Everybody's a Critic

The perils of giving and receiving garden criticism

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Private garden open to gardenbloggers during the 2013 Fling.

I can’t get this provocative post by Anne Wareham out of my  mind.  (It’s on the U.K.’s Think in Gardens – highly recommended!)  It seems that a well-known gardener was shocked to read criticism of her garden, which criticism was so well known that Anne was shocked that the gardener was shocked.   Apparently if your garden is well known, reviews of them – even negative reviews – are just a Google search away.

Anne describes seeing gardens flattered in print, knowing full well that the writer really thought the garden was (quoting some recent criticism she’d heard) “dull, twee, full of stupid wiggly-wobbly lines, over decorated, and old-fashioned. Or, quite simply, crap. The Americans tend to be especially blunt.”

Wow.  So though Americans are rarely critical of gardens publicly – even public gardens – we rudely bash gardens we see abroad.  To the gardener’s face!  I’ve heard a few grumbles among garden visitors but nothing like what Anne’s hearing – yikes.

But she goes on to make me look differently at criticism, at least of the famous gardens that people pay good money to see.  Why not help potential visitors make good choices?  And honest reviews help the gardener:

And I know thereby that no garden in this country has room for complacency – many (maybe all?!) of the so-say ‘great gardens’ attract a great deal of behind their backs criticism and really would benefit from discovering what people are actually thinking. Especially critical, of course, are knowledgeable gardeners but also visitors from abroad.  The latter are often very forthcoming and very disappointed.

Don’t they owe something to people who frequently travel considerable distances and pay substantial entrance charges?

So it’s a NOT like attacking the gardens open to us for free during our yearly Gardenblogger Flings or on a local tour.  It’s asking for payment that changes the dynamic.

For modest gardens like my own that visitors see for free, I hope for compliments and expect people to keep their criticisms to themselves.  Yet, some of my garden’s best features are the result of visitor suggestions, so how to get them without putting my ego on the line? I like Anne’s suggestion:  “You may also ask someone who tells you that they admire your garden what one thing they would do to improve it.”

But please weigh in!  When and how do you think gardens should be “reviewed”?  And what about hearing criticism of your own garden?

Posted by on October 18, 2013 at 9:18 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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36 Responses to “The perils of giving and receiving garden criticism”

  1. Jeavonna Chapman says:

    There are civil ways to critique. Constructive criticism helps us improve. I’m always mindful that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And i don’t ask blind people what I look like. If the criticism is helpful, use it. If it is not helpful or intentionally hurtful, discard it.

  2. Anne Wareham says:

    Have to say this (besides thank you for opening this discussion here) – no-one has yet called Veddw ‘crap’ to my face. Not even you wonderfully blunt Americans.

    But several Americans have told me they thought other gardens were. And I even have an example on thinkingardens – http://thinkingardens.co.uk/articles/a-letter-from-america-by-suzanne-albinson/. Caused a few raised eyebrows at the time..

    It’s a controversial topic in the UK – Veddw got thrown out of the National Garden’s Scheme (where gardens open for charity) after I published an article suggesting they needed a critical examination. – see http://veddw.com/blog/opening-for-the-ngs/.

    But you don’t have the same tradition of open gardens?

  3. skr says:

    If there was one thing I learned in art school, it was how to take constructive criticism. Well that and that a lot of people have a really hard time with criticism of any sort even the constructive variety. People get very defensive very quickly when presented with criticism. I think it is because they have invested so much of themselves in the work that it is precious to them. That preciousness is blinding.

  4. Once on Garden Walk Buffalo, when my garden was on the tour, I was walking up my own driveway and a couple women were walking down the driveway. Not knowing I was the gardener, I asked how the garden was. They said it was “just okay.” I find that funny. As an art director, I’m used to criticisms – and am not offended at all. Fully two-thirds of my creative work never sees the light of day. I can easily accept any criticism if it’s based on a solid base of knowledge – and not just objective opinion. With our garden tour it is free and open to anyone. We don’t judge at all–which is sometimes harder than judging!

