expenditure – no matter who is doing it. To spend money on something silly while people starve and then judge others for doing the same thing is the height of hypocrisy.
    We should all quit indulging in our unnecessary gardens and move to high-rise apartment buildings where we will do no more harm.

    • Okay . Wait. David mcMullin I am COMPLETELY confused. You left such a thoughtful comment earlier, and now I read a comment that has nothing to do with the points you made earlier, but is just a sarcastic retort. Which I appreciate, don’t get me wrong – I LOVE a good sarcastic quip – but now I am concerned! Who am I in dialog with? Are you two different people? Or are you one person with two completely opposing sensibilities? Or did you suffer a recent head injury? WHAT GIVES DAVID? You are freaking me out.
      Yes, I am a garden hater. No more gardens, for anyone, anywhere.
      But seriously, folks – I don’t believe at all that gardens are never necessary and are always a frivolous expenditure. If you really think that, you do gardens a great disservice. Our exterior spaces are just as important as our interior ones, I just think they don’t need to be IDENTICAL. It’s a lack of imagination. Let outdoors be outdoors and let us have a different set of paradigms for what constitutes a good outdoor space – sorry, but how well they mirror an indoor space is just not MY idea of good landscape design, anyway. But it obviously is to many.
      ANYWAY, please clue me in on the dual personality thing that is going on with your comments! I won’t rest til I know! 🙂

      • Well Ivette, I think I may be addressing two different camps – and sounding of two minds in the process.
        It’s not you that I disagree with – it’s this sort of thing: “Our country remains in crisis while others party on and blindly shop, shop, shop; desperately trying to fill a void with “things” and meaningless experiences that money and fancy possessions will never, ever fill.” Just alot more “rant” than “garden” for me.
        It just seems to me like we start throwing stones on here rather than planting seeds sometimes. My first comment was a seed – my second was a stone! Stones are more fun, but shame on me nonetheless…
        (It doesn’t help that I accidentally deleted my first draft of that comment and the second was a rush job!)
        But my point that gardens are unnecessary was sincere – I CHOOSE to spend my resources on alot of things that edify my life experience – including and especially my garden. Its not an essential possession, Ivette, even though you might have a hard time accepting that – as do I!
        And of course you are welcome in my barn any time!

        • David I appreciate your seeds AND your stones, feel free to plant a few and throw a few whenever you like! Yes, gardens ARE a pleasure, and they add a tremendous lot to our lives, and people are free to spend their resources as they will – I am expressing a sense of discomfort that not all feel! And, to be frank – it is very INCONVENIENT for anyone in our line of work to have my conflicted feelings! Ah well, it is for me to work out, but I am lucky, I have help and input from the Garden Ranters when I need it! And on a personal note – about gardens being an essential possession, I recently had to come to terms with the possibility of losing mine. And I’m not sure I can do it! I mean, if I must I must, but it certainly FEELS like I wouldn’t be able to breathe without it!

          • Gosh Ivette, I REALLY understand the inconvenience of your concerns. I Actually have quit trying to get uber-wealthy clients here in Atlanta because I just can’t deal with the trappings of “high-society”. That isn’t to say that some rich folks aren’t perfectly wonderful, but I have a hard time with the ones who aren’t – and they have a hard time with me.
            I tend to see absolutely everyone as my equal and can’t stomach bowing and scraping to matrons who feel elevated over the masses because they married well.
            Of course then, working for more middle income people leaves my own income at a disadvantage sometimes and there can be higher stakes when the client is freaking out over spending half their savings on the garden. But I’ve found that my work can often be more creative when I’m working for these folks. Rich Atlantans tend to be very conservative with their gardens – all white hydrangeas and boxwoods – because they don’t want to be fodder for criticism. But people who save their money with a goal of planting a beautiful garden and gather a notebook of magazine clippings and have a long list of wants are a delight to work with.

        • Hi David,

          I don’t think my remarks about rampant consumerism while so many suffer economically in this country off-mark or unkind. While there are some amazing wealthy people in this country who do good, and CARE about others, too many are just into accumulating and taking what they can get, as shown in this week’s hot news topic:

          “Walgreen’s—the “pharmacy America trusts” . . . is about to renounce its U.S. citizenship for tax purposes, moving its official headquarters to Switzerland.

          Walgreen’s would still depend on Americans to shop at its stores, on our roads and bridges, on our educated workforce, on our legal system and many other things that its taxes are supposed to help pay for. But we would lose $4 billion in tax revenue over the next five years.

          It gets worse. Walgreen’s also receives $17 billion per year from Medicare and Medicaid prescription sales, so one-fourth of its revenue comes from taxpayer-funded programs.”

