Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

If I had a nickel for every garden cliché I’ve ever heard…

Guest Rant by Amy Campion

Like thistles invading a garden, hackneyed phrases have seeded themselves into garden writing and need to be rooted out.

They choke out good prose and distract from the message.  What’s more, they really irk me.  If you write about gardening, I beg you to weed these expressions from your vocabulary:

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Magnolia macrophylla: a Southern magnolia on—don’t say it!

“Plant x is like plant y, on steroids.”  Please, please—if nothing else—let this one go.  It hasn’t been clever in 30 years.  I know you can think of something better.

“Plant x blooms for months.  Like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps going, and going…”  *groan*  Do you still have a pager?  A VCR?  We’ll be happy to have you join us in the 21st Century when you’re ready.

“Plant x (something tall and skinny) is an exclamation point in the landscape.”  I like this expression, but it has been hijacked by so many writers that it’s becoming trite.  Use with caution.

Speaking of exclamation points, don’t pepper your writing with them.  They make it hard for me to take you seriously!  They make me feel like I am reading a 10 year-old’s diary!  Mark Twain said using exclamation points is like laughing at your own joke.  Don’t laugh at your own joke.  (Tweets, status updates, and the like are a little different.  In those contexts, exclamation points have firmly ensconced themselves.)

Unless you’re five years old, please don’t refer to deer as “Bambis”.

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Silver maple gets no respect.

“Plant x is the Rodney Dangerfield of plants.”  *cringe*  If you’re going to reference stand-up from the ‘70s, at least make it Richard Pryor or George Carlin.

Let’s retire the phrase, “I’d plant x even if it never flowered.”  Show your readers that you know other ways of saying a plant has nice foliage.

Keep anthropomorphizing under control.  “Plant x resents disturbance.”  “Tolerates shade.”  “Hates wet feet.”  “Doesn’t play well with others.”  A sprinkling of such phrases is harmless, but if you begin to catch yourself referring to plants as “he” or “she”, realize that you may have a problem.

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Yes, goldenrod is our friend. I heard you the first time.

And, I suppose there are always new gardeners coming along who don’t know it, but please don’t tell me again that goldenrod doesn’t cause hay fever.  Okay, okay.  I get it.

 After working 16 years at a wholesale/retail nursery near Cincinnati, Ohio, Amy Campion now avoids clichés like the plague at What Blooms When.

Posted by Amy Campion on April 17, 2014 at 6:15 am, in the category Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
37 Comments

37 Responses to “If I had a nickel for every garden cliché I’ve ever heard…”

  1. “… please don’t tell me again that goldenrod doesn’t cause hay fever.”

    I don’t volunteer this information in writing, but I address the misconception when it’s expressed. It’s an opportunity to explain pollination ecology, and the difference between insect and wind pollination.

    • Amy Campion says:

      Xris, I suppose out of all of these overused phrases, the defense of goldenrod is most deserving of staying in the vocabulary. I just find it funny how 99.9% of articles discussing goldenrod start out with this clarification. Why not start off with how much monarch butterflies and other pollinators love it? Or that you can dye with it? Or how its blooms come in late summer and fall, when most gardens need a boost?

      • Tracy says:

        Amy, most articles start out with the clarification that goldenrod doesn’t cause hayfever because it is the most common misperception about this plant and if this isn’t addressed, no one will read further. So much of your article is just judgemental flap. You know what my pet peeve is? Writers who feels that just because they have a bit of knowledge, everyone else is required to be as informed or they don’t measure up. Such a self indulgent approach to writing for the masses. Judge that.

  2. Jan says:

    You forgot weed x is a “thug”. Overused.

    • Amy Campion says:

      Jan, Yes! “Thug” was a novel and evocative word to use for certain plants at one time, but overuse has caused its impact to be diluted. Surely there are other phrases that will say the same thing in another, more original way.

  3. Will says:

    It really is useful frequently to remind us – especially those of us who write for others to read – how crippling cliches can be. The reminder is even more useful if it is illustrated with examples, to which we often blind ourselves in our own usage. I remember my first essay (a brilliant one, of course) years ago in a college class; the paper was returned with red lines everywhere, and with the terrible admonition also in red, “DON’T USE CLICHES”. Well, after getting over the unfairness of it all, and after reading the essay several times again, I was forced to admit to myself that this student had managed to employ dozens of trite expressions, fully convinced that I had invented those brilliant images and turns of phrase. A humbled student, but a better one.

  4. Laura Bell says:

    When speaking to non-gardeners, however, some of these phrases can be useful. “Plant x is invasive”? Most non-plant folks look at you oddly, as if you think the plant will raid the patio with swords and spears. But “plant x is a thug” speaks more succinctly to the bad-boy nature of the plant & how you should deal with it. Yes, we gardeners tire of it, because we see/hear it so often. Non-gardeners might never hear it again.

