Hostile or Helpful?


    by Marianne Wilburn

    Recently, C.L. Fornari challenged garden writers to consider the way in which we portray the act of gardening.  She asked us to discuss whether our tendency to proclaim the virtues (meditation, creativity, exercise) might be greater than our desire to tell the truth about the work (sweat, dirt, hernia); and if the modern concept of “hostile marketing,” that has so lately and successfully been foisted on a belligerent public (ie. ‘Such-and-such is hard. Get over it.’) might attract and retain more gardeners than tiptoeing around the proverbial tulips and losing our audience to scrapbooking the moment things get tough.

    Though I do stop short of daring my readers to put on their big-girl panties and get out there, there is the distinct possibility that I belong to the latter camp. While constantly proclaiming a profound affection for a pastime that connects us solidly and tenderly to the miracle of life – child or adult, prince or pauper – I am about as far from a sweet-singing siren as Christopher Lloyd was from Martha Stewart.

    Wounds received on the battlefield should be shown, not hidden.
    Wounds received on the battlefield should be shown, not hidden.

    I do not wait for an annual Festivus celebration to loudly and clearly air my grievances about the general state of affairs in my garden, nor do I remain silent over occasional periods of confusion, inadequacy, exhaustion and surety that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing out there after twenty years of doing it.  In fact, if anyone comes away from my column feeling like this whole enterprise is just a walk in the park, then they are no doubt people who, all evidence to the contrary, felt that having children would inconvenience them only a little bit on a Saturday night, and I wash my hands of them.

    But is this working?  Well, let me answer by asking if the opposite is working. Every time I consider pulling my punches and glossing over the blood, sweat and tears, I invariably talk to someone who is convinced that they are a failure in the garden because it doesn’t measure up to all the posting, sharing and tweeting going on out there.  Result: they lose, and so does our society.

    In the digital age, “armchair gardening” has taken on a whole new dimension. People are inundated with perfect gardening lifestyles in a way that feels far more real than those portrayed in traditional media – for the simple reason that, unlike traditional media, they are constantly, visually connected. Without meaning to be, they are ever-so-slowly separated from the actual process.  They can pin and post and share idea after marvelous idea – feeling part of that world without ever needing to touch it. Thus, when the trowel is finally picked up, the effort required is so overwhelming, and the chasm between ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ so vast, that many give up.  They are never able to reach the point where the benefits of that hard work become obvious.

    willburn rant2

    The digital age has given us some incredible opportunities as gardeners, such as the ability to:

    • Find sources for rare plants and seeds quickly and painlessly, and order within seconds.
    • Identify plants in the field without carting around a 15 pound book.
    • Look up plant reviews while standing in front of a tempting clearance rack.
    • Intensively network with experts in the field without ever needing to get dressed in the morning.

    And let’s not even get started on the miracle that is word processing and spreadsheet technology.

    But with these great gifts come great pitfalls, such as:

    • A nagging feeling of inadequacy with the bombardment of gorgeous images, video and daily posts from other gardeners and celebrity-seeking gardeners.
    • Enormous online distractions that erase hours from the day.
    • A whole lot of posting, and not so much gardening, particularly if one is a garden blogger oneself, and unconsciously begins to prioritize one’s ‘following’ before the work of gardening.
    • A tendency to detach from the gritty beauty that is the garden for the sterile beauty that is the digital garden – a pitfall for the blogger as much as the reader.

    So, how should we approach our audience as garden communicators? Many of us have been gardening for many years, and the above pitfalls are obvious to us, but newer generations are coming of age in this era and finding it hard to separate themselves from their devices – and the real work of gardening means two hands in the dirt for hours at a time.  If their devices get them out into the garden, only to find the world isn’t quite as easy, instant and Photoshopped as they were led to believe…we will lose them.

    I say, truth above all.  Truth in your photographs.  Truth in your defeats.  Truth in the amount of work it took you to create something so unique and so breathtaking that you can’t stop staring at it.  Truth.  If that’s ‘hostile marketing’ I think we owe it to our readers to give them the good, the bad and the ugly so they realize just how good ‘good’ can be when they unexpectedly find it.

    Bloggers, broadcasters, communicators and readers: what say you?