          This is what I’m talking about, David. This is what’s been going on for decades in the U.S.A. Many who are building these outdoor follies are not the ones who have a deep connection with their gardens. And I think “Garden Rant,” as it began and its name suggests, should be absolutely full of ranting, and using this space to talk about vital issues–at least that’s why I tuned in when I started reading. Good feelings are just that and we all love a feel-good story, but Ivette has brought up a great topic–thank you again, Ivette, for delivering some meat to this blog!

    • David,

      You say gardens are never necessary, especially when people are starving. How do you think those people get food? The GARDEN! Even though those are usually not the types of gardens being discussed here, some food gardens can be very fancy and ostentatious. That doesn’t take away the fact that they are used for food.

      • I suppose, but, that’s really agriculture isn’t it? I think we are more addressing pleasure gardens here.

  15. Before I read your comment I assumed what your concerns might be. I agree but many don’t. People with the means usually do whatever makes them happy even if it means lavish displays of wealth and resources. Of course there are better uses of resources. I’m not envious of these displays and do enjoy viewing them in magazines or in person. No these displays will probably never look like my tiny urban back yard. I am more inspired by what each individual can do with whatever outdoor spaces they have. Creativity inspires me, as well as growing something edible close to home even outside ones back door even if only small amounts of vegetables in containers. Making use of what one has can be even more beautiful. I appreciate your rant.

    • Thank you for your comment Patricia – I’m with you. Creativity inspires me – good design. Using good materials well. Thoughtful spaces that have something to say about the person who inhabits them. I am NOT inspired by the one-size-fits-all Outdoor Living Rooms. This isn’t to say that I don’t love rooms within a garden! But there is a marketing strategy at work here that I find tiresome – THAT is the point of my rant. Let’s inform ourselves, learn from past mistakes, and move forward in a better way. Your garden should be exactly what you describe, but I guarantee you is you ask for designs from 3 different professionals you will get at least one proposal that gives you couches, a dining table, and a kitchen. Sigh. It sounds like what you would love would be an edible urban oasis, with containers brimming full of herbs and veggies, and a nice small table for enjoying coffee, lunch, and a cocktail in the evening. Simple, perfect. You know, I used to love looking at the lavish displays of wealth in the magazines, but now I am weary of it. I want to see that money used well! To me, one outdoor kitchen is much like another – and I am a COOK. I love to cook, and I’m obsessed with kitchens and cooking equipment, so my saying ENOUGH to outdoor kitchens is a big deal!

  16. I wish we could all sit in my just-one-or-two-updates-a-year garden and talk about this, with cold lemonade! Thanks for the piece.
    My eyes are getting numb from the over the top similarity of the gardens and out door spaces I’ve seen online and in print lately. They don’t reflect my gardening interests or those of anyone I know.
    In my yard, every hole, every plant/shrub/tree, each little improvement means more to me I think because I’ve done all this work myself over the years (with the help of sons sometimes). These are great, practical thoughts and questions you’ve raised. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be. Spread these thoughts far and wide!

    • Elizabeth it is 92 degrees in LA right now, I would LOVE that lemonade! It sounds like you have created a wonderful space for yourself – enjoy! The simple pleasures are often the sweetest!

  17. Agree, Ivette! What makes a garden special to me is evidence of a homeowner-gardener rather than evidence of money/designer. Don’t get me wrong, I think designers offer a valuable service, but not when they’re pushing to sell the homeowners big ticket hardscape items just for a big commission.

    There are a number of really beautiful and “tasteful” designed gardens in my neighborhood — well maintained, weed free, and flawless. But because the only people I ever see in them are hired crews with their gas powered machines, the gardens seem sterile to me, maybe bringing pride to the homeowners, but not joy.

    • Mary darling! Yes – I am with you, and as a designer I think my job is to collaborate with my clients so that we come to a final product that expresses them and their dreams and desires. I see so many gardens that are too identified with the designer – you can tell exactly who did the design, and the client chose from design A,B, or C. And often, that designer makes no adjustments to their design for the client – it’s a “MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY” approach. Shocking! I recently was hired to fix a garden like that. My client worked with a very well-known local designer, who came up with a design that he wouldn’t budge on. Not one bit. My job was to tweak it so that it was more homey and site specific and less like a hotel. I mean come on! The fun part of the job is designing for specific challenges! At least that is what I think. (watch, next time you see me I’ll be complaining about the exact same thing! hahaha!) Btw, you last line is a killer! Watch out, I might steal it from you! XOXO

