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

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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:

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”.

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.

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.


  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Will, All kinds of writing suffer from the use of clichés. How fortunate you were to have had a professor who didn’t sugar-coat it and how wonderful that you had the maturity to get over the hurt, see your own writing more clearly, and learn how to improve. Writing well is not easy.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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