Are show gardens making us bad gardeners?

, Shut Up And Dig

Here are some sensible plantings at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, a lovely site we happened upon on the way to Connecticut. It’s the less famous sites that tend to have great practices.

Here’s an interesting debate. Late in December, a post published on the American Society of Landscape Architects website by David Hopman opened an attack on unsustainable, resource/labor-intensive approaches to planting design and plant palettes, particularly in big public gardens. I agree with a lot of the post—after all, Hopman is arguing for environmentally sound practice and plant choices that are guided by their suitability to the conditions in a certain area. These are principles we should all be following, and I have lauded them many times, most recently in a post about my friend Dave Majewski’s design for a parking lot that saves trees, conserves water, and supports wildlife.

More from the Berkshire site

The problem is that these laudable principles are contained within a straw man-riddled essay that keeps harping against the practice of “Fine Gardening.” It’s an unfortunate phrase to choose. I doubt that there is universal consensus among gardeners about what, exactly, “fine gardening” means. (And if I were the editor of Fine Gardening mag, I wouldn’t be thrilled with this.) What he really means is “show gardens,” and most of the examples he criticizes are from this group.

The Highline doesn’t set too shabby an example.

As the essay notes, big public gardens, mainly visited by tourists, often regularly change out their most prominent beds, particularly when it comes to bulbs and annuals. For example, Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island plants over 300,000 non-native bulbs for spring display, basically treating them as annuals, and the Dallas Arboretum also does a huge bulb display—but, because of its inhospitable conditions, it has to add insult to injury by shipping in enough soil amendments as to almost completely replace its native soil. And so on.

The Edith Wharton homestead has a lovely garden with a mix of summer bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and annuals. It’s managed on a shoestring.

This goes on at botanical destinations throughout the world, though many of them also devote large areas to native plantings and other kinder, gentler examples. It takes a lot of man hours and other resources to maintain any of these places. I wouldn’t work at one, just as—as much as I love to cook—I’d never take a job in a restaurant. However, I do love visiting many public gardens of all types. I take away something different from each one. Rarely do I imagine I could replicate anything from these places in my small urban space.

When our friend Susan Cohan shared this on Facebook (asking us to respond—thanks!), the FB commenters really hated on Buchart (never been), and a few suggested, as I do, that show gardens have their value and should not be expected to be models for home gardeners to follow. Do they need “Don’t try this at home!” signs? I don’t think so; I credit my fellow gardeners with more sense than that.

For my part, I love a good bulb display. These will be composted when they’re done and replaced with big tropicals. Yay! None of my friends would dream of doing this.

Finally, every picture on the post showed mass plantings of bulbs. Well, that’s how bulbs look best—planted in large quantities—though preferably in drifts, with perennials ready to take their place. I plant hybrid tulips in largish quantities as well, and I do treat them as annuals. That is the only way in my very limited and shady space, but I can assure you that my fellow gardeners in Buffalo are appalled at my composting almost all my tulip bulbs and always remonstrate with me about it. As for changing out annuals, I am routinely asked during Garden Walk if I try to “winter over” my $4.95 pots of Persian Shield and coleus. Don’t worry about gardeners. Gardeners are frugal. Gardeners have common sense. The gardeners I know might enjoy reading this essay, but there’s nothing in it they haven’t already absorbed through early experience and budgetary constraints.

*I do urge our commenters to at least skim through the essay before responding. Sorry for this long post. It’s not like me and it won’t happen again!

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on January 7, 2016 at 8:00 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes.

Comment List

  • Rachelle 10 / 09 / 2015

    Show gardens may not make us bad gardeners, as any experienced gardener understands the realities of gardening, be it the constraints of time, money, or resources. I do think show gardeners and even the photogenic portrayals of the High Line, however, raise the bar for our expectations. Don’t we all wish we had the back corner “closed to the public” area to harbor plants ready to plop into a hole left in a border as things come in and go out of bloom, or the green house to raise our own bedding plants or winter over cuttings and tropicals. The resources to splash color across the most public of our spaces would also be nice, too– even if we have removed our lawns and produce our own fruit and veggies.

  • skr 19 / 10 / 2016

    I think the idea that display gardens should be viewed as art museums and not a model for landscapes is asinine. At least it acknowledges that landscape design is an art form, but if someone suggested that you shouldn’t hang art on your walls at home like in an art museum people would simply laugh at them. Fine art has an environmental cost too. Bronze is a finite resource. Cadmium in paint is toxic. Oil paint requires solvents that affect the environment. Stop hanging paintings in your and placing sculpture in your gardens all you horrible earth destroying people. How can you possibly be so short sighted. Don’t you know we will one day run out of marble?

  • anne 07 / 11 / 2016

    We put our most treasured art pieces in museums that are open to the public around the world. I doubt most of us even begin to think we could or would duplicate that talent, but many of us are probably inspired to try our hand at drawing, painting, etc., and some of us are inspired to greatness. However you define “fine art” or “fine gardening”, I think it’s great to have these places to wander through, learn from, and dream in.

  • Julie 20 / 11 / 2016

    I almost always learn something every time I visit a garden, including show gardens. That doesn’t mean I want to copy that garden, but I may change a plant or two.

  • Laura Munoz 21 / 11 / 2016

    I don’t think “show” gardens necessarily make us bad gardeners. From what I’ve seen, most gardeners or wanna-be gardeners want a showy garden no matter the influence.

  • Debra 21 / 11 / 2016

    These types of gardens unfortunately reflect the larger culture which just doesn’t appreciate the true value of our soil, water and wildlife resources. Each fall the Dallas Arboretum has an absolutely sickening display of pumpkins. Last year they used 65 000; this year > 75 000. Every year it just keeps biggering even though drought still plagues some areas of the state. When I think about all the soil, transportation, herbicide, pesticide and water resources that go into this display I am appalled. As wasteful as it is to grow tulips as annuals just think about what goes into a display using one of the thirstiest crops we have. An enormous crop that gets tossed away. They even charge admission making it a pleasure only the wealthy can enjoy. When the majority of people recognize this kind of thing as wasteful I will know we are better gardeners.

  • Susan Cohan 21 / 11 / 2016

    Thank you Elizabeth for the thoughtful and measured post. Like actual show gardens, many public gardens-botanical and otherwise, compete for attention, visitor dollars and outside funding. They want to keep people coming back and in essence create theatrical seasonal set pieces as a way to draw in audiences. Are these meant to be taken literally by home gardeners? I don’t think so. They are meant as entertainment and don’t necessarily detract from the mor ‘serious’ aspects of public gardens. As you say…we know our limitations, but we also know what we aspire to as well as how (perhaps more than most) entertaining any garden can be whether it is over the top or down to earth.

  • Eliz 21 / 11 / 2016

    You’re welcome, Susan! It’s an interesting topic, and after 11 years of garden blogging, I can always use one of those!

  • admin 21 / 11 / 2016

    I like to think that while people are initially turned on to COLOR and lots of it, as they garden they’re also increasingly turned onto foliage, and shorter-blooming perennials and shrubs and ways to use fewer resources, etc.
    Great topic.

  • admin 22 / 11 / 2016

    What does everyone have a pair of? Tulips.

  • Rosanne 22 / 11 / 2016

    Very cute

Leave a Reply