Garden regionally. Get inspired globally.

21

Guest Rant by Marianne Willburn  

Somewhere near the bottom of every writer’s artistic license, a clever wordsmith will find the following recommendation:

Monty Don

“Comically exaggerating the position of one’s opponent is encouraged in the defense of one’s argument.”[i]

Thus, after verbally sparring with Scott Beuerlein over the curiously inflammatory subject of whether to openly read British garden writers, or to do so under the covers by flashlight – all the while pledging fidelity to the American values of Weed & Feed; a tortured Scott is wrestling with the inadequacies of a Midwestern accent late into a Cincinnati evening, and I am apparently one step away from a sexting relationship with Monty Don.

Yet, beyond the slings and the arrows and the thoroughly base attempt to play cards as sneaky as cancer and a dead, beloved dog (I see you one dog and raise you a dad, Scott), the rebuttal beautifully illustrates the constant niggling suspicion American gardeners have that the British are looking down their noses at us, feeding us advice to help us fail, sniggering with intent, and securing all the fat Timber contracts in order to render our garden gurus speechless upon their own soil.[ii]

Rubbish.

Or if you prefer, horseshit.

And when social media gets involved, the comments reveal our innate prejudices and (I believe) underlying insecurities as Americans.

For the record:

I am not a self-righteous Brit who ignores and disparages American garden writers because I am so enchanted with the idea of tea at four and ha-has across the south lawn that I can’t remember my USDA zone. I AM an American garden writer with dual citizenship who has lived most of her life in America, reads authors on both sides of the Atlantic and writes for American publications on American soil. I married a Marine. And not as a war bride.

And neither is Scott a Trumpian angry ethnocentrist (as one commenter lamented) because he has a beef with the relevance of British garden writing to American gardeners. He was clearly just having a bad day.

Perhaps it was a work-related trauma. Spring is a cold and busy season at the Cincinnati Zoo. The last thing the Manager of Botanical Garden Outreach needs to have shoved down his throat is a picture of Fergus Garrett standing under a fruiting Musa basjoo.

Perhaps someone left a copy of George Plumptre’s The English Country House Garden in the men’s toilets. We can only speculate.

Nevertheless, something primal snapped in the man. I get it. But to throw out the cherubic baby with the bath water? That’s when I objected.

It’s just so damned predictable.

Though a strong stance, Scott took a safe one. An American audience is not going to object to giving the Brits a tongue-lashing for what we immediately assume to be their propensity towards snobbery, condescension and arrogance. And, any written defense of such a reprehensible population will be met with equal certainty that the author [obviously bewitched] eats her eggs soft-boiled.

An autumn tapestry at the newly opened Delaware Botanic Gardens, designed by Dutch Wave guru Piet Oudouf, and providing 25 acres of forage, habitat and outstanding beauty for wildlife & visitors.

Except.

Americans are not innocent in this game. Far from it. From my American pine cradle, I’ve grown up in both worlds. My mother is a California rancher’s daughter, my father, a public-schooled Brit. After a lifetime of lively conversations around their dining room table with friends from far and wide, I can attest to the fact that the two cultures take great delight in a strong sense of superiority over one other. I’ve seen my share of sparring. Subtle and not so.

All these decades after the American Revolution, there is still the spirit of rebellion in your average American heart and we’re deeply (and rightly) proud of it. We object to being told what to do – whether it’s what to do for a living, what to wear to a funeral, or what to plant in our gardens. We expect the luxury of space, and claim it when we can – from 4200 square foot homes for two people to insisting on a wide berth when standing at an ATM.

We’re pioneers, explorers and dreamers. But we’re also pragmatists. A great many of us feel strongly that we don’t need a two thousand year-old language to refer to a plant our daddies always called Ramps. And if we want to spell it with a capital R, that’s our business. We sure as hell don’t need people with a perfect climate telling us how to grow it.

Even though they probably weren’t.

In their less generous moments, the Brits look upon us as spoilt children who think the world revolves around us. (Scott, your original essay didn’t help with this.) They write for their own as surely as we write for ours; and if it’s American money that’s buying a gardening book, they credit that money with the good sense to recognize that it doesn’t live in Cornwall – and to adapt accordingly.

They’ve got their own issues and insecurities certainly.  In a country with an average population density of 720 people per square mile (the USA is 87)[iii], space is a luxury many never dream of attaining, no matter how quickly they get on the property ladder or how upwardly mobile their lifestyle.

This means that they can be a little prickly about American ideas of personal space. But they are an exceptionally self-reliant people – particularly those who live rurally – making do with very little to create lives that most Americans would find inconvenient.