    Audience matters. These cliches and trite phrases were thought of as creative in their beginnings. Their effectiveness at getting a point across is actually to blame for blunting their edges. Used in a community that hears them all of the time, sure, they are beleaguered and tiresome. But to a person or community who is new to them, they are still evocative of the nature of plants.

    • Amy Campion says:

      Laura, Yes, you’re right that writing directed at beginning gardeners is going to be phrased differently than writing for a more experienced audience. And you’re right that clichés catch on because they express a thought so clearly and succinctly.

      But I don’t think we are doing novice gardeners any service by speaking in clichés. If someone is going to continue gardening, she should learn the term “invasive” and what it means (though there might be some disagreement there). “Invasive,” “hardy,” “native”: these are not clichés but lingo, part of the gardener’s lexicon. They should be discussed plainly with new gardeners.

      I think when writers resort to using clichés, they are making an effort to make their writing more colorful, more conversational, but not stretching beyond the first thing that pops into their head. It’s just plain boring, and I don’t think that helps draw new gardeners in, either.

  5. Betty Sneeringer says:

    I can understand the reasoning with most of these but, there are millions that still don’t know that the accusation against goldenrod is not true and if the plant is being discussed, the rumor should be put down!!! Oh, maybe just one ! I detect a tad too much sensitivity but, maybe I don’t read as many garden articles and therefore wouldn’t see the mentioned things every week.

    • Amy Campion says:

      Betty, I am all for going to bat for goldenrod, but maybe we could mention its other virtues?

      I do read a lot of gardening books and articles and I am maybe more sensitive than most to these phrases.

      Also, I’ve become aware of them because I have been dismayed to find them in my own writing. I’ve been surprised at how easily such phrases come to mind–having heard them so many times–and it takes a real effort to disregard them and come up with something more original.

  6. I know this is “Garden RANT” so I get where you’re coming from Amy, but I think we can be altogether too serious about it all. I don’t mind the cliches. Originality is definitely going to engage me more fully because I’m a full-on word-nerd but the hackneyed is forgivable.

    • Amy Campion says:

      Grace, I wish I could overlook them, but some of these expressions literally make me groan out loud in pain: “On steroids,” “Energizer bunny,” and the over-enthusiastic use of exclamation points are the big three for me. I can deal with the others in small doses.

      Like “hellstrip,” which you mentioned on Facebook. I haven’t grown tired of it yet and like to use it myself, even though it is by my own definition suspiciously similar in nature to some other clichés I have mentioned.

      • anne says:

        Maybe “hellstrip” falls into the category of a definition, not a cliche; it sure works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it :)

        • Amy Campion says:

          And there are so many names for that area anyway–tree lawn, parking strip, boulevard… others? There has never been an agreed upon name for it, so why not hellstrip?

  7. gemma says:

    I have never written about plants having feet, but I have used “plays well with others” once, and “tolerates pruning” or “tolerates clay soil” a few times. I get 500 words for a column, so I’ve used “tolerates” as shorthand to describe 3-5 plants as examples of, say, what to plant under oaks, or what grows well between stepping stones.

    When I’m talking about a plant IRL, however, I do use more words and tend not to use “tolerates.” Hmm.

    I wonder if there’s a better way to briefly mention the most important attributes of a plant. For instance, “[species x] tolerates clay soil better than other [genus]“: phrases such as “will grow in clay” or “adapts better to clay” are wordier and less precise. “For clay soil, [species x] is the best [genus]” is more precise, but it doesn’t work as smoothly if I’m trying to list 3-5 key attributes in one sentence. But this might work: ” [Species x] gets larger and flowers more in dense shade than other varieties, and it’s the best [genus] for clay soil.” IRL I’d say “grows better in clay soil than other [genus].”

    “Drought-tolerant” is a pretty common phrase in California.

    • Amy Campion says:

      gemma, I’m not saying we have to re-invent the wheel (to use another cliché). Words like “tolerate” and “prefer” are well-established and useful phrases in gardenspeak. We know what they mean, they say what we want to say succinctly, and there’s no need to throw them out. But I would like to see writers be a little more creative, without trying to be too cute.

  8. ricki says:

    When I was designing gift wrap and we worked on Christmas designs year-round, I got so sick of the red/green combo that I could barely stomach it. A tall person will hear the same puns ad nauseum, each commenter feeling like the wit of the week. I can see why overexposure would make you grind your teeth.

  9. skr says:

    If I had a nickle for every garden cliche I had ever SEEN…..

    I don’t mind hearing or reading cliches nearly as much as I do seeing them. I mean if I see one more sine wave looking path or kidney shaped planting area, I think I’m going to develop a twitch.

    • Amy Campion says:

      When I told a few people I was writing an article on garden clichés, I think that’s what some of them thought I was writing about. Maybe the next article, if you don’t beat me to it!