    Marianne Willburn is a garden columnist and freelance writer gardening in Northern Virginia.  You can read more at The Small Town Gardener or follow her work on Facebook.


    1. Yes & absolutely. I’m struggling with this all the time in my posts. I try to draw the line between the beginning gardeners who feel that if something dies, it is inevitably their fault (& of course sometimes it is–sometimes it’s our fault too! We’ve all killed a lot of plants!) & the more seasoned gardeners who know how much work gardening can be. But it’s still work that is done with love or else why eould we do it? I think that’s what we need to stress. Yes, it can be hard/hot/sweaty/whatever (I’ve even fractured my foot in my garden –don’t ask!). But if you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it. It’s just that simple.

    2. I’ve been gardening for over 40 years and early on failures in the garden came as naturally as a spring rain. I’ve learned that in order to “win” in the garden I must fight on several fronts. I have many beds and types of material, wildflower beds, shade garden beds, sunny beds, tropical etc. The size doesn’t matter the fact that you spread your odds for success out is what matters. That way you win the good fight in a couple of areas, document what didn’t work and move forward and count the failure areas as done for “fitness” and to help support the garden retail industry. Experience and good notes will have you winning more battles every year until the failures are the exception. Green Thumbs don’t come cheap.

      • Fabulous, aren’t they? One of those occasions where I went from one job to another (weeding to pruning a rose), without gearing up – and came out the loser. This photo originally illustrated why rose gauntlets aren’t just pretty accessories for the fashionable gardener with a nice manicure.

    3. I’ve always maintained that gardening is, like many hobbies and pursuits, as hard or as easy as YOU want to make. Some people relish the challenges, while others shrink from them. I don’t think the hort industry should gloss over the toil certain looks or plants will require. but it is not all sweat and scraped knuckles either — there are many ways to garden that are very low effort with big reward (like spring-blooming bulbs) — just know your audience and gear the message to them.

    4. Spring blooming bulbs easy? Oahahahaha!!!! Every year I find myself digging in frost bitten ground, on hands and knees in cold mud and the first snow fall to get those bulbs in before it’s too late, ending in a load of mucky laundry to top it off.

      But I’m of the opinion is that nothing worth having, knowing or doing comes easy, be it gardening, music or parenting, so I’m OK with that.

    5. One of the things I like bet about gardening is that I CAN fail. And that’s ok. In so many parts of life (health, money, career) a misstep can have severe consequences.

      The worst thing that happens in the garden? I have to buy new plants and try something different. I always get a second change!

    6. Five years ago, I purchased five acres of woods and a small cabin on an island in Maine. I have moved a mountain of cardboard from the dump (God bless the dump) and topped the cardboard with rotten rock (gravel so named because it is too rotten to sell off the island), one wheelbarrow at a time. Now I have a network of paths. I have carted seaweed from the beach one Subaru at a time and I have snipped to death about a million balsam and spruce seedlings (do not dismay, ten million remain). Now I have gardens full of pollinators between the multiple paths. Sometimes I go inside, into the cabin, but only when I have to sleep.

    7. Wait a minute! You think the Internet has caused a disconnect between fantasy and reality in the garden? Are our memories so short as to forget the inundation of plant porn in books, magazines and garden catalogs that has assaulted us for decades?

      Twenty and thirty years ago I feverishly clipped pages of my dream garden, poring over the latest issue of Martha Stewart Gardening, Country Gardens, Organic Gardens, (insert your favorite here) lusting after the picture-perfect close-up shots – staged to the nth degree. Books with titles such as “The Weekend Gardener”, “Low Maintenance High Impact Garden”, “The Lazy Gardener’s Guide to…”? Believe me – I have been shamed and disappointed my whole adult life by the failure to live up the expectations of gardening in print.

