Are show gardens making us bad gardeners?

Here some naturalistic plantings at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, a lovely site we happened upon on the way to Connecticut. It's the less famous sites that tend to have great practices.
Here are some sensible plantings at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, a lovely site we happened upon on the way to Connecticut. It’s the less famous sites that tend to have great practices.

Here’s an interesting debate. Late in December, a post published on the American Society of Landscape Architects website by David Hopman opened an attack on unsustainable, resource/labor-intensive approaches to planting design and plant palettes, particularly in big public gardens. I agree with a lot of the post—after all, Hopman is arguing for environmentally sound practice and plant choices that are guided by their suitability to the conditions in a certain area. These are principles we should all be following, and I have lauded them many times, most recently in a post about my friend Dave Majewski’s design for a parking lot that saves trees, conserves water, and supports wildlife.

More from the Berkshire site
More from the Berkshire site

The problem is that these laudable principles are contained within a straw man-riddled essay that keeps harping against the practice of “Fine Gardening.” It’s an unfortunate phrase to choose. I doubt that there is universal consensus among gardeners about what, exactly, “fine gardening” means. (And if I were the editor of Fine Gardening mag, I wouldn’t be thrilled with this.) What he really means is “show gardens,” and most of the examples he criticizes are from this group.

The Highline doesn't set too shabby an example.
The Highline doesn’t set too shabby an example.

As the essay notes, big public gardens, mainly visited by tourists, often regularly change out their most prominent beds, particularly when it comes to bulbs and annuals. For example, Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island plants over 300,000 non-native bulbs for spring display, basically treating them as annuals, and the Dallas Arboretum also does a huge bulb display—but, because of its inhospitable conditions, it has to add insult to injury by shipping in enough soil amendments as to almost completely replace its native soil. And so on.

The  Edith Wharton homestead has a lovely garden with a mix of summer bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and annuals.
The Edith Wharton homestead has a lovely garden with a mix of summer bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and annuals. It’s managed on a shoestring.

This goes on at botanical destinations throughout the world, though many of them also devote large areas to native plantings and other kinder, gentler examples. It takes a lot of man hours and other resources to maintain any of these places. I wouldn’t work at one, just as—as much as I love to cook—I’d never take a job in a restaurant. However, I do love visiting many public gardens of all types. I take away something different from each one. Rarely do I imagine I could replicate anything from these places in my small urban space.

When our friend Susan Cohan shared this on Facebook (asking us to respond—thanks!), the FB commenters really hated on Buchart (never been), and a few suggested, as I do, that show gardens have their value and should not be expected to be models for home gardeners to follow. Do they need “Don’t try this at home!” signs? I don’t think so; I credit my fellow gardeners with more sense than that.

For my part, I love a good bulb display. These will be composted when they're done and replaced with big tropicals. Yay!
For my part, I love a good bulb display. These will be composted when they’re done and replaced with big tropicals. Yay! None of my friends would dream of doing this.

Finally, every picture on the post showed mass plantings of bulbs. Well, that’s how bulbs look best—planted in large quantities—though preferably in drifts, with perennials ready to take their place. I plant hybrid tulips in largish quantities as well, and I do treat them as annuals. That is the only way in my very limited and shady space, but I can assure you that my fellow gardeners in Buffalo are appalled at my composting almost all my tulip bulbs and always remonstrate with me about it. As for changing out annuals, I am routinely asked during Garden Walk if I try to “winter over” my $4.95 pots of Persian Shield and coleus. Don’t worry about gardeners. Gardeners are frugal. Gardeners have common sense. The gardeners I know might enjoy reading this essay, but there’s nothing in it they haven’t already absorbed through early experience and budgetary constraints.

*I do urge our commenters to at least skim through the essay before responding. Sorry for this long post. It’s not like me and it won’t happen again!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Show gardens may not make us bad gardeners, as any experienced gardener understands the realities of gardening, be it the constraints of time, money, or resources. I do think show gardeners and even the photogenic portrayals of the High Line, however, raise the bar for our expectations. Don’t we all wish we had the back corner “closed to the public” area to harbor plants ready to plop into a hole left in a border as things come in and go out of bloom, or the green house to raise our own bedding plants or winter over cuttings and tropicals. The resources to splash color across the most public of our spaces would also be nice, too– even if we have removed our lawns and produce our own fruit and veggies.

  2. I think the idea that display gardens should be viewed as art museums and not a model for landscapes is asinine. At least it acknowledges that landscape design is an art form, but if someone suggested that you shouldn’t hang art on your walls at home like in an art museum people would simply laugh at them. Fine art has an environmental cost too. Bronze is a finite resource. Cadmium in paint is toxic. Oil paint requires solvents that affect the environment. Stop hanging paintings in your and placing sculpture in your gardens all you horrible earth destroying people. How can you possibly be so short sighted. Don’t you know we will one day run out of marble?