  5. donna says:

    I have a landscape design friend who refuses to help with my garden planning now because we didn’t do one thing she suggested when we redid our front yard to take out lawn — we didn’t take out a perfectly good, very deep concrete walkway.

    I don’t mind criticism, I mind that critics take it so personally sometimes when their advice isn’t followed. There are often very good reasons someone doesn’t do what you suggest. Like cost, time, and labor considerations, especially for hardscaping. The fact that even a good friend still can’t get this really disturbs me.

    • Did you ask for her advice?
      If you did, then I think you enter into different territory.
      As a designer, I often have friends ask for my advice about their gardens and yards. I kind of hate it – because most of my friends are not avid gardeners and not looking for any sort of artistic expression. They’re great people – but they don’t get what a garden is and what I really do for a living.
      Usually they ignore or scoff my perfectly reasonable suggestions because they aren’t really willing to commit to the time or resources to carry out the plan.
      I once had some acquaintances loudly berate me at a party because I declined a request to come over to their house and put in drainage pipes from their gutters to the street. I tried to explain that that’s not the kind of work I do, but they then accused me of being “fancy” and too good to work for common people and said they were trying to do me a favor by sending work my way!

      • nwphillygardener says:

        I wonder if those friends would have been appreciative if you might have been able to suggest a contractor or two who might be able to perform the installation they were seeking. A response that says “Maybe I can lead you to someone who can solve your problem” instead of “this isn’t something I can do for you” might have had a less harsh reaction toward you.

  6. Allan Becker says:

    Nothing is more disappointing than traveling overseas to admire a legendary garden and to discover that it has become mediocre. From that perspective, strong criticism is appreciated by travelers. It warns them where not to go and why. However, visitors to my garden – it is not an open garden – don’t have a right to criticize it because it is my personal creative space. Those who are unable to say anything complimentary or kind ought to say nothing. That would be the polite thing to do. Or, is it no longer politically correct to be polite?

    • That’s the division for me, too, Allan. A person’s personal garden that is built out of a love for the work and a need for self expression and then generously opened for sharing should be exempt from unkind criticism.
      When the garden is commoditized – like mine is because I’m showing off my professional skills – then all is fair.

    • nwphillygardener says:

      Some folks, and I’m one of them, really like a good critique. But I do think folks should ask a gardener, “Would you mind some constructive criticism?” or something similar before offering a negative opinion or even a suggestion that implies a negative reaction. On open day garden tours, one never knows what you would think of the critic’s garden…so every ungenerous comment is easily dismissed.

  7. anne says:

    In private gardens, I agree with Allen; if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything, unless asked for your opinion. Public gardens will provoke comment, there’s no way around that (especially with the internet). I would just suggest that critics remember the old adage: “They may not remember WHAT you said, but they will remember HOW you said it”.

    Every day in my business (vineyard/winery and tasting room) I am exposed to constant criticism and praise of all kinds, it goes with the territory. Our wines, facility, farm and service are constantly judged (which is part of the experience, after all). I enjoy talking about it all, mostly. I don’t expect everyone to like everything, but I have to say, thoughtfulness and manners mean a lot to me. Some comments reveal more about the commenter than what’s being judged.

  8. John says:

    Very interesting discussion. I do think there’s a qualitative difference between criticizing a persons’ private garden versus a public garden that you paid admission to gain entry. The comparison I would make is having dinner at a friends house. Even if you don’t love the meal your friend serves, you probably shouldn’t complain/criticize it. But if I have the exact same meal from a distinguished and pricey restaurant that I had specifically included on a vacation itinerary, I’m probably going to leave a non-glowing or negative review on Yelp.

    Whenever I’m on garden tours I generally refrain from bashing someone’s garden. I’ll limit my out-loud criticism to a general “I liked what they did, but it wasn’t my thing”.

  9. Dan Mays says:

    This is a coin with two sides. I certainly think that knowledgeable people have the right to constructively criticize. On the other hand, nobody has the right to be mean.

