Garden visiting is one of the most important things a gardener can do. Getting out of our gardens to see what other people are up to is not an indulgence, it’s an absolute necessity.

It gives us a break from the actual work of maintaining our garden, vital for even the most committed gardener, and gives us a chance to gain new perspectives.

Plane trees (Platanus); not the sort of planting I’m keen on, but good to see anyway

How much do we actually see the garden though? A preposterous question; we visit the garden, we see things with our eyes, we go home. Yet do we actually take in what we’re seeing? Sure we take lots of pictures that we don’t really ever look at again, but nothing can compare to experiencing a garden.

Fascinating paving at Tremenheere (UK), a picture I’ve not looked at for many years

Over here

In the UK the ‘garden experience’ seems to be wholly centred around tea and cake. Visitors use the garden as a place to exercise before descending on the cafe or tea room to eat and drink. When a Brit says “let’s go and visit a garden” they’re actually saying “fancy going somewhere for cake?”

I get it; it’s one of those cultural idiosyncrasies that we have here. It’s a nice thing to do, to see flowers and then consume tea and cake.

I also think it’s a shame that people travel to gardens, large or small, and seldom take the time to truly appreciate what it is they’re seeing. People work hard to make these gardens, as we all know from creating our own gardens.

What’s the problem?

Visitors to a garden are welcome, of course, to enjoy the garden at every level. You can visit a garden to look at flowers, to be somewhere different, and maybe even to enjoy some peace and quiet. Of course peace and quiet isn’t always guaranteed, as I wrote back in March.

This is the beauty of a garden; it’s accessible for everyone regardless of their level of knowledge or interest.

An inviting old brick shed in a garden. I’d love to have one in my garden!

I’m making the assumption that GardenRant readers like to know how to take things to the ‘next level’.

How to see a garden

I’m going to share with you a simple exercise in seeing a garden. It’s an easy little tool that breaks us out of the either ‘passive glancing’ (quick look, move on) or ‘ingredient shopping’ (looking at every plant individually).

When you enter a new part or section of a garden, take a moment to ask yourself “what do I really love about this?” Find one element, and only one, that is your absolute must-have. It can be a plant, it can be a colour or colour combination, it can be a feature such as a statue or sculpture. One single thing that is your absolute favourite.

A stone rill at The Newt (UK). It’s really nice but I think I’d do it a bit differently myself

Then we turn the question around: “what is my least favourite thing here?” You must pick one thing that you’re less keen on, and again it can be a plant, a colour or colour combination… anything at all.

This conscious and disciplined choosing of one favourite and one least favourite thing breaks down the passive nature of garden viewing. You’re forcing your mind to see things more clearly, while also consciously building up an impression of the things that you really like and the things you’re really not quite as keen on.

It stops you, or I should say that it us because I use this technique a lot, from falling back on the default “this garden is nice”. ‘Nice’ is a non-committal word; it’s lazy and simply says that what we see is generally agreeable. We don’t like something enough to dig into our vocabulary to find more expressive words, but we also don’t see enough things we dislike to say that a garden is bad (or insert your own word along these lines…).

Case study

Take a look at this planting at the world famous Hidcote garden in England. Take a moment to really take in what you’re seeing.

It’s quite serene, it’s very well done. I like it, I really do.

So what’s my favourite thing? It’s difficult because I like what I see. Forcing myself to choose one thing I really like, I think it would have to be the neat little Euonymus hedge. Little hedges aren’t really my thing, but look how wonderfully neat it is, and the use of the variegated form of the usually green plant makes the hedge cheerful and light.

I like the whole thing; the little hedge is my single favourite thing, but you might well choose something else.

Let’s have a look at the picture again.

What’s my least favourite thing here? This is very tricky for me; there’s nothing here that I wouldn’t happily have in my own garden, so choosing something to ‘not like’ is difficult. I wonder if the variegated hedge would look better if it wasn’t echoed by the variegated dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ I think) in the background? Putting my hand over the plant in the picture doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Forcing myself to find something to not like, I think I’d have to say that I would prefer the centrepiece plant to be a bit bigger. To my eye it’s a little small compared to the exuberance around it, it’s out of scale as it were. You may agree or disagree, or might have something else that you’re not keen on.

So what have we learnt here?

We’ve gone from looking at a scene as a whole to analysing what we see. In my personal case I now know that the little variegated Euonymus, not a plant I’ve been particularly drawn to in the past, makes a nice little edging hedge for a formal border, and I’ve been reminded of the importance of scale when it comes to using things like ‘lollipop’ bushes; this could be useful to bear in mind if I do topiary at some point.

You may agree with my thoughts or have your own, but fundamentally we’ve gone into more depth than probably 99% of people who see this planting during their visit to the garden. We’ve made observations that we could use for our own gardens, and cemented our ideas of what we like and what we don’t like.

You can apply the same critical thinking to plants, like this unusually coloured peony

Use it wisely

This little technique is a great tool for gardeners, and by all means share it with others.

But with great power comes great responsibility.

You’re learning the art of viewing gardens critically; not everyone wants the criticism. Fundamentally this is a tool to use yourself, internally, or with a small group of trusted friends. If you march up to a garden owner to give them the benefit of your wisdom then don’t be surprised if you come away with a broken nose!

Few gardeners are violent people but many are protective of their gardens. Reviewing or critiquing a garden, as we do here at GardenRant, means putting yourself in the firing line with garden owners or gardeners. I’m sure my fellow Ranters will be able to list people who have taken garden criticism to heart and who now bear grudges.

It should never be the intention of any garden critic, formal or informal, to cause upset. Telling someone that their garden is ‘an abomination in the face of God and should be wiped from the face of the earth without mercy’ is rude and unpleasant. You might think it, just don’t say it.

The undergrowth at Stone Lane (UK) might be too untidy for some people but not for others

We’re all entitled to our opinions and we should have them, while also using our insight wisely. The technique above teaches us to look for positives as well as negatives, and I doubt the things we don’t really like as such will ever be something truly terrible.

Having well-informed opinions about gardens and plants is primarily about gaining insight into how our own gardens can be improved. Our gardens can always be improved, no matter how perfect we think they are.

Learning from the experiences of others is a way to gain great gardening wisdom without having to make mistakes yourself.