  18. When I first moved into my latest home (after leaving a much-loved garden behind) I engaged my new neighbor in conversation. “Do you garden?” I admired her garden a great deal. “Of course,” she said. I was delighted to have moved next door to a fellow gardener. Until I saw the landscaping van show up in front of her house every four weeks. She HAS a garden, she does not GARDEN. There is a huge difference in my mind. Anyone who has moved rocks (enough to build rock walls) and boulders, and endured winds, rain, and snow to take care of their garden has an abiding appreciation for the work their hands do. I like a well-landscaped yard as much as the next person. But when I visit a gardener’s garden/yard, there is an entirely different feeling. The very essence of that gardener is felt there. It’s a little like creating an original piece of art or buying a replica of a piece of art. They both please, one different levels. I buy the idea that we all have a right to do what we like with our property, and yet more and more we are limited in what we can legally do with our property. HOAs prevent front yard gardens, municipalities strike down community gardens designed to both nurture and feed a neighborhood. Ivette, I hear your concern, but I think there is a worse problem coming and that is the one of limiting our ability to garden as we see fit with our own property. I love nothing more than to see a flourishing vegetable garden in someone’s front yard, but in some areas, city officials will force them to remove the garden and plant grass. To me, as a gardener, that’s a worse problem.

    • Kathleen, I am split on both sides of this divide, because front yard edible gardening is especially important to me, and I am among its strongest advocates. I agree that we don’t want bossy-boots (like me, often!) telling us what to do with our property. Let’s call what I am doing here in this post more like gentle persuasion. I have no real authority, I can’t give anyone a ticket for spending on frivolous garden non-essentials, but I can ask that we take a moment to deal with what this country has just been through and then make some wise choices, rather than go right back to America’s favorite pastime, Keeping Up With The Joneses.

  19. It seems that this discussion probably should take into account that there are two different classes of “gardeners” and they come from very different senses of what a garden is and is for. Different strokes for different folks. Financial circumstances, personal interests and sense of how a worthwhile life is created are part of the divide.
    Group 1 are those who like fresh vegetables for the table,prefer un-florist flowers and enjoy the sweat, toil and dirty fingernails that are part of tending one’s own patch of earth. Had they millions they would still want to poke around in the dirty themselves.
    Group 2 are those who see the garden as an extension of their personality and view garden maintenance as something akin to hiring someone to paint the bathroom. They want to be surrounded by beauty, but don’t necessarily want to DIY.
    Bottom line: both groups sense that a garden is part of a good life… just achieving it differently.

    • And Group 3 are the ones who like to show off all the gew-gaws their money can buy, even though they are rarely outside to enjoy those things. The Kardashianization of gardens. Yes, there ARE people who never eat on their outdoor dining table because they are inside watching tv.
      And Group 4 are the ones who were talked into fancy schmancy choices by hard=sell contractors and designers, who don’t grill or cook but are all hooked up with the gadgets they will never use (WHY am I so bent on hating outdoor kitchens today? I need therapy, obviously!)
      I believe there are never just two of anything – what you set up is a false binary. There are many many different experiences, and we are dealing with a few of them for the sake of a conversation. People can do what they want, but my concern is that we havent learned anything and will just end up back on the boom and bust treadmill, rather than finding a place that is more sustainable. ALL gardens, no matter what the income bracket or style of gardening, can be sustainable.

      • You’re right, I oversimplified. I was responding to the dichotomy between people who do their own work, and those who hire it done. DIY crowd is less likely to get scammed into the into hottest new coneflower, latest outdoor hardscaping, etc. if for no other reason than they have seen fads before and they KNOW how they use their outdoor space. Those who hire may be more gullible. Caveat emptor is a warning for gardeners as well as other “consumers.” No, no one “needs” an outdoor kitchen, but that doesn’t mean that no one is vulnerable to a slick sales pitch or a lovely display in the design/build nursery store. Yes, some of the outdoor kitchens are ostentatious displays of wealth, but I suspect some are the result of poor planning and bad consumer choices.

  20. Ivette’s post touches on the issue of the images we see “trending” in our new age of media-obsession. Most of those images are presented as direct or thinly-veiled marketing tools to sell the concept of a lifestyle that demands over-the-top outdoor rooms. That’s because it’s the businesses who sell such lifestyle products and services that generate and publish those images! But I’d venture to suggest that most of us who garden with passion also enjoy a barbeque, eating outdoors, and reclining in comfort in the oases we’ve created. But perhaps we aren’t doing a good enough job of documenting our more humble havens which still have (I hope!) compelling outdoor rooms. Why don’t we take more photos of compelling spaces made on a budget? Frankly, showing the trappings of human activity (tables/furniture/grills) add enormously to the innate attraction to a garden photo. Plants alone are just harder to make sexy in 2D. So let’s start, with articles in magazines and blogs (Garden Rant: can you lead the way?) to make Pinteresting posts that demonstrate one need not be wealthy to live richly with a great garden. Can this blog call for such photos from it’s readers to get the ball rolling?