    Somehow this discussion reminds me of the old Mark Twain quip about the famous German composer, Richard Wagner: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

  10. It helps I suppose that I am the worst critic of my own garden. How could I not be? I manicure other people’s gardens by day and come home to the wilderness posing as a garden. I can be genuinely shocked when people sincerely seem to appreciate the gardens here.

    I have opened the gardens many times to visitors and each time I think this garden is not ready for prime time. So much needs to be done yet. The Garden Bloggers were here in a truly horrible weather year and they didn’t have much to say at all. The silence was deafening, but not surprising.

    And here we go again. The wild cultivated gardens on the low spot of a North Carolina mountain top are going to be on the Haywood County Master Gardener tour next year in June, the peak of the Lull between the rhododendrons and the commencement of summer bloom. I was turned in by a client who is a master gardener and came up to visit in July’s floral abundance.

    I have no plans to panic. I’ll just go about my business of gardening when I can squeeze some time in. I suppose I’ll do some extra weeding and make sure the paths are well groomed. Other than that the gardens are what they are. I have no doubt many people will be perplexed. I will say I have made two seasons of progress since the bloggers were here. There is more to see.

    My main focus is going to be on getting rid of the crap, the piles of branches stacked around the garden, the rubbish piled around the other house and finishing some unfinished projects. You can hate my garden, but I don’t want to be hearing, “Well bless their hearts. Even white trash can be on the garden tour.”

    A huge irony in this is that my biggest client’s garden is also going to be on the tour. The Posh Estate has an unlimited budget. I just planted several thousand dollars worth of bulbs. The gardens keep expanding. They just got them some alpacas. I keep the place immaculate. There will not be a weed to be seen on the day of the tour. It is the complete opposite of my no budget at all garden.

    I think I want it printed some where in the tour guide that I am both the head gardener of the Posh Estate and the lazy genius behind the wild cultivated gardens.

  11. anne says:

    Bless you Christopher. I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy being in your gardens more than your client’s, just sayin’ :)

    • Sandra Knauf says:

      Yeah, me too, Christopher. Big $$$ gardens don’t hold much charm for me – they might be pretty but it’s on the labor of others and lots of money can buy lots of pretty bulbs, etc.! (Ho hum and big deal.) I want to see the hand and the soul (and the labor) of the gardener who truly loves her land and gets her hands dirty. That’s what matters to me.

  12. Pat says:

    Is the criticism about the plant selection/design or about the upkeep?
    Purple peonies with yellow lady’s mantle is a matter of taste and the criticism can be made and accepted on that level (this is the “well done, but not my taste” approach). If the comment points out that the creeping jenny has taken over the brick walk and the roses are choked with wild honeysuckle, then we can objectively point out that care has not been taken. To take that a step further, the creeping jenny critique (should) carries more weigh in a public garden with staff than it does in the yard of a friend who weeds after work with the “help” of a 3-year-old.

  13. Susan says:

    Out of curiosity, it would be interesting to know if Anne Wareham had any knowledge about the various people making the criticisms. (I’m going to generalize here, before anyone gets their knickers in a twist – I’m well aware that there are exceptions to every rule; I’m just generalizing for the sake of brevity.)

    For instance, were the visitors she talks about simply tourists who had this garden on their tour as part of their itinerary? If so, there’s every chance that they were non-gardeners who don’t give a rip about anything to do with gardens – they might well rather have been shopping. If they were landscape designers, well – many that I’ve come across seem to focus mainly on what’s new and trendy, and something that’s remained largely unchanged for decades might not suit their idea of aesthetics at all. Sometimes people who criticize a public garden simply don’t realize that in an era of tight budgets, fewer workers are being stretched trying to cover everything, and stuff falls through the cracks. Perspective varies from person to person – I just think it would be interesting to know these things.

    As for criticism of my own garden, I really don’t much care. I garden to please myself, and for the love of plants. While it’s nice to get the kudos, I can handle the brickbats too. Like so many other things, it’s highly subjective. I’ve been part of several garden tours, and I know where all the warts are. But you know what? Most of the visitors don’t see them, and I feel highly successful. That said, you do hear the occasional snarky comment – and it’s also true that we Americans do tend to speak our minds, which isn’t always an admirable trait. Anyway, this was a great post along with a great article, and certainly a lot of food for thought!