      • I definitely don’t think that print is blameless in creating feelings of inadequacy (it’s certainly happened to me), but as I said in my rant, the difference between traditional media sources and those of today is that we are constantly connected to the latter – and we are constantly connected even when we don’t mean to be, which, without amazing self-discipline, ultimately takes us out of the garden. So, whereas you were free to buy plant porn or get it at the library, have a few subscriptions to a couple gorgeous magazines and watch a program on TV – we now have the ability to watch it, read it, share it, tweet it and blog about it 24/7. The more of the latter the less we’re in the garden – the less we’re in the garden, the more difficult the work seems to be when we finally get to it and the bigger the difference between real and ideal. And come on – we’re human – it is WAY too easy to lose yourself for hours and hours in this sumptuous, addictive world of endless fascinating links. A book ends.
        Don’t misunderstand me though – the technology is fabulous and the opportunities are amazing, we’ve just got to remember [what is hopefully] the real reason for the writing – getting people outside in a real way and connecting them to the soil. Will the truth serve them better than fiction? Will they respect it and respond to it enough to see the value in persevering out there? I’m hopeful.

        • I guess I read different blogs or follow different garden writers – I think new media has made gardening much MORE real, rather than less. Very few “garden communicators” who I consider important are trying to mimic the days of pretty, puffed-up magazine gardens – more of them are documenting the developments in their gardens, good and bad. Wish boards like Pinterest are one thing, but blogs and bloggers are their best when they share the realities of life, rather than try to look perfect so as to make a grab at garden celebrity (which is funny to me, the notion of garden celebrity!) I guess I am wondering what you are looking at that makes this real to you? And who is giving you feedback that makes it seem that they don’t want to do the work, or don’t understand that gardening IS work? It seems like something garden writers like to talk about, but isn’t really a problem with real gardeners. You know, the ones who are doing, not blogging.

    8. My advice to garden writers: leave the marketing to marketers. Why are you trying to sell anything? Write about your gardening experience. Write about what you do in the garden; what you like, what pisses you off, why you do it, what you find there. Write about the surprises (good and bad), and the comforts you find in the garden. No need to dumb it down or build it up or put a beautiful mask on it, or engage in “garden machismo”. There’s also no need to judge the “armchair gardeners”. There’s a place for daydreaming and incubation. If reading about gardening gets them out into the garden, they will find out what’s involved soon enough–and either like it, or back away from it (perhaps hiring a gardener to do it for them–job security!). No harm, no foul.

    9. As someone who moved from the Mid-Atlantic back to the South, it took me a couple of years to stop planting in the spring. Now that the fall is my season, the great upside [aside from a failing memory] is that I am constantly surprised by plants that pop up by “magic.” Really, for me, that is the greatest pleasure.

    10. I ALWAYS tell anyone who asks me about gardening that it is a Labor of Love. The Love is important, but without the Labor you don’t get the garden. Of course without the Love I wouldn’t be willing to do the Labor. I know someday I may not be able to continue the Labor at the level I do now, but even then the Love will continue, if only vicariously when visiting the gardens of others.

    11. I think I have long-since dispelled the notion amongst my neighbors (if they ever had it) that gardening is “pretty” … but they do understand that the result usually is. If not, then it’s almost always tasty.

    12. I always tell folks who walk by and see me in the garden, and make some sort of complimentary noise at me, that gardening is hard work. You can’t have a garden unless you like to garden. But I soften the blow by adding that they won’t know if they like it until they try, and they can dip their toes in the water by starting with just a few containers, either for ornamentals or food. The amount of work is minimal, and they aren’t committed for more than one season. But if someone has the gardener’s nature, he or she will be hooked after a few pots or raised beds.

    13. So a couple of days ago I finally sat down to David Culp’s last book that a friend had given me for Christmas. Within the hour I was on my knees in a patch of hellebores cutting away the old foliage and piling it up on the edge of the driveway. I spent the whole day puttering around the garden – something I didn’t realize I was missing – and all because I was inspired by that book and a little ashamed of myself for forgetting that good garden designers are supposed to be always obsessively puttering!
      There’s a real sort of tactile fetish that comes with gardening that’s not unlike having a fully stocked and well appointed kitchen… piles of mossy clay pots in a steamy greenhouse and the elegant scrape of rake in gravel are, for some of us, as essential as (I really want to say masturbation here, but I won’t) breathing.
      I know that my particular spirit is really drawn to the quiet and sensual work of gardening – even the parts that hurt or are hard – but I don’t know how else to sell that work to other spirits other than offer them a glossy book or beautiful web page and hope that the images there inspire something latent.

