Is Naming Your Garden Pretentious?

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Ever ready to object when I hear the word ‘pretentious’ used to condemn something that might warrant a deeper conversation and a bottle of wine, I have recently found myself defending the practice of naming one’s garden to [apparently] less pretentious gardening friends; and I thought that it might be worth throwing out the topic to a larger audience.

I originally brought up the issue after watching a video posted by horticulturist and fellow tropical enthusiast Irvin Etienne, who with an iPhone and a fantastic sense of humor, walked Facebook Friends around his new garden ‘Dicamba’ on the first anniversary of buying the house and land in rural Indiana.

dicamba sign

The ears of horticulturists and activists no doubt pricked up with that last sentence.  

Rightly so. Irvin’s choice of names for his new garden is a playful jab at the fact that he is surrounded on three sides by crop fields, and his precious collection of plants is extremely vulnerable to the chemical reactions sloshing around on the backs of tractors throughout the growing season.

Dicamba, the herbicide, is the one he fears the most.

Whether he has created an effective talisman against evil, or just a clever joke to interest and amuse passers-by and visitors, Irvin felt the need for a quick caveat before his audience could begin drooling over his collection of gorgeous tropical foliage. The name was a lovely little joke about life, he told us, and the act of naming it wasn’t intended to be arrogant or snobby in any way.

His sentiment isn’t an unusual one for American gardeners.  In fact, it’s probably the norm.  Even if we feel the desire to name our properties, the instinct is immediately quashed by…. by what, exactly?  Solid middle-class values? Fear of standing out? Fear of being thought to want to stick out? Fear of being tacky? An inflexible US Postal Service?

I asked Irvin for his thoughts about it – “We Americans are a messed up lot.” he said, “Maybe it goes all the way back to those original colonists escaping England and all its stuff?”

There may be something to that. And yet, we still accept without question that Martha Stewart gardens at Skylands, David Culp at Brandywine Cottage, and Dan Hinkley at Windcliff though we cannot give ourselves, or others, the same pass.

We should.  Here’s why.

Naming your garden to create a sense of place

As a little girl, I used to study the envelopes of letters that came from all over the world for my father, who had spent his previous life in the UK, East Africa and Canada.  UK and African addresses were notorious in those days for being short and to the point, but one thing that most of them had in common was a named property – Quail Cottage, Pentwyn, The Old Lodge…one of them was even named ‘Nanyuki,’ after a beloved town in Kenya where the owners had spent many happy years.

To my young eyes, there was a romance to those names that went beyond the strict utilitarianism of a numbered house and garden.  The name might reflect the history of a property – such as The Old Lodge – or pick out a long-treasured feature – such as Wisteria Cottage. It made them special, and often [literally] connected the house to the landscape around it – a beautiful aspect of British design that we tend to shy away from in America.

These are not unique names. There are perhaps thousands of Old Lodges and Wisteria Cottages in the UK. But to their owners, they are unique. They are more than four walls, a roof, and a number plate. Properties become firmly rooted into their villages or neighborhoods by their names.  And in time, they become rooted into the hearts of their inhabitants.

Does this mean that you cannot become attached to a 123 Taylor Street?  Of course not. But naming a home and garden, or renting or buying one that is already named, forms a deeper level of connection – a stronger sense of place and an emotional investment in the story of that place.

jardin plume named garden

A name bestows life to a home and garden in a way that numbers cannot.

Naming your garden to celebrate ownership

Home ownership is an accomplishment. A primal nesting instinct made manifest. Many of us work for many years to buy that first home and garden, and achieving that goal should be a cause for celebration. Naming one’s property feels like a natural extension of that celebration.

It is no doubt easier to inherit a name and embrace it, than to come up with a name on your own.  Our property, Oldmeadow, made it easy on us. The open stream valley had once been used as a pasture and orchard before the Second World War, and for years was referred to as “The Old Meadow” – though the current house wasn’t built until 1975.  Our only contribution was to lose the definitive article and the extra space.