  3. We put our most treasured art pieces in museums that are open to the public around the world. I doubt most of us even begin to think we could or would duplicate that talent, but many of us are probably inspired to try our hand at drawing, painting, etc., and some of us are inspired to greatness. However you define “fine art” or “fine gardening”, I think it’s great to have these places to wander through, learn from, and dream in.

  4. I think if you are framing the question as “do show gardens improve the quality of the average American garden”, I think the only honest answer is “no”.

    I think show gardens, especially the more forward-thinking botanical institutions like The High Line, Lurie, and Longwood do a fantastic job of inspiring and encouraging the practice of gardening. And they are excellent representations of what the art of landscape design can achieve.

    However, the maintenance regimes, planting densities, design sophistication, etc. of these showpieces is beyond the reach of most practicing landscape architects much less a retired school teacher or office worker.

    Art museums are much more likely to inspire someone to BUY art than to try and make it. Plus, most people intuitively understand that a trip to the craft store for canvas and paint isn’t going to give them something that looks like the Van Gogh they saw at the museum.

    I do think, though, that your average botanical garden visitor or garden club denizen might just think that a trip to Lowes for some tulip bulbs and an Encore Azalea will get them a beautiful garden.

  5. I almost always learn something every time I visit a garden, including show gardens. That doesn’t mean I want to copy that garden, but I may change a plant or two.

  6. I don’t think “show” gardens necessarily make us bad gardeners. From what I’ve seen, most gardeners or wanna-be gardeners want a showy garden no matter the influence.

    I think only the rich are able to maintain “unsustainable, resource/labor-intensive approaches to planting design” and how many of us are truly rich enough to do this? But if we’re motivated by a “show” garden to try gardening, then it might be worth it.

    If the on-a-budget home gardener imitates these unsustainable plant palettes from “show” gardens, when their plants fail, they will attempt to find out why, and if the answer is “That’s the wrong plant for this area,” they adjust their gardening choices or they give up. At least they tried. They’ve also learned something in the process.

    Would we rather have inexperienced gardeners trying to garden badly or people who never try to garden at all? (If, as a beginning gardener, I’d seen cacti and yucca gardens as the pinnacle of Texas gardening because those plants are environmentally sound examples of what grows in parts of Texas, I would never have gardened to begin with. This doesn’t mean I don’t use environmentally healthy plant choices in my garden now. However, pretty flowers are what first attracted me to gardening.)

    In some ways, “show” gardens are like junk food. They “taste” good, but aren’t necessarily good for us in the long run, but for better or worse, many of us still eat junk food. That is to say, lots of gardeners will try plants that aren’t good for the environment and/or aren’t sustainable and will probably continue to do so.

    Certainly, I see examples of this in the local plant selection at Lowe’s, where they sell invasive-to-Texas nandina and privet. People buy and plant these.

    Plant catalogs from other parts of the country are guilty of the same thing.—We’re shown beautiful plants that don’t grow in our area and/or require expensive soil amendments. The catalogs rarely tell us this.

    I skimmed through David Hopman’s essay and can say he made one generalization that I don’t agree with, which was “the North Texas region has only alkaline and small areas of circumneutral soils and most of the soils in the area are heavy clay and drain slowly.”

    I live in North East Texas and the soil I have is acidic sandy loam. I do see clay, but I also see lots of sandy loam and “sugar sand,” most of which is not alkaline. The good soil is why I moved here.

  7. These types of gardens unfortunately reflect the larger culture which just doesn’t appreciate the true value of our soil, water and wildlife resources. Each fall the Dallas Arboretum has an absolutely sickening display of pumpkins. Last year they used 65 000; this year > 75 000. Every year it just keeps biggering even though drought still plagues some areas of the state. When I think about all the soil, transportation, herbicide, pesticide and water resources that go into this display I am appalled. As wasteful as it is to grow tulips as annuals just think about what goes into a display using one of the thirstiest crops we have. An enormous crop that gets tossed away. They even charge admission making it a pleasure only the wealthy can enjoy. When the majority of people recognize this kind of thing as wasteful I will know we are better gardeners.

  8. Thank you Elizabeth for the thoughtful and measured post. Like actual show gardens, many public gardens-botanical and otherwise, compete for attention, visitor dollars and outside funding. They want to keep people coming back and in essence create theatrical seasonal set pieces as a way to draw in audiences. Are these meant to be taken literally by home gardeners? I don’t think so. They are meant as entertainment and don’t necessarily detract from the mor ‘serious’ aspects of public gardens. As you say…we know our limitations, but we also know what we aspire to as well as how (perhaps more than most) entertaining any garden can be whether it is over the top or down to earth.

