Google Doodle celebrating Gertrude Jekyll’s 174th birthday on November 27, 2017.

Guest post by Mary Vaananen

I will never forget my first presentation to a large group. I was a Hort. technician with the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension service and I was giving a talk during the annual KNLA turfgrass conference entitled, The Gardener’s Eye. By today’s standards it was awful. Scanned photographs, black and white diagrams–everything had a blur. The content was basically about design and I included a little of Gertrude’s color theory in a border setting. It was the ‘90s.

An image from my first talk.

After the talk was over a dapper young man approached me and mentioned he liked the part about Miss Jeekle. Miss Jeekle? I’m sure I turned 10 shades of red. Of course, I had pronounced the name like the Robert Louis Stevenson protagonist Dr. Jekyll and I realize he was gently apprising me of my error. This is one of those mostly buried memories……I remember a peculiar uncomfortable look on the face of my boss at the time and yet puzzlingly, the feeling that I had just done something cool.

Wikipedia photo

Good public presentation is a gift. My Jelitto colleague Allen Bush always radiates comfort and humor and intelligence when he is at the podium. He has that gift and I do not. To this day I dread giving talks and am only able to pull it off with a good script (correct pronunciations included) and pleasant photos.

The geekiest of our kind relish viewing 165 photos of the Genus Saxifraga taken at altitude by a famous plant hunter on the slopes of the Himalayas. These presenters may or may not be entertaining but are very knowledgeable about their field. When you receive a handout that is 3 pages single-spaced and numbered, (letting you know there are many many slides ahead), and STILL you find yourself a mid-row seat in the auditorium….you just might be a plant nerd.

Photo from Eflora of India

Most of us, really just want to see something we can sort of replicate in our gardens…..a bit of beauty that makes us sigh or oohhh. It used to be there were oohhhs and ahhhs aplenty during horticultural talks. Now, a gardener’s Instagram feed overflows with ooh-able images. Technology has made us all kick-ass photographers. Now presentations include video/music/scent….all in an attempt to fill the viewer with awe. It apparently takes a lot these days.

Absolutely no image, no matter how GORG, and no presenter, no matter how charismatic, can capture and supply the awe of being in a garden. The felt sense of what is there cannot be conveyed by any other tool than the human body in situ. Oh yes, we are tools! Tools of multi-faceted perception.

For me, the best part of sitting in a horticulture presentation is the camaraderie. When plants people get together there is a synergy of appreciation– for nature and the dynamics of horticultural collaboration. A shared chuckle at the expense of nomenclature such as Scro-phu-lari-a-ceae or Bou-te-loua a la Beavis and Butthead, may ripple through us. We are plant groupies. We follow the show wherever it may go.

The upcoming Perennial Plant Association symposium in Chicago (end of July) has a great lineup of presenters including the very trendy and talented Piet Oudolf, Roy Diblik, and Laura Ekasetya (Director of the Lurie Garden). There will be many good presentations to inspire us. We will leave Chicago cross-eyed with dreamy images, and stacked full of genera and cultivar and a longing. Presentations CAN do that. But a quick dash (or a long ride) home to garden central (the real Power Point) brings one back to earth.


Mary Vaananen lives and gardens in Louisville, KY. She is the North American manager for Jelitto Perennial Seeds, headquartered in Germany. Mary recovered from her first talk and has successfully completed many talks since.