Sparked by the blight that is decimating boxwood, RHS Wisley has created a knot garden composed of alternate shrubs to inspire depressed gardeners. I can’t grow several of these species, but it doesn’t stop me taking what I can from this fantastic, educational display. (Though not perhaps cuttings.)

When it comes to gardening, they know what they’ve got: the Gulf Stream and hundreds of years of exploiting it to create some of the best gardens in the world; and a culture that gardens more than it doesn’t. But they also know what they don’t have. Besides the obvious (colonies in the Americas & room to swing a cat), they don’t have the guarantee of a decent summer every year.

So, here we are. They, envious of our wide open spaces and [mostly] abundant sunshine. Us, fascinated by their walled kitchen gardens and high streets clothed in annuals. We may admit to a little jealousy – joke about it perhaps – right up until the moment we start feeling the slightest bit insecure.

Then, Americans tend to lash out in righteous fury….

“I don’t need to know the [insert expletive] “proper” [voice dripping with sarcasm] name for this [long pause] blue poppy, to grow it!”

…while the Brits rely on cold condescension.

“But you’re not growing it particularly well, are you?” 

And the resentments build.

Now, no one with an ounce (or a gram) of sense thinks that we shouldn’t garden regionally in America, or for that matter, anywhere else in this world. That we shouldn’t find garden writers who live where we live and garden where we garden in order to help us to gain knowledge and experience relevant to our climate.

Influences from all over the world come together in the wildly beautiful gravel garden at Chanticleer Garden, PA.

But to dream, and perhaps more importantly, to innovate, we should inspire ourselves globally: Paradise gardens of Andalusia, potagers in Normandy, xeriscapes in San Diego, shambas in East Africa. People working with their specific environments to create life-giving works of art that other gardeners can observe, absorb and adapt to their own climates and their own environments. Thus:

  • A nearby grower friend is showcasing & selling Mediterranean look-alike plants (in a cruel and chilly Mid-Atlantic 6b) as Cali-faux-nian. The customers love it. Did she throw out her summer stock of petunias & calibrachoa?
  • Monty Don is inspiring his slavering audience to create restful Moorish gardens within the limitations of urban garden flats and boring, but respectable suburban neighborhoods. Does he thus despise boring, but respectable suburban neighborhoods? Well, probably, but we can all agree upon that.

Therefore, I plead with gardeners, garden educators, and Scott on a chilly spring day, who wish to make a full retreat into the safe space of regional gardening advice delivered by regional gardening experts:

Garden regionally. Inspire yourself globally.

Cutting ourselves off from other influences is short-sighted, possibly pig-headed, and will not lead to innovative, exciting design movements of the future. And for those now racing to the captcha to virtuously proclaim how few damns they give for “exciting design movements of the future” (I’m talking to you mom): it’s the Dutch Wave/New Perennial Movement you can thank for inspiring a new generation of gardeners – and non-gardeners – to create pollinator-friendly landscapes in an increasingly urbanized world.

Tom Stuart-Smith’s innovative design within the walled garden at Broughton Grange encourages gardeners all over the world to move beyond traditional borders and contrast formal architectural elements on a relaxed, perennial canvas.

This isn’t a zero sum game. The rest of the world does some things better than we do, and vice versa. Know what you know about where you garden, and know it well. Take time to know more.  Look for alternative opinions. Read footnotes. Whether British or American, pens deftly wielded as daggers can be a great deal more effective than those used to spoon-feed.

Doing all this doesn’t make you a snob – it makes you smart. And it just might put you at the top of your regional game.

Marianne Willburn is an American garden columnist and author of the book Big Dreams, Small Garden. Read more at www.smalltowngardener.com

Photo credit for Monty Don. All other photos by the author.


[i]Neither the license nor the sentence actually exist, although they should.

[ii] C’mon Timber, seriously. What if Bloomsbury snaps us up?

[iii] Countries By Density Population. (2019-10-01). Retrieved 2019-10-09, from http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-by-density/

21 COMMENTS

  1. Just a quick note to say that (a) I agree with you 100%, and (b) that is an absolutely gorgeous photo of the Delaware Botanic Gardens. I love the way you captured the layers of color and texture.

  2. I live and garden in New Zealand. Yes, I follow Kiwi garden writers (when I can find them), but I also follow British ones and American ones. A writer doesn’t have to be gardening in exactly the same conditions to have useful information – and, as you say, inspiration.

    I have observed, mind you, that the larger a country’s population, the more its writers assume that everyone who reads their words – even on the World Wide Web – is also in that country. Of course, this is less of a problem with garden writers, given the geographical nature of the subject matter, but it is nonetheless irritating to have 5% of the world’s population assuming they’re 95-100% of the Internet’s English-speaking population. As you said, “In their less generous moments, the Brits look upon us as spoilt children who think the world revolves around us.” I am sorry to tell you that it’s not only the Brits’ less generous moments that are thus occupied.

