Gardening and Reviews

Recently I’ve been thinking about gardening, how and whether gardens should be reviewed and how I feel about the idea of someone reviewing my garden. This has been brought on by, amongst other things, reading The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham and this post on ThinkingGardens, especially the comments by Nigel Colborn and Sue Beesley.

Gardening is a Process

Some of the comment I’ve read seems to treat each garden as if it is the entirely intentional and controlled result of a design process which is simply not my experience of gardening. Most gardens are the result of growth, change and compromise; they don’t usually appear wham! slapped down on the landscape.

For example the two hundred year old Swamp Cypress at the Towers is in a really dumb place from an aesthetic point of view. Thirty yards to the left would be tons better, but that’s where it was planted all those years ago and that’s that. My design ideas have to compromise with my bosses’ design ideas and then there are budget and time management to consider as well as climate restrictions.

Creating a garden, especially where the gardener is not the owner, is shot through with compromise. Not only that but it’s a process, not an end point. We try to take our garden from here where it is, to a visualised future where it will be ‘better’ and what the visitor sees is a place on the road, never the destination because if we ever reach this notional destination, a new one will appear on the horizon. Even when the garden is initially created by a designer, that’s just a starting point from which all those processes of growth, change and compromise begin.

 Taste and Appreciation

So while I agree that garden writing needs less gushing and more honest appraisal I find, as a gardener whose main arena of toil is open to public viewing, that I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of someone coming in and ‘critiquing’ the garden. Partly because I’m aware of how little of it I actually have full control over.

I’m not particularly worried that people won’t ‘get it’; either it will be to their taste or not. Anne Wareham no doubt would decry my neat edges and others might find it twee, others, as I know from the visitors, think it’s beautiful. I do think that if someone comes to the garden and finds the neat edging unbearable then they should feel comfortable politely expressing that opinion and not ‘self-censor’ as I have found myself doing when I felt an otherwise lovely garden had a few bits that let it down.

Something to be guarded against by the self-elected gardening cognoscenti is a patronising attitude to garden visitors. To illustrate I’m going to tell you about me and the Lord of the Rings. I have studied Anglo-Saxon literature and Norse Mythology; Tolkein was a great scholar of these topics which form much of the source material for the books. Consequently I ‘get’ more of the references in the books than perhaps your average reader does. That doesn’t mean the opinion and reaction of those without any knowledge of those topics is invalid.

Similarly when a visitor comes to a garden and enjoys it, or doesn’t, the fact they may or may not know anything about garden design and history doesn’t invalidate their reaction. If a visitor has to have a degree in garden history to enjoy a garden there’s something wrong with the garden, not with the visitors without the degrees.

Or to put it differently, if one creates a garden with a very specific audience in mind (people with garden history degrees) one can hardly complain when someone with a maths degree thinks it’s a pile of rubbish.

Gardens in the Media

It’s possible that the gushy reviews of photo-shopped beautiful gardens one finds in the garden media have a similar effect on me as a gardener that the pictures of weirdly perfect women do on me as a woman. They create a feeling of inadequacy and consequently a defensive reaction against all potential criticism, and maybe in the friendly and supportive atmosphere of gardening social media an eagerness to ‘be nice’ all the time.

Is the solution acidic reviews? I don’t think so. What I think we do need is honest, compassionate and interested reviews and discussions which recognise gardening as a process of crafting many factors into something attractive.

With all this in mind I still can’t help finding the idea of someone reviewing the Tower gardens a bit scary (ok absolutely terrifying if I’m honest) for various reasons but it would be nice if sometime in the future it was more common for thoughtful and frank articles to be written about gardens and gardening, in print media as well as online.

Anne Wareham seems to be making headway on this front on the net with ThinkingGardens and I think her book may have started something interesting by breaking a few taboos. Maybe we in the blogosphere can do our bit too.

So here’s my little contribution. In the future when I write about gardens I will avoid self-censorship (though not politeness) and will attempt to make thoughtful comment beyond ‘it was pretty’ or ‘it was rubbish’ and I’ll continue what I’ve already begun in trying to be a little more frank about my own gardening processes, failures and successes.

Note – I understand Anne Wareham’s got a pretty blunt review of the Laskett in today’s Spectator. I started writing this on Wednesday evening and haven’t read her article yet so it’s not a ‘response’ to that. Though it does seem to be timely which is cool!