      • The Layered Garden made my heart stop a dozen times. I honestly don’t know how better to describe how it made me feel other than how I would feel when I was looking at my 7th-grade crush- full of undefined longing. But it also reminded me that gardening can be as simple as a swath of snowdrops or as complicated as a mixed bed of annuals and perennials timed to the different stages of spring through fall.

    14. I have found that people respond better when they hear or read the truth about gardening — the challenges along with the results. It gives them a sense that they understand what they are getting into. Of course none of us does, ha ha!

      Also, though I love the photos as much as any other gardener, I don’t think it’s just picture-perfect visuals that draw people into gardening; I think it is also the stories. Stories of spectacular mistakes and disasters and unexpected miracles. Remember that we humans are most intrigued by intermittent positive reinforcement.

      Thank you for a great post and discussion.

    15. At work (I do eCommerce Marketing) we’ve had discussions on this topic–we’ve decided we want to be encouraging to new gardeners, but not mislead them about the work involved. But writing professionally is different from how I write personally –I just want to write about how much I love to garden on my personal blog.

      So I 200% agree with CL and Marianne–maybe waxing poetic about gardening isn’t really so important (if we’re marketing gardening), but I think there is still space for reaching out to non-gardeners about the importance and value of gardening to the community at large. So along with those flower porn pictures and BH&G aspirational garden type pieces (because everyone likes a pretty picture), I would like to see more writing reaching out to non-gardeners in a meaningful way. For instance helping the weekend warrior avoid that pesticide for his/her lawn, supporting local food growing efforts, supporting more networking for non-professional gardeners, etc…

      We have this huge platform for reaching so many people, but are we seeing a change in how people use it care about the land? I’m not so sure about that. Well, just maybe not as fast as I would like to see.

    16. Amen, I say, Amen. I always do my best to tell my readers and customers that the hard work of gardening is a choice for those of us who love it. And I never let go of the opportunity to help people learn from my mistakes…which are legion!

    17. I describe my own, or other gardeners’ experiences, and I always say if you don’t the the process and work, don’t do it. I’m looking for a new house and clearly lots of people don’t love it because every house I’ve looked at has a blank slate of a lawn. For myself I have to watch that I don’t let my vanity get in the way – to show the failures. It is different than just talking about them.

    18. The act of Gardening is a sport – you have to train for it, exercise your body, steel your mind,and make sacrifices. I believe it does take discipline – going out when its cold, rainy to pick veggies you aren’t interested in eating, but know you have to. Picking weeds when you’d rather be reading a book. Pulling thistle thorns from office- soft hands. Popping Advil because your back, neck, hips are aching. And for what? A brief walk in the evening before the Mosquitos arrive and you are thinking, dang, I need to divide those Iris again? I’m in it for the process, the pain, the outcome yes, but less so that. I know now I will never, NEVER have that perfect garden, only a few perfect moments in the garden. And today that’s good enough for me. We need to keep it real for our readers.

      • Let’s not get too carried away here. Gardening is indeed a sport but, like baseball, played with a huge range of interest, ability and resources, from a T-ball tyke whiffing her first swing in the schoolyard to a super slugger doping in the dark shadows of Yankee Stadium. I’m not sure that I would point out too many of the hurdles ahead if I want the kid to try out the game,.

        How about that – a baseball metaphor gone off track by getting on track.

    19. Wow! There will always be distractions, and whether it’s me or not, it seems writers are some of the most distraction-prone people around. And the same holds true in the garden, no matter what you tell yourself when you prepare to work in it. “Today, I’ll focus only on weeding near the Hydrangeas and ignore any pruning or digging that calls to me on the way there.”

      As a woman, I have to ask: are we still holding up ultra-skinny models as the norm? Sure, they might have a more fit look to them, but they’re still unrealistic to many of us. And remember when it was “discovered” how bad tanning is and we thought we’d start seeing un-tanned models? That certainly hasn’t happened.

      When human nature evolves to the point where something that interests us, perhaps because of a pretty photo, and seems worth pursuing is not worth the trouble, no amount of slanting, prettying up or showing the ugly side will make any difference.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here