A dirty word in gardening: Criticism

A dirty word in gardening: Criticism

Today, or rather tonight (as I have let my day get away from me), I wanted to pick up on a discussion in the comments section of a post that Anne recently wrote regarding Garden Awards. 

Yes, we do read comments – even when we didn’t write the piece.  They often spur discussions between us, and this one certainly got the wheels turning in my mind, though I cannot say that I came up with an answer. 

I believe it’s fair to say that Anne’s strong support for garden criticism has been considered controversial over the years — and this article about what garden awards are, what they mean, and how we give them out, irked at least one reader.

The charge leveled was that of boosting her own ego by “burst[ing] a goiter of competitive bile” over the gardens of others.  Putting aside the anatomic impossibility of such a feat, the comment jumped out at me in its disagreeable use of the ad hominem to strike down an idea that should be discussed. At length.

great dixter

Great Dixter (UK) at sunset.

This Art’s Off Limits

Most of us regard garden-making as a form of art.  And yet a paradox exists. Whereas the general public is quite happy to be guided by the subtle and not-so-subtle jabs thrown by critics of food, music, and theatre (even as they themselves cook, strum the guitar, and join the local amateur dramatic society), they collectively clutch pearls when arrows aimed at gardens showcasing the twee, the awkward, the cliché, and the just plain jarring, are shot by archers that should know better.

To criticize a garden is to cross a line and risk condemnation by an industry that is obviously nicer than you.  As Anne replied to her interlocutor, “I don’t know…I think I’m just not a very nice person.”

The premise of the pearl-clutchers as far as I can determine seems to be thus: Many people garden. It is a good and a healthy thing.  People who garden work hard – physically and mentally. They put their efforts on display with love and some degree of vulnerability. What gives you or anyone else the right to judge those efforts? What does it matter?

 

Delaware Botanic Gardens

Piet Oudolf’s perennial design at The Delaware Botanic Garden

 

Speaking as someone putting garden tours together of gardens that sometimes I have never seen, I can tell you that it matters a great deal.  It’s why I spend a lot of money trying to see gardens for myself first. When a garden is recommended, I have to think about the person or organization recommending the garden to decide if the recommendation should be trusted and an itinerary altered.  I listen for key words: “Exceptional.” “Remarkable.” “Visionary.” All gardens are not the same by virtue of the love put into them.

In our heart of hearts – we know a great garden the second we walk into it – even if we need the help of someone else more knowledgeable to figure out why our pulse just increased.  Equally we know what it means to walk through a garden that bores us, just as we recognize when we are in the garden of a plant collector that fascinates on a completely different level.

garden tourist

I visit a LOT of gardens.

 

garden tourist

…in various disguises.

 

To know this thing is not to assume full competence in the genre of garden-making, any more than a food critic is necessarily a better cook than the chef they are critiquing. It is simply to know it.  Some gardens are better than others, and if we want to get better in our own garden making, it behooves us to also know why. That’s where criticism comes in.

Why do gardens get a free pass?

I can listen to Jordi Savall play a viol in a concert hall and know I am in the presence of greatness, though I am no musician. I will share his music with friends and attempt to describe it with limping prose. That knowledge is instinctive, but it could benefit from some context.   

If a critic comes along with vast musical experience and explains why my heart broke in the first minute and swelled in the remaining measures, I’m interested.  I’m also interested if she then goes on to remark that the variation wasn’t one of his best. And I want to know why.

But not with gardens apparently.  You might as well kick a puppy as query the line of an awkward path, or remark that the garden is a textural monoculture, or simply a manicured collection of big box cultivars.

 

Paxson Hill Farm, New Hope, PA

 

Why? 

What Anne does — possibly better than any garden writer I have ever met — is display incredible courage in saying what many are thinking, but do not dare utter because it more often than not questions establishment thinking (whatever that happens to be at the moment) and that’s an uncomfortable space to inhabit.

A brave stance doesn’t mean she’s never wrong or goes about it perfectly every time – it simply means she’s willing to ask the question. That is a rare beast in media. There is too much to be sacrificed.

More importantly, she is willing to debate the question with those who wish to abandon inch-deep thinking and engage.  She is hungry for that discussion.  I know, I visited her garden and she didn’t want my superficial ‘lovelies,’ she wanted blood and bone.   I still owe her a long email on that topic.

Marianne and Charles copyright Anne Wareham

When is it okay?

If your mother asks you to visit her garden and give her pointers, perhaps you should pull your punches.  If a garden friend offers you a bed for the night and a stroll round her young March wasteland with a glass of Prosecco in hand, ditto. [She says with an uncomfortable squirm.]

But if an organization offers a garden as an award-winning destination only to disappoint hundreds of strangers, is it unreasonable to expect that all the muttering should be done in the back of the Prius on the way home?  I hazard a guess that most of us, even if we do not wish to admit it, want to honestly and fairly debate the strengths and weaknesses of the gardens we visit. 

In a world of “lovely”, whether we can do so publicly is an issue still unresolved. – MW

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Interested in seeing Anne & Charles’ award-winning garden for yourself and telling her what you think about it?  I still have one, possibly two, spaces left on my May UK Garden Adventure Tour and Chelsea Flower Show! Email me for details.

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