    • I LIKE IT!!! You came up with a very productive idea! In the early days, garden blogs were the home of the real gardens, and I LOVED it! Now everybody is a stylist and all the photos look like they were taken by pros for an issue of MSL! I think REAL GARDENS of REGULAR FOLKS would be a great picture of the day kind of thing!!! BRAVO! I’ll see what I can do nwphillygardener, I have a little pull with the Ranters (wink!)

      • I’d love to submit a photo or two of my own garden spaces you might want to consider. Which begs the question, is there a format via GardenRant to collect not just comments but photo responses to Rant topics? Perhaps they’d need to be “curated” if too many images ran afield of the Rant topic, but we gardeners are often visual types, so that sort of forum might be welcomed!

  21. To each their own style, and whatever they want to budget. Of course I just spent half a car’s worth to hardscape my backyard.

    It was paving a space that had been a literal gravel pit for kids to play in, and one is still in college and the other two have graduated. So we did create a space that we wanted. It is brick paved surrounded by three faux stone raised beds, in a space that is about 18′ by 20′.

    No outdoor kitchen. I just made sure the raised bed that was next to the basement stairs was table height to replace the rickety railing, and provide a place for hubby to put his grilling tools. He no longer needs an outdoor counter. That raised bed has mint for mojitos, lettuce for salad and hardy fushias for the hummingbirds.

    My front yard fence is four espaliered apple trees, with grapes above on the trellis. They are nicely hiding the withering climbing roses on my porch (they looked lovey a couple of months ago, but I rather water fruit trees than roses). The tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in the front yard are doing nicely.

    I could never live where there was a homeowner’s association telling me what I could put in my yard. That includes incorporating ceramics my kids made when they were young, old laserdisks to direct light to certain plants (um, yeah we get asked about about them, think 12″ diameter CDs), and the pretty rocks my daughter bought at yard sales that I am putting on wire holders (created from some cheap wire from the hardware store).

    My neighborhood has some very interesting gardens. Very few are neglected, and some have very interesting artwork. That includes the full size placard of Sasquatch a few blocks away. But he’s cool.

  22. Wow. It’s 1:30 AM, I have a full day of work in the field tomorrow, and I can’t stop reading. I am thrilled by the reaction to this topic, thrilled that gardeners are so concerned, invested, passionate, political. And totally awed, Ivette, that you have taken the time to reply, thoughtfully, to every one of the comments (I’m new here but I get the sense that there are records being set).
    It’s time to face facts folks – it’s a finite planet. The obscene wealth that funds these private Shangri-Las is the money that’s needed by schools, communities, food producers, mass transit systems, clean energy entrepreneurs, effective governments everywhere. In short, a habitable world in the near and long term. How hard is that to understand?

    • I’m really glad you are enjoying the discussion Joe, so am I! I learn an incredible amount from this community here at Garden Rant, and I feel lucky that there is a space we can come to and discuss these issues. Often, the choices we must make seem so clear but in reality are very complex, and it helps me to get a grasp on the multi-faceted nature of … well, NATURE, when people are speaking from their hearts passionately. Everyone has such good points, and I am honestly very affected by the positions that others bring to the table that I haven’t thought of. Ranting can be a very good thing! I am so glad you found us, Joe – welcome aboard and I hope to have many conversations with you in the future!

  23. So I find that I want to address the Designer vs. DIY component of this debate.
    In my work I am a designer. At home I do it myself (I’m lying of course, because my crew is in my garden a lot – and after 20 years I don’t mind not pulling weeds).
    There seems to be a lot of judgment for people who pay others to create and maintain their garden.
    I would rather my oncologist client with an office full of cancer patients get up every morning and stroll through their beautiful garden with a cup of coffee and then get right to the office and cure cancer than take the day off and pull pokeweed out of the azaleas. They should use all that cancer money to pay someone else to pull weeds.
    We are all good at something and bring those gifts to our existence. I am good at designing gardens. I know as much as any PHD about plants, soil, construction, hydrology, dendrology, biology, ecology, entomology, art history, color theory, meteorology and sweat. And I’m brilliant at putting it all together to create a garden. (Not bragging – its what I was born for. There are so many more things that I am horrible at!)
    Why, then, shouldn’t someone who is interested in having a beautiful garden hire a good garden designer and pay them well for the results?
    I see DIY gardens by the dozens every day that look like a pile of crap, have half-dead plants, dangerous walkways, poorly constructed everything. Imagine the resources that go into doing it all wrong. Now THAT is wasteful.
    While I appreciate a good garden made by the homeowner, I think that it takes a lot of self-study and research and advice from more knowledgeable gardeners to get it to a satisfying conclusion. (Unless you live in Portland, where the gardens are all magnificent because the plants are so magnificent – but in Atlanta you really have to try harder.)
    It still seems like we do just love to criticize anyone who does it differently than we do it, but its all gardens and gardens are good.