Oldmeadow named garden

Using that name, and letting the expanding garden be directed and guided by that name, seems incredibly natural – and connects us to the previous owners who built the house and worked the property for over 40 years. Someday, new owners will have a choice to go back to the numbers, or embrace that history just as we have – celebrating their part in the story of this place.

Maybe I’ll spring for a sign by then.

Naming Your Garden for a bit of fun

How many ‘Achin’ Acres’ have you spotted over the years on long country drives?  Irvin is not alone in his desire to amuse himself and his visitors.

This is probably how most American Gardens get named, as it appeals to both our irreverence as a culture, and our desire perhaps to get away with naming our property without being tarred with the sin of pretentiousness.  You can hardly be vilified for making a joke. (Actually, it’s 2020. Never mind.) The British are just as cheeky – maybe even more so – as a quick Google search for “Funny House Names” will attest.

If this is your motivation – have at it!  Swamp View. Windy Bottom. Last Hope House.  (Costa Pakit has got to be my all time favorite.) Enjoy yourself knowing that you are not only having a giggle, you are connecting to your property in the very same way that the owners of Wisteria Cottage are. You’re just having more fun.

Naming your garden because you’re delusional

…because you seriously think the next owners won’t tear it all out and plant a lawn if you name it.

We all share this fear. How many gardens have I seen over the years dismantled by new ownership? If naming our property gives us hope for some level of garden legacy, is it a bad thing?

And for you judgmental gardeners out there…

I know many people who have no issues with living in brand-new subdivisions with grand names such as “Foxhill Manor” or “Deer Mountain Estates” – subdivisions that have flattened the hills, driven out the wildlife and razed the original manor house to the ground.

Their houses are politely numbered, and if their neighbor was to break with tradition and erect a small sign naming their actual home and garden, all hell would break lose with the Clipboard Police.  Yet they are in effect living in a named estate, and they almost always refer to their home’s subdivision, rather than their home’s street address.

Human beings are a nit-picky, critical bunch.  Hell, that’s what Garden Rant is all about.  But if you laud and applaud P.Allen’s Moss Mountain Farm, love to visit Lotusland, and can’t wait for another weekly missive from Monty’s Longmeadow; yet snidely comment when your neighbor decides to christen their beloved home and garden, you may just be a bit of a snob yourself.

great dixter named garden

Go on…be brave. Name your garden.

If I’ve changed your mind, but you’re stumped for ideas, try this fun UK site which will randomly generate several choices based on your answers to some fairly obvious questions.  My answers yielded some less-appealing choices such as Tulip Poplarlands and Possum’s Barn, but Oldmeadow has now been officially sanctioned.

However, you might want to find the connection with your property before you find the name.  “A name does not make it feel more permanent.” Irvin told me. “Quite frankly I think the house made it feel more permanent — or a combination of house and location. My previous house felt temporary even after 22 years. I never fully moved in mentally. New house I was there the first day.”

And that instant connection made a name feel right – even if, in the end, it’s an ironic one.

So, a word of caution – just as you take your time evaluating your new garden for sun, shade, drainage, deer and soil issues, take your time discovering the right name if you haven’t inherited one.  Check the county records for your property. Talk to your neighbors.  Chances are, the home has history you can draw upon for inspiration. Madame Ganna Walska’s famous garden in Montecito, CA was Tanglewood, Cuesta Linda, and Tibetland, before it became Lotusland in 1945.

Have you named your home and garden?  If so, I’d love to hear what it is. Please take a moment in the comments below to tell us what inspired you — or, why you’d never EVER be caught dead doing something so terribly, terribly pretentious. – MW

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Marianne Willburn

Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]

24 COMMENTS

  1. I didn’t name my two previous gardens, but for some reason, it seemed right for this one. I mulled it for about 18 months, thinking I’d tie in the family name somehow, but none of them rang true. Then one day as I was digging a hole to plant something I had bought on impulse because i want it in my eventual garden and did not want to wait. And the name came to me: Impatient Acres. Never mind that in my entire life I have not owned an acre in total, much less currently. It was part of my impatience as much as the blueberries and pear tree planted impatiently in the middle of a dead Bermuda grass ‘lawn’, and the trenches dug in the backyard trying to sort out irrigation AFTER putting in the veggie garden.

