Guest Rant by Marianne Willburn
Somewhere near the bottom of every writer’s artistic license, a clever wordsmith will find the following recommendation:
“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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Half of Europe is embracing naturalistic pollinator and wildlife-friendly designs inspired in part by the prairies and open spaces of the Americas, and led by top designers. Hell, even Hyde Park is letting the grass grow. Do they loathe their own traditions?
- 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.
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.
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/