      Amen. And don’t forget the Alberta spruce on each side of the doorway, the forsythia pruned into a blob, foundation plantings…

  10. Chris says:

    So much for describing my Cecile Brunner climbing rose as the “deck eating rose”, even though the deck is ten feet above the driveway and the rose actually spills over the railings.

    Then there is the description I have given to my late neighbor’s planting that the new neighbors are trying to tear out: the evil ivy. (now I just wish they would go after the “not a good neighbor fence” bamboo)

    And this is not a cliche: the aronia, high bush cranberry and huckleberry bushes are “literally for the birds.” (as are leaving the faded sunflowers at the end of summer)

    • Amy Campion says:

      Chris, Yeah, describing plants as deck-eating, fence-eating, or house-eating has gotten to be a little overworked, but “evil ivy” has a nice ring to it. I like it!

      • Chris says:

        :-)

        Thanks. I cringed when it was planted just next door several years ago. I am there with my clippers to keep it away… occasionally reaching over property line.

  11. Jenny says:

    I do have a blog but I don’t pretend to be a writer. I doubt that many of the people who read my blog are writers so they are not going to be bothered if I refer to my Felicia rose as a she or if I make the occasional spelling error or punctuate incorrectly-just the writers. But I will heed your warning if only to improve my writing skills. Even at my age I am willing to learn new skills. Thanks for the rant. I may even go back and take a look at what I have written, although I don’t usually write a lot.

    • Amy Campion says:

      Jenny, You are far too modest. I checked out your blog. Your garden is lovely, your photos fantastic, and your prose is friendly, direct, and natural. If I gardened in a more Texas-like climate I would be visiting your blog regularly.

      I think the writers who tend to get in trouble are the ones who try too hard to be cutesy or funny and end up using phrases that they think are original, but which are tired and worn out. That’s not you!

  12. Deborah says:

    Amy — I for one am very glad to see your rant here. It’s given me food for thought (sorry). Thanks!

    • Amy Campion says:

      Deborah, Glad you enjoyed it. I don’t mean to imply by this article that I don’t enjoy a real groan-worthy plant pun. I do!

      I can prune a tree properly and make a mean risotto–I’m a Certified Arborioist. No? Sorry…

      • Chris says:

        Ah, this reminds me of my winter. I have a small city lot with several fruit trees, my front fence is made up of espaliered apple trees. When there is a dry sunny day between February and April I will be pruning my trees, one of which is a “semi-dwarf” apricot striving to become a standard sized apricot tree (sorry for that cliche). This is also when I prune some very healthy climbing roses, and remove twenty plus foot long grape vines (some that grow into the bay laurel!).

        While talking to some landscape contractors recently, I actually told them that my trees “shivered” when I walked by with my several pruning tools.

        I am not an arborist, nor a pruning expert. But I do like my trees and vines to be within bounds, plus I enjoy training them to do what I want them to do. I call it “prune therapy.” It is a related to my “weed therapy” and “general excitement when the seeds I planted actually grow!” I get plenty of apples, pears, roses and grapes, so I am not doing too much damage.

        Do not discount “garden therapy.” The year we had several 911 calls to my house, my kid’s open heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic and the subsequent rehabilitation therapy was the year my garden was absolutely pristine. It was gorgeous (though the apricot did lose most of its branches, including one that required me sawing through a foot wide branch). And I found a way to maintain my sanity.

        • Amy Campion says:

          Chris, Point well taken. If we gardeners describe plants in human terms, it is only because they are so much more than plants to us. They provide endless enjoyment. I too am amazed every time some seedlings come up–it never gets old, no matter how many times it happens. And plants soothe us in times of trouble, as they did for you when you went through that harrowing experience. And for that, our heartfelt terms of endearment for them are absolutely appropriate.

  13. Sondra says:

    Amy, what about ‘Do you commit Crape ‘Murder’?! I happen to like that one, having first seen it in Steve Bender’s Southern Living column years ago!!!!! Maybe that’s more of a pun, but I still like it! (Exclamation points for extra emphasis) ;-)

  14. I’d rather see a whole collection of cliches than commonplace horticultural myths stated stated as the absolute truth even though it’s been proven wrong.
    A prime example: Using gravel in the bottom of containers to enhance drainage. this was proven wrong more than 100 years ago, but still so-called expert gardeners have repeated this so often that people just take it as the truth.

    So in addition to writing creatively to make our points, we must do our research so our gardening suggestions been proven to be effective.

  15. KathyG says:

    What about the ‘the color really pops’ — used to describe both plants in gardens and items in interior design. The first time I read it I thought it was cool. Now it is ubiquitous and annoying.

    Good rant, I’m with you, though many of the terms you mention don’t bug me the way they do you. The annoyingness of cliches is partly personal, and partly regional. I am going to go back an reread some of my blog posts, just to check.

    As for not referring to deer as Bambi, I still cling to my own personal terminology for the blighters: ‘f—ing bambis!!!!!!!’

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