    • “Why, then, shouldn’t someone who is interested in having a beautiful garden hire a good garden designer and pay them well for the results?”

      I did. I interviewed two for the back yard. The one who got hired was the one who actually listened to me. I wanted masonry planters that were sturdy enough to walk on when pruning the grape and wisteria on the trellis, and for people to sit on when they visit. The guy who took forever to call back insisted on wooden raised beds with two inch wide walls. It was like he did not even read what I had written. He wanted me to keep the gravel pit the kids used to play in and just have food planters, when this is what I wanted (and got, the herbs and hardy fuchsias have filled in, I know better than to crowd new plants):

      At least this time I actually got someone to call back. Sixteen years ago when we did the front yard I go no calls back. I even saw a recently installed garden in my neighborhood and called the number of the landscaping company on the sign. That place needed to train their receptionist better, she insisted they did not do that kind of work. Fortunately the stone mason called back, and was willing to put in the rockery, path and trellises. So at least I had the bones to start with.

      As a consumer there are a couple of things I would like when I am looking to pay someone to do design and installation work:

      1. call back, and if you are too busy at least give me another reference.

      2. actually listen to what we want, we had the same problem with a couple of architects we talked to after buying the property, they insisted on doing what they wanted, not what we wanted (my favorite was the guy who told me I did not need a sewing space, right…. I made most of the window coverings, and that back yard is where I will be custom dying several tops I am making out of several yards of white silk, after I water garden).

      • Chris, designers often just want to do what they do and often do NOT want real design challenges. They see themselves as auteurs, or artists – and we are NOT. Design is supposed to meet needs. Be functional and aesthetically pleasing. And we need to listen to our clients and respond.
        When I did my kitchen remodel, my contractor was a nightmare. Constantly trying to upsell me on things I didn’t want or need (jewel bits in between tiles, gold plated faucets, a huge chandelier over the island) when my architect and I had come up with a plan that I loved, that was simple and highlighted my collection of vintage enamelware. She never missed an opportunity to try and get me to pop in some vision of bourgeois ostentation – it was obvious she had no idea who I was and was non hearing me or understanding my design sensibilities. I was young and inexperienced, so I kept her and worked with her even though it was a bad fit, and I regret it to this day. It would have been worth it to stop the build and find a contractor and crew that understood what I was going for, one that listens rather than upsells and tries to prey on aspiration. A mistake I will never make a gain, and one I try to never fall into in my own work.

        • “She never missed an opportunity to try and get me to pop in some vision of bourgeois ostentation – it was obvious she had no idea who I was and was non hearing me or understanding my design sensibilities.”

          Ah, I feel your pain. This is exactly what we got from a couple of architects.

          Fortunately we were a wee bit experienced. Just a year after graduating from college we bought our first house, and being strapped for cash we did lots of the remodeling work ourselves. We knew what we wanted, and had done the work.

          (an aside… on the first summer after we met we built loft beds for the dorms in his parents’ garage, and also dyed “velvet by the pound” for large pillows… he taught me tools and taught him fabrics when we were eighteen/nineteen years old, next year we celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary)

          So when we bought property (and found an architect who listened), the contractor had a designer who worked with us. She found us a bit frustrating because we told exactly what we wanted. She would describe what we wanted, she showed us samples and we picked what she wanted. All she really did was procure the materials and the people to install the. She told me that she did not charge us a “design” fee.

          By the way, the landscaper/installer who did our back yard was only given an outline, preferred materials and he came up with the design. That includes the custom fence, and the curves of the planters.

    • I get what you are saying, David McMullin. There is nothing wrong with having money and spending it on what you love. I feel no resentment toward the rich. I, too, have begun hiring people for some of the more physically taxing jobs in my yard, and will continue to do so as I get older, weaker, and richer.

      I just think that a garden isn’t really beautiful or soulful unless it is lived in and loved, and many of these expensive, tastefully designed “spaces” don’t seem to be. It’s like owning a set of leather bound books but never reading them, or a vintage sports car and keeping it in the garage. These are beautiful things designed to be interacted with and to fill us with joy and they are wasted when they just become window dressing.

      But I totally support the oncologist with his coffee strolling through his expensive garden. As long as he is up close and personal and getting pleasure from it, God bless him.

      • And the oncologist who may “pull pokeweed out of the azaleas” might be doing it as part of his weed therapy. I know I weed and prune as a form of therapy to get over frustrations from the day. Because that is something I can control without any back talk!