    • You’re welcome, Susan! It’s an interesting topic, and after 11 years of garden blogging, I can always use one of those!

  9. I like to think that while people are initially turned on to COLOR and lots of it, as they garden they’re also increasingly turned onto foliage, and shorter-blooming perennials and shrubs and ways to use fewer resources, etc.
    Great topic.

  10. bulbs planting is really giving a good views. views matters so much. arranging the plants in a perfect looks motive of gardening. govt spending funds on them but managing is must. Like your last image you have posted looks pretty


  11. Just as Barbie shouldn’t be considered a model for young girls, or Heidi Klum a model for women, we all have to have boundaries. We should be able to appreciate beauty wherever it is and not take it as a commentary for what we are or are not, or should be doing. If show gardens make us bad gardeners, then it means we don’t know how to set boundaries or limits for ourselves that are realistic. And that is a commentary on us, not otherwise.

  12. Such a great article…and definitely not too long, Elizabeth!

    I used to manage a small public garden in Southern California. Economic constraints most definitely shape the choices that go into the way these gardens evolve. Our garden gained most of its revenue from weddings and, sadly, our design would quite often be driven by this fact…What will look good in photographs? What won’t attract any bees (to bother guests)? Let’s have a perfect carpet-like lawn (in the wrong places; shady courtyards, a dry climate), etc. Don’t put that pile of compost there!

    Here’s what I would love to see…show gardens and public gardens pushing the idea envelope to inform and inspire the rest of us to be better gardeners, they are thoughtful and know that our gardening decisions matter in the bigger picture. They utilize today’s science to create living systems that delight in every way and don’t tacitly endorse practices we now know are problematic or irresponsible by featuring or celebrating them (a la Butchart).

    They are public and so they educate and incubate paradigm shifts (High Line). Most importantly, they are sustainable and are as regenerative as possible given the evolving nature of the spaces (Elizabeth’s tulip composting). They most definitely feature lovely garden-worthy plants, beautifully placed, that regular humans can grow, too. They are aspirational and evolve with the times to the degree possible.

    Complicated to design and maintain, yes…Too much to ask? I don’t think so.

  13. Pictures of display gardens remind me of photo shoots in architecture magazines. I wonder who lives in those places? Where are the stacks of gardening magazines and books? The dirty dishes in the sink. Where is the TV and the pile of shoes and stocks?

    I don’t live like those pictures and I don’t landscape like those display gardens. Yet they can be educational and inspirational … if I can get around to it.

  14. A really interesting, thought-provoking post. Ideally, famous showplace gardens can also be a source of inspiration about better ways to garden. I’m thinking of the new native plant garden at the New York Botanical Garden — it was designed as a demonstration of how gardeners can achieve stunning aesthetic effects through the use of indigenous plants. I’ll never garden on such a grand scale, but I found lots there to emulate in my own modest landscape.

  15. I think that most people touring a garden realize that a “show” garden is just that: a show. I don’t visit expecting to be able to copy the show in my suburban half acre. I visit to see unfamiliar plants, interesting uses of color/texture, and to enjoy the aesthetic experience. Masses of tulips take my breath away, but I also know that large drifts of tulips can’t be expected to return in the same splendor next year. And I know that when the show’s over, tulips look pretty sad.
    Like a great movie, a show garden requires a willing suspension of disbelief. I see it in front of me, but it isn’t part of my immediate world. But just because I know it isn’t “real” doesn’t me that I can’t enjoy it for what it is.

  16. I garden in a small backyard in central Texas (Austin). I visit big public gardens in other places whenever I get the chance, largely because there I can see things I can’t grow at home: peonies, oriental poppies, lilacs. And I like seeing them in quantity. I like Butchart, although I prefer botanical gardens that label the plants and emphasize perennials–Kew, Edinburgh, Montreal, Bronx, Missouri, and other big ones, and especially the smaller Chelsea Physic Garden and Oxford Botanical Garden. Most of these I’ve seen only once. On return visits to Kew and Montreal a few years later, I found that the perennials I loved most the first time were gone, replaced by other things. I suspect that happens in the others as well, though presumably not every season as at Butchart.

    Closer to home, I like the Dallas and San Antonio botanical gardens, and of course the local Zilker garden and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center–and not only for the chance to see plants I could grow myself but also for all the ones I don’t have room for myself.

    At home I grow a mix of perennials, annuals, and bulbs, along with some roses and a few shrubs and trees (and a lot of weeds). Some things come up every year (both perennials and reseeding annuals); others are planted seasonally (by seeds or by plants from local nurseries), many in pots. I don’t “change out” annuals while they’re still in bloom, but I do put in new ones when the old ones have finished. (There are at least three full seasons here for annuals.) I am seventy-two, have been gardening fairly intensively for thirty years, and I still like as much color as I can get–here and elsewhere!

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