  14. JTG says:

    -Thicken up your skin with some honest self-criticism.
    -Accept praise with grace and self-deprecation.
    -Admire and encourage the discrimination necessary for constructive criticism.
    -Ignore and/or mock philistines.

    *Alternatively*

    -Demand “polite” feel-good reciprocal insincerity.

    • I want this as a bumper sticker!

    • nwphillygardener says:

      The first three slogans are right on target, but both “philistines” and “elitists” are entitled to opinions which may be entirely fair coming from their personal perspective. So why play the name-calling game to make it easier to dismiss criticism we may disagree with? There may be earnest energy coming from well-meaning critics with different taste/perspectives. Similarly, nasty and arrogant energy should just be dismissed, plain and simple.

      • JTG says:

        Polite philistines never trump impolitic aesthetes.
        *****
        Grant me the serenity to ignore the philistines I cannot change,
        The courage to change in response to criticism,
        And wisdom to know the difference.
        *****

  15. Pam/Digging says:

    As someone who regularly attends garden tours and writes about them on her blog, I read through all the links here and on Anne’s post with interest. I agree in theory with the idea of gardens being worthy of critique, just as plays and art exhibits are. And yet, in practice… Critiquing public gardens? That’s easy. But private gardens on tour? Not so much. After all, it takes courage to open one’s personal garden for tour, and smacking down the owner’s (lack of) taste or skill seems harsh.

    When I was a new blogger and felt that no one was reading, I was freer in my descriptions of gardens that failed to impress me on tours. But it just took one (gracious) comment by the owner of a garden I’d been lukewarm about for me to realize that what I was writing was very public and potentially hurtful to a homeowner who perhaps just wanted to help out a favorite cause by opening her garden. Not everyone who opens her garden is an aspiring artist. The key is for tour organizers to be more particular in choosing gardens, which is, I think, partly what Anne was driving at. But honestly, how many tours would there be if only garden makers with dreams of greatness were selected? Precious few, I expect.

    I flinched when reading the harshly critical post by the visitor who was disappointed by Mary Keen’s garden (“Not So Keen Garden” at David’s Garden Diary). I would never be comfortable publicly ripping into a personal garden in that manner. That’s not to say I think bloggers need to sugarcoat our posts about gardens we tour, but I do believe in tempering any critiques with kindness and appreciation. When an underwhelming garden appears on tour, the fault lies as much with the tour organizer as the garden owner, and they are fairer game to criticize since they’re the ones asking the public to pay and thereby designating the garden as “worthy.”

    All this is from my blogger’s perspective, of course. I don’t consider myself a professional, objective reporter, nor do I consider myself an arbiter of good taste or style — i.e., a critic. My goal is to share inspiration with my readers. Other writers may have different goals, and I respect that but still suggest tactfulness when reviewing personal gardens. And never, ever criticize someone for not serving the tea they’ve made available as a courtesy to visitors (see David’s Garden Diary). That’s just rude.

    • Jim Peterson says:

      Hi Pam:

      Re:
      But it just took one (gracious) comment by the owner of a garden I’d been lukewarm about for me to realize that what I was writing was very public and potentially hurtful to a homeowner who perhaps just wanted to help out a favorite cause by opening her garden.

      Great insight. Thanks

  16. James Golden says:

    I’d welcome knowledgeable, serious criticism. When I’ve tried to elicit it, I find I get useless compliments, or more usually off-the-wall comments that are not helpful. Some are good. I had over 300 visitors on a Garden Conservancy tour yesterday. I haven’t yet read all the comments, but one person suggested I clean out the pond and have a clear, open area of water. That’s a useful criticism and improvement.. It also happens to be my the major projects I’ve already planned for this winter. But good criticism. How to get it is the question. The first step is to ask.