  2. I live in the area of my community known as Shorewood. There’s a fancy planned community here to which I do not belong. My property is at the top of a ridge looking down on that fancy neighborhood. I call it ‘Shorewood on the Bluff’ or SoB for short.

    • I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on naming a garden. I understand why some people may feel it is pretentious to name a garden but for larger properties, particularly in the country, it is common. Our garden/property has a name, Glen Villa, which my husband and I settled on almost immediately after we moved in. There was so much history behind the name: my father-in-law farmed the land as Glen Villa Brook Farm; a resort hotel called Glen Villa Inn stood on the property in the early 1900s. So our choice wasn’t really a choice at all, simply a recognition of what came before.

      A name reinforces the sense of place. It also can say something about the people who chose it… a funny name for some, a name that celebrates the characteristics of the land for others. Names can show love, commitment, desire or (in the case of too many housing estates) a determination to ignore reality.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this and giving us permission to name our home and garden. We’ve been toying with the idea but haven’t made it official for all the reasons you named. We’ve been informally calling the place Nappahammock Gardens to incorporate the name of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, which I grew up near and have so many fond memories of but left behind to move to our current home in another state, and the hammocks we’ve installed in our new garden where we hope we can one day nap (if we can ever find the time). Some may think it is pretentious. Some may think it’s silly. But it suits us just fine! 🙂

  4. Speaking for myself, I would never, ever name my house/garden. And yup, it does seem pretentious to me. But it is — so far — a free country, and there are bigger things to worry about. So name away, to all those so inclined.

  5. I grew up on Glenstrae Farm, named by my father in recognition of his Scottish ancestry. He said it means “stream in the glen”, which the farm did have. As a child, I thought it was a romantic notion from a very sensible, and hardworking man. A thrifty person, who could make or fix anything, he uncharacteristically hired a sign maker to paint a small and lovely sign to swing from a post for the end of the driveway. The name and the sign were important to me because I knew they represented his love of place. It made me feel more connected, too.
    I have not thought to name my house or garden, but am charmed by those who do, because I know it comes from the love of a home and a place on Earth.

  6. Yeah, it’s probably pretentious! But, so what? If you want to name your garden, it’s your garden! The only houses with names I have ever seen were in a gated country club of predominately retired residents (including my late in-laws). The names were sugary sweet and oh, so cutesy! “Tooth Acres” belonged to a former dentist. Things like that! I think it might make a difference, I’m in the US. I read British novels all the time and homes etc. always are named. Nice ones though, not puns.

  7. I think our garden name is pretty pretentious, not by choice, it was sort of deemed.
    As I recall, or would like to it was a wine fueled late June eve years ago. Donna blurted out
    My garden rocks!
    I thought, is that domain taken? No, we snagged it never used it but it morphed into a Facebook page.

    https://m.facebook.com/funinthegarden/

  8. My husband is English, and yes…. they all name their homes and properties there. The Brits, actually, name everything (‘The Old Bill’ for a police station, ‘The Old Bailey’ for the courthouse, ‘Boaty McBoatface’ for a research vessel). Our property features a creek – not a real creek, a tributary to a real creek. So we named the creek ‘Smug Creek’, poking fun at our own pretentiousness. The property became, therefore, Smug Creek Gardens.

  9. I loved your essay about naming our gardens. Pretentious? I think not. I believe people that think it pretentious are the ones that are being pretentious. Do they name their dogs and cats? Their children? I for one love my garden at least as much as my dog. I put a lot of effort and love into the garden. Why wouldn’t I name it? Did you ever name a doll or teddy bear when you were younger? A garden gives more emotional support than an inanimate object so it deserves a name. Even God’s garden had a name. Geez… Of course you are asking someone that moved from The Green Isle to Greenbow. Green seems to be a theme in me naming my gardens. My husband suggested Weedy Wallow for our current garden which might have been more appropriate.