    • David I am glad you brought that up. Yes, there is a bit of a holier than thou attitude from the DIY community – they built their gardens themselves and poured not only money (because DIY isn’t cheap, especially if you are really going for it!) but time and their own labor into their outdoor spaces. So I forgive them for that bit of snobbery – I get it! I started out as a DIY gardener and wasted SO MUCH MONEY on doing something halfway, not getting it right, having to re-do it – changing my mind … you get the picture. My DIY efforts gave me a HUGE respect for the design community and spurred me on to devote myself to study and combine my love of dirty hands with my love of good decision making and clear vision that is the cornerstone of good design, in my opinion. Yes, DIY gardens can often be, well, somewhat questionable – but they can also be incredible! And I think if people understood that one can actually SAVE money by collaborating with a good designer, then there could be a place where the DIY impulse and the design/build business can intersect. But frankly, I’ve seen instances where my colleagues can make it hard for anyone who doesn’t have an unlimited budget to hire a designer. Many designers don’t do consults once they achieve a measure of success, and I think some DIYers would be very happy to pay for a couple of hours with a successful, reputable garden designer / landscape architect whose work they admire – just so they can be assured that they are on the right track. I know of design/builders who won’t negotiate on budget, which shocks me! If a garden needs to be redesigned or adjusted to come into budget, then that should be done – in my opinion. Of course, things cost what they cost, but many in our profession get very attached to their “vision”, their “look” – and, let’s be honest – their “price”. The current trend towards completely tricked-out outdoor rooms can be a financial bonanza for a designer, where allowing our outdoor spaces to be well OUTDOOR spaces doesn’t bring as much to the bottom line. So I see an incentive here that, to me, goes against my desire to make my landscapes great places where my clients can interface and interact with nature. A personal choice, if you will. I am so happy to have all of this input – it is helping me to define what my practice will be going forward! I have to say, you guys are awesome. I feel incredibly lucky to have such a great group of readers with such passionate and diverse opinions!

  24. Does it really matter how much money someone is spending, as long as they are actually enjoying it? A fancy lighting system makes a garden enjoyable at night for those who work all day. An outdoor kitchen is a great way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends while preparing a good meal. You may find these extravagances vulgar and in poor taste, but the fact is, Moroccan lanterns and deluxe water features are buttering the bread for many of us. Why would we discourage it? I definitely bristle at the idea of having these items just for the status aspect, but I don’t begrudge anybody the enjoyment of their garden, regardless of its cost or “tastefulness.”

    To look at this another way, how do you feel about people spending small fortunes on extremely rare plants? Isn’t that essentially the same thing you are arguing here, just with a botanical slant rather than a hardscape one?

    • Hi Glorypea, thank you for your comment – let me see if I can articulate myself and clarify a bit.
      I don’t begrudge anyone spending their hard-earned (or easily won) dollars in any way they choose – what I have a problem with is that we seem as a nation ready to jump right back into a boom and bust cycle that does us all harm. Magazines show us images of tricked-out spaces not because they are trying to educate us, but because they want us to buy from their advertisers. These aspirational images try to CREATE a need – I simply wonder if we might think harder on what we REALLY need and allocate our resources accordingly.
      For me, outdoor dining is a MUST. I live in Los Angeles, I grow food, I am a hobby-chef. Still, I do not have a fully loaded outdoor kitchen, even though I can afford it. My kitchen opens up right onto my backyard, and the redundancy of a sink and a refrigerator in such close proximity to my fully tricked out indoor kitchen is not good design, to me – it is something that I have been told I need by advertisement and aspirational commerce, and I don’t need to buy into that. I can allocate the resources I save in a different way – I need to finally install a graywater system, which would make my garden much more sustainable in the long run, and would help me save water – a dwindling resource for all of us.
      My neighbor can do whatever he wants, and he wants to water his front lawn for 25 minutes every morning. He is using up a resource that all of us need. Of course, he is free to do so, but I would hope he might one day learn to make wiser choices.
      Against good business sense, I often advise AGAINST knee-jerk design in my projects. EVERYBODY has a built in daybed made out of IPE, I want one! Ok, I get wanting a built in daybed, but let’s figure out a way to make it so that we aren’t cutting down trees in the Brazilian rainforest and shipping them across the world, let’s see if we can create a similar effect with local materials. As a garden designer, I personally see my job isn’t just to create high-pricetag gardens for clients, I want to be a good steward of the natural world and do my part to educate my clients on better uses of resources. Saving them a little money on their (usually enormous) landscape budget makes me happy, and being able to give clients a smart, well thought out garden that is targeted to their specific needs rather than one that reads as if it were a checklist of must-have’s for wealthy people, well – that makes me feel like I have done my job.
      I’m not saying that any of these things (the kitchens, the lighting, the built-ins, etc are bad in and of themselves, of course not. But the knee jerk use of all of them all the time in every garden … really? I happen to be one of those people that really believe in the idea of sustainable gardens, and that we as a society are connected, and that our choices impact each other positively and negatively. I am advocating for us to take a minute to make smarter choices rather than assuming that our gardens are richer spaces just because they cost a fortune and have all the “bells and whistles”. Our garden spaces are richer because of how well they fit into our lives and what we do in those gardens.