  17. Ivette Soler says:

    Great topic, Susan!
    I agree with many of the comments above – in a nutshell, if critique is welcome or asked for, be thoughtful. If you are in someone’s home garden for a visit, button it up – critique is an inappropriate response to a gracious gesture.
    However, if someone puts their garden into world of garden tours, magazine articles, books, or blogging, they should be prepared for critique as well as praise. I know of too many people who expect that they will only get heralded for the beauty they’ve coaxed from the soil, and that is what they want when their gardens are open. Any critique is as expected as someone coming up to them and peeing on their foot. Sorry, but if your garden becomes public, it is fair game and you should expect that some won’t like it and will express themselves, especially if they have paid for a tour and feel cheated.
    One of the liveliest moments on my blog was when I did a pretty harsh critique of the Los Angeles Arboretum’s Garden Show, which was horrible. I just couldn’t let such an aggressively bad gesture towards the gardening public who paid an entrance fee stand, so I blogged exactly what I thought, with photos to illustrate how far below standard this show was. I was shocked at how shocked and defensive some of the people who worked on the show were – they didn’t want to see or hear that what they had offered to the paying public was sub-par. It was a very hot button, and when I pressed it I couldn’t have imagined that the LA Arboretum would stop doing shows after that. I felt guilty. There is responsibility on BOTH sides of the issue. For the gardener it is to publicly unveil their work knowing that it will bring in critique, not just praise, and sometimes that critique will hurt. For the critic, it is to know that there are consequences to a public diatribe. It never feels good to hurt someone’s feelings, and it feels worse to take away some of the pleasure people take in the making and sharing of their gardens.

  18. Its been my pleasure to spend time examining my garden through the eyes of other designers – and bringing the same scrutiny to theirs. Periodically, a friend with a great garden will get stuck and ask me to come help. I recognize that the more time you spend looking at something the more likely the important and revealing first impressions will fail to materialize.
    I have a friend with a passion for boxwoods. I love his passion, and his garden – though very different from mine – is a great window into his ideal world.
    When we wander each other’s gardens we are able to say “I see what you’re going for here”… and then offer a criticism or suggestion or insight.
    Its rare that we would implement the other’s specific suggestions. Its enough that we can offer each other a fresh perspective and identify the problem and a general nod toward the solution.
    When I have a garden open for tour I often overhear other people’s comments or criticisms. It is easy to dismiss people who lack good language for garden and design, but it may be useful to try to hear where the tension lies in a visitor’s experience.
    And it may not!
    I once had a quintessential Southern garden matron visit my hot and sunny gravel garden and all she could suggest was that I plant trees. She said the openness to the sky was unnerving and the garden didn’t seem “southern”.
    This, of course, was exactly the tension I was going for. Her dislike of the garden validated that I was on the right track!
    The moral of my story is that critique is important when its offered by people who’s opinion you respect and maybe even more important when offered by people who’s opinion you don’t!

  19. nwphillygardener says:

    As I’ve read through these comments, I realize there is an enormous distinction between spoken and written critiques. A face-to-face conversation with a home gardener, (whether or not on a paid garden tour), may well offer valuable information, a fresh set of eyes, and great ideas. But blogging, facebook posting or other published critiques are seriously inappropriate for anything but a public garden. Even a rave review that names a gardener publicly may not be welcomed and feel like an invasion of privacy with search engines giving unlimited exposure to what may have been intended as “limited” access to someone’s personal sanctuary. Posting private garden photos on a tour is also quite inappropriate without explicit permission of the garden host.

  20. Lisa-St. Marys ON says:

    I definitely think that there is a line between public and private gardens. If I ever spend the huge amount of money to go over to visit gardens in England, France and Italy, it will be a once in a lifetime trip. The gardens better live up to their glowing reviews! I don’t want to waste my very valuable time and money going to a garden that has become subpar, but no one wanted to say it.

