Hostile or Helpful?

, Crrritic

by Marianne Wilburn

Recently, C.L. Fornari challenged garden writers to consider the way in which we portray the act of gardening.  She asked us to discuss whether our tendency to proclaim the virtues (meditation, creativity, exercise) might be greater than our desire to tell the truth about the work (sweat, dirt, hernia); and if the modern concept of “hostile marketing,” that has so lately and successfully been foisted on a belligerent public (ie. ‘Such-and-such is hard. Get over it.’) might attract and retain more gardeners than tiptoeing around the proverbial tulips and losing our audience to scrapbooking the moment things get tough.

Though I do stop short of daring my readers to put on their big-girl panties and get out there, there is the distinct possibility that I belong to the latter camp. While constantly proclaiming a profound affection for a pastime that connects us solidly and tenderly to the miracle of life – child or adult, prince or pauper – I am about as far from a sweet-singing siren as Christopher Lloyd was from Martha Stewart.

Wounds received on the battlefield should be shown, not hidden.

I do not wait for an annual Festivus celebration to loudly and clearly air my grievances about the general state of affairs in my garden, nor do I remain silent over occasional periods of confusion, inadequacy, exhaustion and surety that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing out there after twenty years of doing it.  In fact, if anyone comes away from my column feeling like this whole enterprise is just a walk in the park, then they are no doubt people who, all evidence to the contrary, felt that having children would inconvenience them only a little bit on a Saturday night, and I wash my hands of them.

But is this working?  Well, let me answer by asking if the opposite is working. Every time I consider pulling my punches and glossing over the blood, sweat and tears, I invariably talk to someone who is convinced that they are a failure in the garden because it doesn’t measure up to all the posting, sharing and tweeting going on out there.  Result: they lose, and so does our society.

In the digital age, “armchair gardening” has taken on a whole new dimension. People are inundated with perfect gardening lifestyles in a way that feels far more real than those portrayed in traditional media – for the simple reason that, unlike traditional media, they are constantly, visually connected. Without meaning to be, they are ever-so-slowly separated from the actual process.  They can pin and post and share idea after marvelous idea – feeling part of that world without ever needing to touch it. Thus, when the trowel is finally picked up, the effort required is so overwhelming, and the chasm between ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ so vast, that many give up.  They are never able to reach the point where the benefits of that hard work become obvious.

The digital age has given us some incredible opportunities as gardeners, such as the ability to:

  • Find sources for rare plants and seeds quickly and painlessly, and order within seconds.
  • Identify plants in the field without carting around a 15 pound book.
  • Look up plant reviews while standing in front of a tempting clearance rack.
  • Intensively network with experts in the field without ever needing to get dressed in the morning.

And let’s not even get started on the miracle that is word processing and spreadsheet technology.

But with these great gifts come great pitfalls, such as:

  • A nagging feeling of inadequacy with the bombardment of gorgeous images, video and daily posts from other gardeners and celebrity-seeking gardeners.
  • Enormous online distractions that erase hours from the day.
  • A whole lot of posting, and not so much gardening, particularly if one is a garden blogger oneself, and unconsciously begins to prioritize one’s ‘following’ before the work of gardening.
  • A tendency to detach from the gritty beauty that is the garden for the sterile beauty that is the digital garden – a pitfall for the blogger as much as the reader.

So, how should we approach our audience as garden communicators? Many of us have been gardening for many years, and the above pitfalls are obvious to us, but newer generations are coming of age in this era and finding it hard to separate themselves from their devices – and the real work of gardening means two hands in the dirt for hours at a time.  If their devices get them out into the garden, only to find the world isn’t quite as easy, instant and Photoshopped as they were led to believe…we will lose them.

I say, truth above all.  Truth in your photographs.  Truth in your defeats.  Truth in the amount of work it took you to create something so unique and so breathtaking that you can’t stop staring at it.  Truth.  If that’s ‘hostile marketing’ I think we owe it to our readers to give them the good, the bad and the ugly so they realize just how good ‘good’ can be when they unexpectedly find it.

Bloggers, broadcasters, communicators and readers: what say you?

Marianne Willburn is a garden columnist and freelance writer gardening in Northern Virginia.  You can read more at The Small Town Gardener or follow her work on Facebook.

Posted by

Marianne Willburn

on February 2, 2015 at 7:56 am, in the category Guest Rants.

Comment List

  • Karla 20 / 08 / 2016

    Yes & absolutely. I’m struggling with this all the time in my posts. I try to draw the line between the beginning gardeners who feel that if something dies, it is inevitably their fault (& of course sometimes it is–sometimes it’s our fault too! We’ve all killed a lot of plants!) & the more seasoned gardeners who know how much work gardening can be. But it’s still work that is done with love or else why eould we do it? I think that’s what we need to stress. Yes, it can be hard/hot/sweaty/whatever (I’ve even fractured my foot in my garden –don’t ask!). But if you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it. It’s just that simple.

  • Jim B 04 / 09 / 2016

    I’ve been gardening for over 40 years and early on failures in the garden came as naturally as a spring rain. I’ve learned that in order to “win” in the garden I must fight on several fronts. I have many beds and types of material, wildflower beds, shade garden beds, sunny beds, tropical etc. The size doesn’t matter the fact that you spread your odds for success out is what matters. That way you win the good fight in a couple of areas, document what didn’t work and move forward and count the failure areas as done for “fitness” and to help support the garden retail industry. Experience and good notes will have you winning more battles every year until the failures are the exception. Green Thumbs don’t come cheap.

