The perils of giving and receiving garden criticism

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

Susan Harris
on October 18, 2013 at 9:18 am, in the category Everybody’s a Critic.

    • Jeavonna Chapman
    • 21st June 2017

    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.

    • Anne Wareham
    • 24th June 2017

    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.

    • Garden Rant
    • 4th September 2017

    Btw, how much does it cost to see the gardens we’re talking about? Susan

    • Anne Wareham
    • 7th September 2017

    Between 5 and 16 dollars? (guessing a little having had to change currency)

    • skr
    • 9th September 2017

    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.

    • donna
    • 11th September 2017

    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.

    • admin
    • 11th September 2017

    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
    • 11th September 2017

    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.

    • Allan Becker
    • 11th September 2017

    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?

    • admin
    • 12th September 2017

    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
    • 12th September 2017

    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.

    • admin
    • 12th September 2017

    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”.

    • admin
    • 12th September 2017

    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.

    • Dan Mays
    • 12th September 2017

    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.

    • Christopher C NC
    • 13th September 2017

    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.

    • Susan
    • 13th September 2017

    You made me laugh!! Thanks!

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