Are show gardens making us bad gardeners?

Are show gardens making us bad gardeners?

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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.

15 Comments
    • Rachelle
    • 23rd October 2016

    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.

    • Vincent Vizachero
    • 4th November 2016

    I think if you are framing the question as “do show gardens improve the quality of the average American garden”, I think the only honest answer is “no”.

    • Julie
    • 8th November 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.

    • Debra
    • 13th November 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
    • 14th November 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
    • 14th November 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
    • 15th November 2016

    What does everyone have a pair of? Tulips.

    • Rosanne
    • 15th November 2016

    Very cute

    • Gardeners Melbourne
    • 15th November 2016

    bulbs planting is really giving a good views. views matters so much. arranging the plants in a perfect looks motive of gardening. govt spending funds on them but managing is must. Like your last image you have posted looks pretty

    • Rhea
    • 16th November 2016

    Just as Barbie shouldn’t be considered a model for young girls, or Heidi Klum a model for women, we all have to have boundaries. We should be able to appreciate beauty wherever it is and not take it as a commentary for what we are or are not, or should be doing. If show gardens make us bad gardeners, then it means we don’t know how to set boundaries or limits for ourselves that are realistic. And that is a commentary on us, not otherwise.

    • JodiepCook
    • 16th November 2016

    Such a great article…and definitely not too long, Elizabeth!

    • Karl Miller
    • 16th November 2016

    Pictures of display gardens remind me of photo shoots in architecture magazines. I wonder who lives in those places? Where are the stacks of gardening magazines and books? The dirty dishes in the sink. Where is the TV and the pile of shoes and stocks?

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 16th November 2016

    A really interesting, thought-provoking post. Ideally, famous showplace gardens can also be a source of inspiration about better ways to garden. I’m thinking of the new native plant garden at the New York Botanical Garden — it was designed as a demonstration of how gardeners can achieve stunning aesthetic effects through the use of indigenous plants. I’ll never garden on such a grand scale, but I found lots there to emulate in my own modest landscape.

    • Pat
    • 17th November 2016

    I think that most people touring a garden realize that a “show” garden is just that: a show. I don’t visit expecting to be able to copy the show in my suburban half acre. I visit to see unfamiliar plants, interesting uses of color/texture, and to enjoy the aesthetic experience. Masses of tulips take my breath away, but I also know that large drifts of tulips can’t be expected to return in the same splendor next year. And I know that when the show’s over, tulips look pretty sad.
    Like a great movie, a show garden requires a willing suspension of disbelief. I see it in front of me, but it isn’t part of my immediate world. But just because I know it isn’t “real” doesn’t me that I can’t enjoy it for what it is.

    • Carolyn
    • 17th November 2016

    I garden in a small backyard in central Texas (Austin). I visit big public gardens in other places whenever I get the chance, largely because there I can see things I can’t grow at home: peonies, oriental poppies, lilacs. And I like seeing them in quantity. I like Butchart, although I prefer botanical gardens that label the plants and emphasize perennials–Kew, Edinburgh, Montreal, Bronx, Missouri, and other big ones, and especially the smaller Chelsea Physic Garden and Oxford Botanical Garden. Most of these I’ve seen only once. On return visits to Kew and Montreal a few years later, I found that the perennials I loved most the first time were gone, replaced by other things. I suspect that happens in the others as well, though presumably not every season as at Butchart.

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