  • Dee Nash 27 / 09 / 2016

    Well said. I write about the thorns too. Gardening is hard work, but it is worthy.~~Dee

  • phyllis 29 / 10 / 2016

    First of all, you need to invest in a decent pair of gardening gloves!!

  • Marianne 06 / 11 / 2016

    Fabulous, aren’t they? One of those occasions where I went from one job to another (weeding to pruning a rose), without gearing up – and came out the loser. This photo originally illustrated why rose gauntlets aren’t just pretty accessories for the fashionable gardener with a nice manicure.

  • KarenJ 11 / 11 / 2016

    I should have taken a picture of my arms after I tackled multiflora rose and forgot my gauntlets…

  • admin 14 / 11 / 2016

    I’ve always maintained that gardening is, like many hobbies and pursuits, as hard or as easy as YOU want to make. Some people relish the challenges, while others shrink from them. I don’t think the hort industry should gloss over the toil certain looks or plants will require. but it is not all sweat and scraped knuckles either — there are many ways to garden that are very low effort with big reward (like spring-blooming bulbs) — just know your audience and gear the message to them.

  • Marianne 20 / 11 / 2016

    Agreed Kathy – knowing your audience is key!

  • Linnea Borealis 21 / 11 / 2016

    Spring blooming bulbs easy? Oahahahaha!!!! Every year I find myself digging in frost bitten ground, on hands and knees in cold mud and the first snow fall to get those bulbs in before it’s too late, ending in a load of mucky laundry to top it off.

  • Mickie Flores 21 / 11 / 2016

    Five years ago, I purchased five acres of woods and a small cabin on an island in Maine. I have moved a mountain of cardboard from the dump (God bless the dump) and topped the cardboard with rotten rock (gravel so named because it is too rotten to sell off the island), one wheelbarrow at a time. Now I have a network of paths. I have carted seaweed from the beach one Subaru at a time and I have snipped to death about a million balsam and spruce seedlings (do not dismay, ten million remain). Now I have gardens full of pollinators between the multiple paths. Sometimes I go inside, into the cabin, but only when I have to sleep.

  • Mischelle 21 / 11 / 2016

    Wait a minute! You think the Internet has caused a disconnect between fantasy and reality in the garden? Are our memories so short as to forget the inundation of plant porn in books, magazines and garden catalogs that has assaulted us for decades?

  • Marianne 21 / 11 / 2016

    I definitely don’t think that print is blameless in creating feelings of inadequacy (it’s certainly happened to me), but as I said in my rant, the difference between traditional media sources and those of today is that we are constantly connected to the latter – and we are constantly connected even when we don’t mean to be, which, without amazing self-discipline, ultimately takes us out of the garden. So, whereas you were free to buy plant porn or get it at the library, have a few subscriptions to a couple gorgeous magazines and watch a program on TV – we now have the ability to watch it, read it, share it, tweet it and blog about it 24/7. The more of the latter the less we’re in the garden – the less we’re in the garden, the more difficult the work seems to be when we finally get to it and the bigger the difference between real and ideal. And come on – we’re human – it is WAY too easy to lose yourself for hours and hours in this sumptuous, addictive world of endless fascinating links. A book ends.
    Don’t misunderstand me though – the technology is fabulous and the opportunities are amazing, we’ve just got to remember [what is hopefully] the real reason for the writing – getting people outside in a real way and connecting them to the soil. Will the truth serve them better than fiction? Will they respect it and respond to it enough to see the value in persevering out there? I’m hopeful.

  • anne 21 / 11 / 2016

    My advice to garden writers: leave the marketing to marketers. Why are you trying to sell anything? Write about your gardening experience. Write about what you do in the garden; what you like, what pisses you off, why you do it, what you find there. Write about the surprises (good and bad), and the comforts you find in the garden. No need to dumb it down or build it up or put a beautiful mask on it, or engage in “garden machismo”. There’s also no need to judge the “armchair gardeners”. There’s a place for daydreaming and incubation. If reading about gardening gets them out into the garden, they will find out what’s involved soon enough–and either like it, or back away from it (perhaps hiring a gardener to do it for them–job security!). No harm, no foul.

  • Steph 21 / 11 / 2016

    Here. Here! I want authentic writing about the joys and little tragedies. Not everything turns out picture perfect and tell me why and how.

  • Karin Stanford 21 / 11 / 2016

    As someone who moved from the Mid-Atlantic back to the South, it took me a couple of years to stop planting in the spring. Now that the fall is my season, the great upside [aside from a failing memory] is that I am constantly surprised by plants that pop up by “magic.” Really, for me, that is the greatest pleasure.

  • Laura Bell 22 / 11 / 2016

    I think I have long-since dispelled the notion amongst my neighbors (if they ever had it) that gardening is “pretty” … but they do understand that the result usually is. If not, then it’s almost always tasty.

  • Steph 22 / 11 / 2016

    At work (I do eCommerce Marketing) we’ve had discussions on this topic–we’ve decided we want to be encouraging to new gardeners, but not mislead them about the work involved. But writing professionally is different from how I write personally –I just want to write about how much I love to garden on my personal blog.

  • joan 22 / 11 / 2016

    Amen, I say, Amen. I always do my best to tell my readers and customers that the hard work of gardening is a choice for those of us who love it. And I never let go of the opportunity to help people learn from my mistakes…which are legion!

  • joan 22 / 11 / 2016

    Oh and love the gloves…I find the blue nitrile hold up a tad longer than the white vinyl. But nothing beats leather when it comes to thorns.

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