Sunday, January 28, 2007

The garden critique

There is a fascinating post over at Garden Rant about an Egyptian Islamic scholar, Sayyid Qutb, who lived in the small town of Greeley, Colorado for six months in 1949, observed American life first-hand, hated what he saw, and went on to become one of the major inspirations for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. An article in 5280 magazine (Denver's city mag) details Qutb's reactions to the lifestyles of the Greeleyites, including their grim dedication to rigorously-manicured lawns and flower plots. This was referred to in the post as "bad gardening."

Many of the comments that followed defended the citizens of Greeley, opining that if neat lawns and hedges are what an individual gardener wants, who's to say it's bad? Indeed, any criticism of almost any garden practice (including mine of painting garden furniture to match flowers) often gets this reaction. "If it makes you happy, that's all that matters," is the general view of many in the gardening blogging world.

It's a view that—up to a point—I have no problem with; indeed, anyone is free to do almost anything they want in their garden. And I'm equally free to express my opinion of it. I'm a critic (though professionally more an art critic than a garden critic). If I see a front yard characterized by hedges painfully shaped into little boxes and regimented annuals, or a back garden so filled with windmills, gazing balls, and cowboy silhouettes that you can't see the flowers, I'm not thinking, "How nice. I'm sure that makes them happy." There is good and bad gardening, and I think blogs like this are as good a place to debate those categories as any, particularly since we don't see much real garden criticism in the maintream press.

Famous gardens like the one shown above (Hestercombe, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll) took planning, discipline, and hard work. Though the plantings often look exuberantly full, even wild (this is what I love about English gardens), they're the result of vigorous upkeep and adherence to the original design. You really can't do anything you want. There are standards; there is good and there is bad.

Of course, I can't emulate a Jekyll or Sackville-West garden. But what I do appreciate about these gardens is that the plants are framed and enhanced by the design and the plants are what you look at. Too often in American gardens, plants are getting engulfed in a wave of objects and "garden room" elements. My goal this year is to get rid of as much junk as I can and see how I can best bring the plants back to the fore.


Pam/Digging said...

Hi, Elizabeth. I enjoyed this post. You are right that everything is subject to criticism, even gardening styles. And as you found out with the painted-furniture discussion, even critics are subject to criticism. ;-)

Like you (and everyone, I suspect), I mentally evaluate gardens that I see. While rules are made to be broken and taste is subjective, I think most of us would agree on whether a garden works or not, even if we don't know why.

Still, I don't fully agree with your less-is-more aesthetic. You said that you notice the plants first in the English garden pictured here. However, I see the wall and the trio of pots first. Their structure draws my eye in and frames the garden (as you point out), and THEN I see the plants. What that says to me is that hardscape and decor matter immensely, and for good or bad they totally alter the way one views the plants around them.

I feel the critics' barbs training on me as I write this . . . but isn't it fun talking about gardens like this, and aren't blogs a great place to do it?

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) said...

I had a good laugh at the ranters. They're the first to criticize boring lawns, foundation shrubbery, and sad annuals from the big box store but prickle when a foreigner makes the same complaint. Were the citizens of Greeley gardeners? or just suburbanites in cookie-cutter houses who dutifully started up the lawnmowers on Saturday morning?

Garden design, like all design, can be good or bad. I'm the first to admit that I have no design sense at all. Whether it's clothes or house or garden, I'm a collector not a designer. I'm envious of good design; I admire it. I'll even grant that whatever makes a gardener happy is fine by me. My neighbor is free to fill his front yard with ghastly cement cherubs but he oughtn't expect me to admire them.

GirlGoneGardening said...


I gotta say, lawns SUCK! lollypop bushes SUCK! I've hated them since the day I was born and have raged against them since I learned to crawl. When I am done with this new garden, there will be no lawn left :) as is always the case with every garden I have ever had the pleasure of creating.

I have arguements with strangers sometimes about who dumb and ordinary lawns are :) If ya wanna get me fired up about anything, mention lawns.

susan harris said...

Excellent - we needed an art critic to remind us that there are qualitative differences in the gardening world and we needn't pretend otherwise.

Jenn said...

So the message is... add junk sparingly?

I don't see many gardeners that overtax my benevolence on ornamentation... a few, but not many.

I reserve the truly acid comments for what Mark and I call 'Santa Barfed' holiday decorating. One of these days, I put up a post with a choice selection of these wonders of lapsed taste.

lisa said...

Interesting post...I say "If it feels good, do it!" with regard to gardening and life in general. I'm not wow-ed by a lawn, until I want to lie down to watch clouds or play croquet! And green "meatball" shrubs make me cringe...until they are trimmed up as topiaries. By the same token, many gardeners might look at my gardens as chaos and disarray, with a fair measure of "junk" and kitschy ornaments tossed in...but I don't care! It makes me happy, and that's what it's all about!

Zoe said...

hey Elizabeth! I agree that evaluative claims about gardening can and should be made--landscape architect or not, we can make judgements as the the character of the design of a garden.

Since this seems to be a ranting session, can I mention one thing that truly makes me cringe everytime I see it? Dyed-red mulch!! or Dyed-green spanish moss! Doesn't this defeat the purpose of natural beauty? oh and another suburban thing:
Rocks painted white. why ?? ???
why paint your rocks white? its going to flake off and look like shit in about 6 months; save yourself the troule!
I remember making this critique as a child in the burbs.

alright ill check in later~

Layanee said...

Elizabeth: Always a good thought provoking post over here! There are certainly design principles which make a landscape 'work' but there is a difference, I think, between a landscape, a garden, and a yard. The people who tend their lawns to the point of perfection have more of a yard and those who hire designers often don't garden although I do know that there are exceptions especially among the readers here! I know that gardening is supposed to rank up in the top ten hobbies but I have to say that most of the people I know would rather not get dirty except all the garden blogging friends out there! As far as garden decor is concerned, they usually reflect the personality of the gardener and while I would never have a big metal cow in the yard, it can make me have a good chuckle and what is better than that?

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