Meleah MaynardDown with gardening snobbery

As a garden writer, I read a lot of gardening blogs and articles by other writers and landscape designers and I have to say, I’m finding them increasingly annoying and depressing. So much judgment and negativity—who died and made us the arbiters of all things right and tasteful?

SnobWithout naming the writer and being a jerk when I’m trying to write about why it’s important to not be a jerk, let me just say that recently I read a blog post that pushed me over the edge. It was a short piece, posted by a writer who had a day off so she rented a bike in a nearby town and peddled around looking at gardens.

It was a beautiful blue-sky day, but she really couldn’t enjoy it because most of the homes she biked past were landscaped with predictable perennials, particularly KnockOut® roses and catmint (Nepeta). The fact that most of the roses were RED only accentuated the humdrum nature of the plants in her mind, and she posted a few pictures to bolster her point with “sophisticated” readers like us. Ugh. How can this sort of thing be helpful to anyone?

Sure, experienced gardeners or those with the good fortune to have an impermeable force field of self-esteem might read snobby comments like that and think: “To hell with her, I love my KnockOut roses.” But for many mortals trying to garden, it’s no fun to read something written by someone who is supposedly in the know that basically says you have bad taste if you plant certain things (or allow them to be planted by a landscaper) and you ought to know better. This kind of senseless garden bullying isn’t helpful or inspiring and needs to stop.


What’s wrong with KnockOut Roses anyway?

A Matter of Taste

I will confess right now that I am guilty of garden snobbery. I have written disparaging things about annual geraniums, dusty miller and other plants I don’t like. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine how I ever thought that might be useful to anyone. Please accept my sincere apology for behaving like such a self-important jerk.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that garden writers should only write nice things about plants. On the contrary, plants that perform poorly are absolutely fair game. It’s our job to spill the beans on crappy plants that don’t bloom well, fail to be as hardy as advertised or are riddled with diseases they’re supposed to be able to resist. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that certain plants are being used an awful lot and suggesting alternatives. That’s information that people can use. But slamming plants based on personal preference, or nattering on about how sophisticated gardeners would never have this or that “over-planted” plant in their gardens, is on par with shaming high school classmates over their choice of jeans.

I like our crowded gardens, but not this weird lens filter that makes the world look as if we’ve smeared Vaseline on everything. Gross.

I like our crowded gardens, but not this weird lens filter that makes the world look as if we’ve smeared Vaseline on everything. Gross.

Let’s face it. Whether you’re a professional or a novice, when it comes right down to it, plant picks and gardening styles are always about personal taste. Like most gardeners, I plant what I like, and what is given to me and what I find by the side of the road with a “Free” sign on it. I know and respect many local landscape designers, and I do follow some of their advice, but I don’t want to hire one of them to reimagine my yard for me. Then, I would be living with their taste, not mine. I like the crowded, overgrown gardens I have imagined for myself and I ignore the finger-waggers who question my taste level. You should too.

A slightly different version of this post appeared recently in Northern Gardener magazine.

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Meleah Maynard

About Meleah Maynard

My name is Meleah Maynard and I garden in crazy-ass cold, zone 4 Minneapolis, Minnesota. My first book, co-authored with Jeff Gillman, Decoding Gardening Advice: The Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations, was recently published by Timber Press. I don't have a hort degree. I'm a longtime journalist and master gardener who loves asking people questions, doing research and learning something new every day. I hope you like my blog here on GardenDrum and you read my full blog at Everyday Gardener

15 thoughts on “Down with gardening snobbery

  1. Thanks, Meleah! Your articles makes great sense. As a designer, I always tried to work with my clients and get to know their likes and dislikes before I specified any plants. I think a number of Landscape Designers and Landscapers (and dare I add, Landscape Architects) do the industry a disservice by working with an extremely limited palette of plants in their own designs – based on what they know they can get a good price at their wholesalers, or that they know will last. Ooops, is that the sound of some precious toes being trodden on?
    If a person likes a plant, and it is not going to be an environmental escapee, cause problems with its roots etc, then it is a good plant to be used (given the other sensible criteria Meleah mentioned). Suck it up, previous ones: let people enjoy their gardens!!!

  2. Whereas I agree that one should not be ruled by a self-appointed designer/journalist clique and follow any dictated whim, fashion or trend, I find it equally important to criticize or to appreciate critique. As in any walk of life, it would be too simple to get away by saying I just follow my own taste. This stifles any serious discussion or development.