22 responses to “Gardening and Reviews

  1. Wish this was a conversation not a small comment! I love your thoughtfulness, clarity and the careful consideration you are giving all this. I think you might like the piece I wrote for the RHS The Garden this month, too – an appreciation of the design role the gardener has.

    I started being interested in garden criticism because I was so desperate for it for myself: but I did have basic control over our garden, within natural limits of money and landscape. It’s quite possible that if you had more control you would want an honest appraisal of what you were doing – one of the amazing things about a garden is that it is a work in progress, always, so it can always be changed, adapted, improved. I’m sad that you don’t have that influence over the place where you are working because it sounds as if you would flourish with that.

    Last thing – I think people easily forget that in a world where reviewing is normal, it is only the best that makes it to review. Any novelist, for example, longs for reviews as an acknowledgement that their work is being taken seriously. And this is partly also because – responding to your point about the audience – while they may love to hear (honest?) comment from the ordinary reader, the opinion of a reviewer who spends much of their life reflecting on quality and what it consists of inevitably carries more weight.


    • Thanks for commenting Anne! I shall have to ferret out my copy of the garden and actually read it properly. You’ve made some interesting points. I’ll have to do some more thinking now!

  2. What a great article. I’ve not read Anne’s book, or the Thinkin Gardens post yet, but a lot of what you say chimes with how I feel. I am not a professional gardener, it is “just” a hobby for me, so much of what you say doesn’t really apply to me. But. Where as I love the supportive nature of garden bloggers, a marked contrast to online behaviour in other spheres, I do sometimes crave more constructive criticism. Sometimes one gets too close to one’s own garden. Combine that with the fact that most of us are still learning, and the fact that there will always be people with more experience of more plants than I will ever have, and it would be lovely to occasionally to have a “I really like… but have you thought of…” comment or two. And congratulations for being willing to hear comments from people of whatever level of expertise. When it is your livelihood you have so much more invested in the garden, and yet, as you say, stronger limitations on control of design, money etc than probably most people realise.

    • Thanks! Constructive criticism can be really hard to hear sometimes. When I first started at the garden I had so little confidence that TBH even constructive criticism was really difficult (though still I probably could have done with more of it at that point!). Fortunately I seem to have moved past that but my awareness of how I’d have felt two years ago about negative comments does make me wary of criticising. But this is a field where you cannot know everything; if you’re an expert on conifers there’ll be bulbs you know nothing about, so learning and mistakes are inevitable.

  3. What an interesting post. I haven’t read Anne Wareham’s book either but it’s on the list. What I really like is the dialogue and suggestions that you get from some other bloggers (not all). Also visitors to the garden who are interested in the process or just want to have a chat about plants. I can’t be bothered with some visitors who are just looking for “Spot the weeds” or are downright rude or even don’t say anything at all…. There are always ways of commenting that are helpful and constructive.

    • ‘Spot the weeds’ is never a useful commentary method I think – we all have weeds it’s the nature of the beast. I love to chat with the visitors to the garden and most of the time they are very positive (sometimes I wonder if they’ve got their glasses on!).

  4. Hello Libby, and thank you for what I think is an important contribution to this developing debate.

    A novelist starts with a blank page, a painter with a blank canvas, a chef with an empty plate. Every word, every mark, every flavour can be placed quite deliberately and can reasonably be assessed by others as the conscious act it is. And if it doesn’t quite work, the next book or meal can soon put it all right, so reviewing serves a vital purpose of encouraging improvement. In gardening, so much of what we work with is pre-determined – the aspect, the soil, the surrounding views, the predilections and actions of previous owners. And the sheer cost and time needed to effect major transformations in large spaces is a huge limitation too, in most cases. Negative comments don’t seem helpful if they relate back to these very fundamental constraints as there is nothing much you can do in response.

    But I’m moving away from treating such constraints as a catch-all excuse for weaknesses. Garden visitors tend toward the forgiving and mostly are so inordinately grateful for sight of a private garden that complacency in garden owners is a real risk. This whole debate is really making me think much harder about how to improve this garden, and for that I’m grateful.

    • It’s interesting – and some of the high feeling flying about over the reviews of The Laskett shows perhaps there’s been silence for so long that it’s very painful for that silence to be broken. It’s certainly made me get my thinking cap on!

  5. Me again! I find criticism acutely painful – excruciating in fact. For all that I have actively asked for it from visitors for the sake of the garden.