    My garden was on our local garden tour this year for the first time. It wasn’t ready, but they needed some more gardens to make the tour happen, so I said yes. My 8 year old daughter was quite anxious about this decision. She was very concerned that people might say mean things about it. I explained to her that the people coming on the tour would be gardeners. All of them may not like our garden , my father doesn’t like our garden, but that’s okay, we like it. If everyone’s garden was the same we wouldn’t go on garden tours. It takes a lot of courage to put your personal space on a tour. And if people are cruel, the tours will end because no one will put their gardens out there for the criticism. My solution is to be away on that weekend, and let volunteers host my garden.

  21. Kaveh says:

    I have even had people criticize pictures of my private garden on Flickr or pictures I have posted on my blog. I generally tell them where they can stick their criticisms.

    That said I hold public gardens to a pretty high standard. I don’t really feel the need to be rude about it though.

  22. Of Gardens says:

    I read Anne Wareham’s post on this topic when she first published it, and I like that you have reblogged it to further the discussion. There is an old adage “everyone’s a critic” and this holds true for garden visitors as well. Thoughtful criticism should always be welcome, but mindless criticial comments are not helpful. Anne has a good suggestion when she asks people to mention one thing they would borrow from her garden, that makes people focus on one positive, even if everything else they have to say is negative. Of course, this idea of people criticizing gardens circles back to the question I asked on my blog ofgardens.com What is a garden? Not are what gardens for, which has been asked and answered by Rory Strong in his recent book, but what is the purpose of a garden? The answers received all indicate that a garden is a very personal matter, so anything goes. Although still not fully satisfied with this idea, if it is true, it puts garden criticism in another light. If gardens are purely personal creations, there can be no right or wrong. If there is no right or wrong, any criticism would be merely comments on personal likes or dislikes. Agreed?

  23. Ruth Rogers Clausen says:

    If you open your garden to visitors of any sort, you should expect that at the very least they will behave themselves politely. This applies to large public gardens I feel as well. If you request feedback, then you have no business getting huffy if you get more than you bargained for. Often, if the owners request feedback, it is only really to feed their ego.
    For gardens open to the public (often at a cost), there is no way of knowing if a glowing report was written 6, 12, 24, or more months ago and by whom. Things may have changed enormously in the meantime. There is no excuse for bad manners. Gardeners worth the name seldom leave a property without seeing something to spark their imagination, be it hardscaping, plantings, garden sheds, designs etc. Even just a pleasant visit may cost money these days.

  24. erin bailey says:

    There are two main differences between gardening and criticism in England vs. our brash young country. First: England’s gardens have been recognized as some of the masterpieces of the art. Doesn’t everyone have something to say about masterpieces of art if they finally get the chance to see them? Positive or negative, everyone tends to express some opinion. Where would any of our favorite arts be without critical reviews? The clash of differing views often improves the art, by giving new ideas to creative people. When a garden is an artwork, and in England this is much more the case than in the U.S., criticism in it’s highest forms is interesting and possibly beneficial. Open gardens are gardens that have passed some sort of test of entry, just like films in a film festival, or artwork in a museum show. In such a case, the maker ought to desire true appraisals of what is being viewed.

    Gardens here are very different things. Each garden has it’s own reason for being and relatively few of those gardens were meant to be publicly viewed art. Generally people think gardens are extensions of their homes and would never think of telling a homeowner, “That new sofa/shrub is awful and has to go!”

    The second huge difference is manners. In England proper manners have been shaped over the centuries. In America, the only similar piece of propriety I can think of is the expected reply to “How are you?” How many of us always say, “Fine.” We do not think of it as lying, just a form of greeting and reply. In England they lie about so many things without a thought because they are practicing the manners expected. Thus, “such a lovely garden, we’ve really enjoyed it,” should be translated as having nothing to do with the garden and everything to do with the speaker’s well bred manners.

    Unfortunately it is all too easy for our affection to blind us to the faults of our beloved gardens, and perhaps blind us to the need to probe more deeply for real critiques. And if our garden is like family to us, instead of a published art, we are better off remaining blind, deaf and dumb.

    So this issue, just like much of the plant culture advice of English garden books, does not necessarily translate well across the Atlantic.

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