    And indeed, some roses and rose arrangements can be so ugly, almost bordering to antisocial behaviour (when in front gardens)…

  3. I almost did a post like this earlier in the summer when a self-important guy(I had never heard of) decided to rant on annuals and the people that dare plant masses of common annuals.

    I am happy that people care enough to want to be in their yards and plant. My job is to expose them to a wide range of ideas and expand their knowledge. I LOVE Knockouts because they give people with minimal experience roses that grow and flower profusely without chemicals and constant attention.

    Nice post!

  4. We don’t really have to go round being nice all the time, surely? If you don’t like a book or a play I hope you dare say so?

    The idea that things are ‘just a matter of personal taste’ overlooks the possibility that we might aspire to make the world a more exciting or beautiful place by learning and by developing our critical faculties and then using them. And that must involve criticism – of gardens, plants, designers – in the richest sense of the word critical.

    Let’s be brave, and bold, and do better?

    • Yeah, I agree with Anne. Sure we don’t need to be unkind or unfair. But my impression is that garden bloggers, designers, and writers are generally pretty pleasant folks. Having dialogue about what constitutes “good” or “bad” is an affirmation that we think gardens are worthy of thinking about. Doesn’t seem like there is enough of that out there.

      Of course, the person you reference just may have been snobby and not thoughtful–I really don’t know. But I’m all about more robust dialogue.

      • I once designed a back garden for a client and included two rectangular intersecting raised beds – one for a beautiful planting combo of sedges etc and the other as a pond. The client said that in the future she wanted to choose “a small fountain” for it, which I assumed meant a small bubbler. When she excitedly asked me to visit 6 months later, imagine my thoughts when I rounded the corner to be confronted with her fountain – a 2 metre high column of writhing white marble dolphins. I was quietly appalled but she was ecstatic. “It’s what I look at first thing every morning” she said. “I love this part of the garden. Thank you SO much!” So, as a designer, I had fulfilled my brief perfectly – my client had a garden that was uniquely hers and just what she wanted. And I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling her otherwise. But I had a job that I was too embarrassed to even photograph for my portfolio, I thought it was in such bad taste. Was I right, and she was wrong?

        • I’m sure you were right, Catherine, and for reasons of scale and style which you could articulate. As she was your client, it may not have been appropriate to say anything, especially if not invited to comment.

          If you were, however, writing about it as part of a garden review I would hope you would say what you thought and why.

  5. I can see why some people think that my post seemed to dismiss garden design as important. That was not my intention. Helping people understand the principles of garden design is absolutely a part of what we do as garden writers. My post was largely focused on plants rather than design, and I’m objecting to going overboard with advice and criticism to the point of being smug and snobby — something I feel I’m increasingly seeing in garden writing these days. Surely we can educate and critique without putting people down.

  6. When I recently showed my Norfolk gardening project to friends, one of them called it “Controlled Mess”. The people for whom I am doing this thought they needed to defend or console me but the more I think of this description the more I like it. (The definition of “mess” needs to be clarified, though.)

    We later went to East Ruston Gardens, a different project on almost all levels: I (need to) try to go along, they attempt to stand out. The two-word-comment there was “Perfect Madness”.

    Blessed be the people who can sum up a garden in two words, and gardeners (or people of any description) who can take in critique and start/continue thinking. And defending your case can be an option, too…

  7. Well I might as well put my oars in, white iceberg roses and box hedge are boring – there I have said it. From my point of view there is nothing of interest and often it is a garden for people who don’t like gardening. And that is perfectly their right, but I get sick of seeing them when I walk around Melbourne suburbs. However many people like them, so that is their choice but not mine.

  8. Might I add that not all of us could even begin to afford a garden designer, landscaper, architect or whatever fancy name they choose to call themselves. As retired pensioners having just built our home,we had to work it all out for ourselves. Now 5 yrs on, our garden is a mosaic of all sorts, cuttings we grew, plants and trees we saved from the sad corner at the garden centre, seeds we sowed. Yet people constantly stop and congratulate us on the effort we have put into our rear and front gardens. It’s what we love, all done on a shoestring budget. And not one iceberg rose to be seen….. Or even a sniff of a garden designer!

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