    And it usually means parting with something that I’ve made or grown and that too is painful and a loss. (since I almost invariably respond to criticisms I can see are right ).

    It’s hard – it would be good to share the pain and support one another. For some reason we often seem to play a game of pretending we don’t mind.

  6. If gardens are to be treated in the same way as works of art,(something I have reservations about anyway) then the intentions of the designer are irrelevant to garden criticism. The intentional fallacy must apply just as much as it does in literary criticism. The result is what matters. Equally, the fact that a garden is something constantly under development does not count – restaurant or hotel reviewers judge what is available on the day and do not make allowance for the fact that something might be better tomorrow.

    What disturbs me about reviews of individual gardens is that so often it is unclear what purpose is being served. Is it to spare visitors being ripped off? Is it to allow a self-selected bunch of experts to have a sneer? Is it to help us all become better gardeners? I don’t know.

    The best garden critics, to my mind, are those who attack the false, the meretricious, and the commercialism which drives so many garden fashions – in the general rather than the particular. Robinson achieved a revolution in English gardening by doing just this…there’s been no one as good since.

    Libby, in the end of the day it is your vision and your skill that matters – not anyone else’s. Did Gertrude Jekyll sit around in anguish, waiting for the next review? Did Christopher Lloyd?

    • Garden criticism serves most of those ends and more – in the end I hope it will give us better gardens. I think we need them, I certainly long for them.

      I think Gertrude Jeykll would have welcomed it and C Lloyd would have benefited from it (or Great Dixter would have).

      Thinkingardens could do with your thoughts on the intentional fallacy on the current piece about designers and the brief – I do hope you will comment there. I’d be very grateful – it’s excellent stuff.

    • Hmm interesting point about intentional fallacy. I guess intention doesn’t matter to the reader/hotel visitor but I’m sure it must do to the writer/hotelier even though they must also recoghise they might have failed (or not succeeded yet) in their intention. Agh brain hurts. The morning after a hallowe’en party is not the time for deep thoughts!

  7. Hello Anne; I’m happy to comment anywhere! I’ll try to compose some coherent thought. Could you maybe expand on what you mean by ‘better’ gardens?

    • Great – thank you re thinkingardens.

      Re better gardens – you are asking for an essay there, not a comment.

      But I think if you read my pieces on thinkingardens you may get a clearer idea? Though I have never ventured to describe an ideal garden and perhaps one day I could…


  8. I too have broached this subject before on the gushy commenting. I do feel qualified to comment on gardens but choose not to from the polite aspect, as well as the idea that there are many differing views on design. I also agree that it takes a long time to develop true gardens. I have clients I have been working with for over ten years on huge estates, and these gardens are never ‘done’. I do wish bloggers would be more honest in assessment but understand why they are not. I can easily critique a building being an architect (they have much thicker skin), but can not critique the home gardens. It just would not be proper in my opinion. But Libby, I would welcome you to comment in an honest manner. On the media. I think there is less photoshopping going on in garden magazines than you might think. Sure it is done, I do it when I design, but what is done in magazines I think is more like what they do in interior design photo shoots. They bring in plants and ‘set’ them in the garden for added impact. And they light them also. I follow Grumpy Gardener, and when he goes to photo shoots they do some of this. His blog has taken us to some of the shoots for the magazine.

    • I had no idea they placed plants! I find that horribly false – I want to see what the actual garden looks like with the kind of spacing real plants actually need. A real garden can never look like a show garden for this very reason (among others of course!) but it’s disappointing to find that images of real gardens which might be aspirational are equally false… sigh. I assumed in photoshopping garden we were talking about scrubbing out weeds in the grass and suchlike.

  9. I had one photographer here who picked flowers and placed them among other plants to ‘improve’ the picture but on the whole I am surprised at how wonderful pictures turn out and how photographers look at a garden from a completely different angle from my usural perspective. Gardens should be personal and we that can develop our own space are the lucky ones

  10. So interesting, Libby- your post and also all the comments. I just read the piece in the Spectator today, following a link from ThinkingGardens. I know when I read good criticism of artworks it can lead me to see more in the artwork, giving me more to think about and even inspiring a richer emotional response. It would be great if garden criticism could do the same.

    • True. Reading a thorough review can inform on general principles as well as specifics and I’d definitely like to learn more about design principles and garden history both of which I feel horribly ignorant about.

  11. Pingback: Bye bye 2011 | The Sproutling Writes

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