      • When you mentioned LIGHTING as an element of garden design excess, I smiled. Now, that’s an area truly worthy of it’s very own rant! I cringe when I see those low posted luminaires which draw more attention than the garden itself…….day or night. I hope we continue to get better options to subtly illuminate our walkways and stairs without adding little pagodas or lanterns or other elements as visually intrusive as garden gnomes.

        • Yes, NWPhilly – this has become a little peeve of mine! Overly lit gardens are SUCH an eyesore to me! And they aren’t good for our wildlife and their nocturnal habits. I don’t know if this falls into the realm of “garden lighting”, but my neighbor across the street just installed a light over his garage that is as bright as a thousand suns, and it floods into my kitchen all night long, from 8pm to 6am, this crazy bright light. I can see how it disrupts and disorients the moths that I am trying to make a good home for in my garden! Light pollution and light wate is a big issue, and one that garden designers and those who design and install outdoor lighting systems can really help address. Yes, I think there is a rant in the future about this! I might become a Dark Sky activist!!! I certainly like the title – it fits with my Goth spirit.

  25. Love this post. I recently put in a patio, and (by my standards) it was expensive. But in looking at pictures in magazines, it seemed like all the gardens they showed had outdoor kitchens, firepits, furniture that’s nicer than my inside furniture, stone walls, pergola’s and drapery. My goal is to someday have the garden that people envy…but not by throwing money at it. By carefully planting my hoarded perennials, fruit bushes/trees, and even my raised beds and being patient until they “fill in”, or moving them around until they are happy. That’s the way my mother taught me to garden, and if my neighbors don’t like my “in progress yard, they should just wait a few years!

    • Carolyn, good for you – you can have a wonderful garden, and it should be the garden that you want! Whether you do it yourself or have the help of a good designer and builder, your research and your thoughts about needs and desires will bring you to a place where you can make wise decisions, not just knee jerk purchases. I have to admit, it is REALLY HARD not to follow impulses when we are looking at images of fancy gardens! I am the type of person that advertisers and marketers DREAM about, which is why it is so important to me to take a breath, assess my needs and my desires, and look at what I have to work with in a sober, clear-headed way. When I do for myself what I do for my clients, the result is always so much better. Aspirational thinking is a big bugaboo for me, as you can tell!

    • It’s a great post Susan! I think this is a really great topic, and I am so glad you brought in another interesting and important angle. So much food for thought!

  26. I love gardening. It is what I do to forget being a law enforcement officer dealing with people problems all day long, walking in filthy homes and seeing misery day in and day out. I ripped out my front and side yard lawns and planted perennials. Even hired a landscape designer to figure it out since I cannot design. It was the best money I ever spent. Many in my community would consider my meager investment, about $7K, pure folly. It was a lot for me to spend (poor public servant). I have a migrant farm worker tan from the time I spend in my garden. It feeds my soul and recharges my spirit. The garden has also connected me to my neighbors. When they walk by, me pulling weeds or dead heading, they say “I love your garden”. Sometimes we chat sometimes we don’t. If they like a particular plant, I go dig some up and give them a start. I can guarantee that none would walk by and say “Hey, I just love your verdant green lawn.”
    What am I saying here…what I mean to say is that if someone spends crazy money on their garden and it creates connectivity to our fellow humans, then terrific. Or even if they don’t connect but it recharges their soul, then I’m good with that too. My garden let’s me escape. If anyone wants the same, then I’m all for it whatever the price they pay.

    • “When they walk by, me pulling weeds or dead heading, they say “I love your garden”. ”

      Yay, another benefit from weed and prune therapy. I mostly do it because I have kids, including one with special needs and a severe heart condition (the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota was not my choice to spend vacation days a couple of years ago!).

      And since most of my yard is in the front, I do enjoy when neighbors walking by decide to chat.

      “I go dig some up and give them a start. I can guarantee that none would walk by and say “Hey, I just love your verdant green lawn.””

      🙂 Lawn, what’s a lawn? I have this wee bit patch of brown grass smaller than the dining room rug. Is that a lawn?