    But perhaps that’s one of the wonderful things about gardening: its climatically affected plant-based nature ensures that there can be no single cultural hegemon – or should that be horticultural hegemon?

    • Good points! I started my garden writing career as a newspaper columnist, and when you’re writing on that regional level (however large or small), you are very aware of your audience. The internet has changed audiences drastically (and exceptionally rapidly!), and one’s words are now there for everyone to see. It is inevitable that a huge percentage of that audience will not be in the same geographic region. I do think it is up to each of us as readers or watchers of garden media to be clear where something is coming from, and to try not to take offense when regional assumptions are made, as the garden writer cannot possibly discuss all of the worldwide growing conditions that might affect a plant, and hearing how well a plant is doing in specific conditions can only help us in deciding whether or not to grow it ourselves. Seeing gardens in New Zealand is on my bucket list (and I would hazard a guess, the bucket lists of many)!

  3. I truly have no thoughts on any British-American conflict, but I am interested in how one completes the final step to a sexting relationship with Monty Don.

  4. One reason we read the British books is because the UK has gardening shows that are interesting and informative. And we in the USA lap them up because there is no such programing here. The few are gonzo landscaping where a crew shows up, rapidly throws up some over the top hardscape, than slams in the same old plants used on every episode. The owners have learned nothing about gardening and are doomed to failure.
    James Crocket is rolling under the tulips.

    • I believe that increased urbanization and the need for parking is really driving this phenomenon, as Brits add a car or more than one car to households, or landlords with houses made into flats give the added value of an off street parking space to renters. And houses made into several flats also need large bins for trash and recycling. The front garden is all they have to work with. Back gardens are usually sacrosanct if you are lucky enough to have one. I’m not sure the increase of the patio can be considered a decline of the garden, as most are created to be planted and to enjoy the outside space. Only an issue if they are not water permeable and create major run-off issues.

  5. Keep your hands off Monty Don! He’s mine! Watching Gardener’s World is my weekly pleasure. Granted I live in hot and humid North Carolina, but it’s still a thrill to watch that show. Wish we had something comparible here in the U.S.

    • You are quite safe Judy – I’d actually far rather read Monty Don than watch him. Though he is a very good presenter, he is a hell of a writer. See my comments to Laura (below) on television programming. I think she picks up on the essence of why it is such a pleasure to watch Gardener’s World.

  6. I’ve learned–and continue to learn–so much from British gardening even though my climate is polar opposite. Until recently, I didn’t know there was contention between US and Brit gardeners. What attracts me to British gardeners is an entirely different vibe than what the vibe I feel in the US. Here, it would seem the vibe is BUY, BUY, BUY. The push on this side of the pond seems to be that one needs this fertilizer, that Proven Winner plant, and to hire a garden designer to be successful. Monty Don, on the other hand, brings gardening down to a basic level, and he doesn’t appear to be selling anything. His show not only highlights famous gardens and ones that have a designer, but also gives place to the gardens of avid gardeners who aren’t so prominent. Wish it were that way in the US.

    • Very well put. And a good topic to explore for another day. The product-selling side of gardening certainly has a presence in the UK too, however in the US it’s almost impossible to find high quality garden programming that isn’t strongly tinted by product sponsors, because many of them are supporting the program or sponsoring the blogger, influencer etc… Gardener’s World is produced by the BBC and in Britain you must pay an annual TV license to have a television set – the cost is around $200. That money goes to the BBC (almost 4 billion last year), and about 65% of it goes to TV programming. They actually have TV detector vans that drive around neighborhoods and ensure compliance (Americans get a kick out of this until they get caught 🙂 ) The closest thing we have to this is the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) where the memberships are voluntary. It takes money to make good quality programming, and that’s where the lines begin to blur and concessions are made between programming and advertising. I used to be annoyed by the TV license (my rebellious American heart), but I’m starting to wonder if it might not be a good idea.

  7. Love this thread. Past ten years i have garden half the year in Mississippi (spring and summer) and half in Lancashire (the trend over there is in dedicated winter gardens, which are superb with winter foliage and perennials. And stumperies). Took me five years to work my way up the local hierarchy to be allowed to assist as hanging basket judge.
    But the chattering hoi polloi will always poise and condescend, without admitting that we are all just fine, in our ways, and severely limited in our imaginations without inspiration from others afar.

  8. Humor, wit, and a dash of arrogance, all traits I love about the British. And it comes through in this informative article. Very much enjoyed it, thank you.

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