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!