    • Chey, I love your gardening spirit – it truly makes my heart swell, because I really believe that gardens make us better. They make our lives better and our communities better. Gardening in the front yard, in our public and semi-public spaces, is a topic I am particularly fond of. It was amazing to me, when I started gardening seriously in my front and side yards, how much contact I had with my neighbors that I didn’t previously have – just because I was devoted to being outside, in my pubic areas, doing something! So in a big way, I agree with everything you said. Like I wrote in the post, money spent on gardening is A GOOD THING – no argument there! The idea that I wanted to discuss with all of you is … we learned alot about sustainability and using our resources wisely when our economy took a nosedive and we, as a collective society, didn’t have much in the way of discretionary income to put into our gardens. We figured out other ways to get the gardens we wanted. Maybe we took a long, hard look at our desires and realized that we could adapt and make something great happen WITHOUT all the $$$. And designers had to think that way too, because budgets were smaller and we had to get more creative. I have to admit, I liked the challenge! I want to know, now that the economy is rebounding, do we HAVE to go back to the other way of seeing something all shiny and great in a blog or a magazine and deciding that we MUST HAVE it, NOW? Can we keep some of the other way of thinking, where we make choices that combine the smart use of our resources AND give us the gardens we want? I am just seeing the whole corporate selling machine ramping up again, and I am hoping that we all, no matter what our financial situation, can find a way to get off that merry-go-round. Maybe we can’t, I don’t know. But my point was never NOT to spend money on your garden, it was ‘how do we use our resources (money being one of the most important) wisely?’ It’s an answer that will take alot of time and thought to find, but I am glad we as a group on Garden Rant, are thinking and talking about it.

  27. What a great discussion!

    “We as a country are inching out of a severe economic decline….. But have we learned anything from what just happened to us?”

    Just happened to who? The economic downturn had minimal effect on the most affluent and the last few years have concentrated even more wealth into a smaller fraction of that top income tier. The rebound in property values may have inspired folks at multiple income levels to invest more readily in their homes and gardens but most of those creating the over-the-top trophy showpieces did not suffer from the downturn. Our economy continues to foster greater ostentation for the few rather than sustainable gardens (or anything else) for everyone.

    • It is a great discussion Sheila! That is due to the spirit of the Garden Ranters – how awesome to take the time to add your voice to a topic that affects us all! And I hear you, many weren’t affected by the economic problems at all. I live and work in Los Angeles, and the city, being the place where much of the entertainment industry is based, has long thought of itself as disconnected from the economy of the rest of the country. But I saw a big change in the middle and upper middle class, which is where most of my clients come from. Even if they weren’t foreclosed on, their homes went down significantly in value, and the 2nd mortgages that everyone was taking out in the early 2000’s to fund their remodels and landscape projects evaporated. It may not have looked as dramatic as the images of entire subdivisions empty and overgrown with weeds, home only to possums and coyotes – but it created a domino effect that made life harder for everyone. And at the exact same time, people in the tech sector felt next to nothing! I was inspired by the ingenuity of the millenials and the urban pioneers, and I am hoping that the spirit of sustainability isn’t forgotten as people race to get their outdoor living room tricked out!

  28. Times aren’t quite good enough for most of the people in my part of western Massachusetts to get beyond planting a hellstrip, or a tiny potager in the backyard. Also I am too old – way too old – to want to accumulate even if it accumulating a fabulous outdoor sitting space. I am working on cutting back, eliminating and once again floating my Thoreau banner – Simplify! Glossy books and magazines are great fantasy reading – somewhat more pleasant than vampire novels.

  29. Maybe another reason for our gut feelings of irritation upon seeing those posh outdoor room images is the impracticality of it all! Can it all really withstand the elements? Year-round? Where do they store those 72 cushions when a windy storm blows through? How do you clean up bird poop off those outdoor daybeds filled with comfy throw pillows? One imagines there must be “Staff” to deal with the details. While indeed some can afford staff, spending time outdoors offers the potential for a simpler way of being, more in touch with nature…..and the more grandiose those garden rooms get, the more distance one puts between him/herself and the natural world.

  30. Ivette, I appreciate the questions you raise, and the resulting discussion. One thought that came to mind,as perhaps a way for you to feel better when working on one of those outdoor living extravaganzas, what about charging a kind of sur-tax on your fee, to be donated to support Community Gardens or some other project related to food security? Also, we could perhaps figure out a way to tap all this gardening knowledge, to teach basic gardening skills to people for whom that knowledge could mean the difference between hunger and plenty. A sort of each one/teach one project. I feel that you could motivate a creative discussion, with some practical ideas for trying to solve a need that exists in all too many places in America.

    • Margit that is super interesting, however I am loath to “tax” my clients for what are ultimately MY ethics and my concerns. I need to tax MYSELF, and pledge that what work I do creating ultra fancy gardens (which, let’s get real – I LOVE MAKING) is met by work I do in a more public sphere. Ultimately, these are choices we all have to make for ourselves, and I don’t believe I can foist my ideals on anyone (other than writing about them!). But I can do what I can do to follow my own set of principles and keep a discussion open so that others will at least THINK about it. And there are alot of ways to make these sound decisions, many more than what I can come up with, so as long as the dialog is open, I think things move forward. Thanks for your comment!

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