  10. Around here in rural Ceredigion, Wales, UK. Houses have descriptive naming, so I named our house and garden in Welsh Gardd cudd, ~ garden hidden = hidden garden. I considered naming it “the quiet hollow” but that translated to Pant y tawel.

  11. Froghaven named itself when we found our new home provided nightly frog concerts. We added two small ponds and reinforced the premise of our garden’s name. The name has brought many other things together. The overall FROG theme of the garden, the Froghaven News family newsletter, and the personal business cards for my husband and myself. Great fun to have a named garden.

  12. With a lonely Commercial Horticulture Landscape Management Certificate from the NY Botsnical Garden in the Caribbean
    since 2002, setting trends with 80 species and 45 botanical species, it was necessary.

    There id nothing to compare it in the urban or rural context biocentrically speaking

  13. My garden and house have no name, and at this point I’m afraid I would have to dub my garden “The Jungle” and blast Guns ‘N’ Roses at visitors. My tomato vines have gone feral.

  14. We live in an historic house, so it “came with a name”. But I understand the impulse of naming a garden in the hope/belief that it will therefore remain in the future. I refer to small individual areas around the property by monikers that may seem a bit grand considering their limited size – the Lily Garden, the Butterfly Garden, the Peony Garden. I think I’m hoping for their permanence in bestowing these simple names. There was nothing but the peonies and a bed of daylilies when we got here, I don’t want to think of the house reverting to that dismal state in the future!

  15. When we moved to our acreage we set up an organic market garden. We needed a name to put on the application at our local farmer’s market where we were to sell our produce. After a gorgeous hike into the mountains we came across a beautiful meadow of Indian Paintbrush. The name was born: Paintbrush Farm. i even planted some beautiful yellow ones to make the name authentic.

  16. Both my grandmother’s large gardens were named – Bonnie Brae and Heaven Scent. Both my grandmothers were avid gardeners. The names were a testament to the importance of their gardens to them and to who they were in life. The suburban tract home I grew up in, while every bit a plant lover’s garden compared to prevailing suburban standards was not named.
    To have a name, a garden should be large, the family land, a historic estate or public garden. One is lucky to have a house and land that calls for a name. No matter, the numbers 1225 will always hold a deep resonance of place for my family.
    It is rare to encounter an American garden with a name. To hear one signals this place is important and has meaning for the person living here. That gets respect first. Depending on the name, pretentious could come into play.
    I got lucky in life to be raised by gardeners who bought more land and now own two and a half acres of the next iteration of family land. I am here for the duration. My tiny house is named Hale Mana. The garden is named Ku’ulei ‘Aina, Hawaiian for My Beloved Land. It is a delusional name big enough to encompass generations of gardening, my own life and so much more. I hope it shows some intended respect to the people who grew apples and raised cattle on this land before the world wars. A hearth and chimney remain standing from that time.
    It is not delusional in an expectation that the garden will last after the gardener is gone. I live next door to Bonnie Brae. That name was relocated to a new garden. I have taken to calling the still family owned Heaven Scent, Grey Gardens. Bits of it have fallen away to development and the true gardener has long since stopped weeding.
    Barring some kind of endowment, the garden Ku’ulei ‘Aina will also fade away when the gardener is gone. The forest will make it so. I have a chimney to testify to that. So I did the smart thing for my delusion. I laid in some substance for the archeologists to find.

  17. Not pretentious at all. Naming something is merely an expression of affection. Those of us who love our homes and gardens give them a special designation beyond a boring street number.

  18. One of my sisters has a property full of fruits and veggies and a bazillion critters of varying sizes and species. She calls it “Fifty Shades of Hay”.

  19. My previous garden was located in Perrysburg, Ohio and I was delusional enough to think it was my last garden – I put my heart and soul into plant choices, reducing lawn…etc. I named it “The Shire”, it was beautiful, I’m 5 foot tall, perfect name.

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