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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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”.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. Yeah, me too, Christopher. Big $$$ gardens don’t hold much charm for me – they might be pretty but it’s on the labor of others and lots of money can buy lots of pretty bulbs, etc.! (Ho hum and big deal.) I want to see the hand and the soul (and the labor) of the gardener who truly loves her land and gets her hands dirty. That’s what matters to me.

  14. Is the criticism about the plant selection/design or about the upkeep?
    Purple peonies with yellow lady’s mantle is a matter of taste and the criticism can be made and accepted on that level (this is the “well done, but not my taste” approach). If the comment points out that the creeping jenny has taken over the brick walk and the roses are choked with wild honeysuckle, then we can objectively point out that care has not been taken. To take that a step further, the creeping jenny critique (should) carries more weigh in a public garden with staff than it does in the yard of a friend who weeds after work with the “help” of a 3-year-old.

  15. -Thicken up your skin with some honest self-criticism.
    -Accept praise with grace and self-deprecation.
    -Admire and encourage the discrimination necessary for constructive criticism.
    -Ignore and/or mock philistines.

  16. The first three slogans are right on target, but both “philistines” and “elitists” are entitled to opinions which may be entirely fair coming from their personal perspective. So why play the name-calling game to make it easier to dismiss criticism we may disagree with? There may be earnest energy coming from well-meaning critics with different taste/perspectives. Similarly, nasty and arrogant energy should just be dismissed, plain and simple.

  17. Polite philistines never trump impolitic aesthetes.
    Grant me the serenity to ignore the philistines I cannot change,
    The courage to change in response to criticism,
    And wisdom to know the difference.

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