Notes from the Field: No Place in the Garden for Contempt


Recently I went to two garden lectures. At the first the message was one of inclusiveness and camaraderie, of mutual experiences and like-mindedness. It was a conversation between simpatico souls based on sharing knowledge, successes, failures and laughter. At the other, a large chunk of the time was spent decrying the similarity of current styles, “thanks to the internet,” and judging other peoples’ passions, pleasures and planting choices. It was a talk filled with decrees that decried taste and/or the lack of it. It knocked Instagram for its commonality and pooh-poohed the “ordinary” to impress upon us the superiority of the unusual. And it left us all feeling as if we were, to the speaker, if not slightly dirty, then considerably beneath them.

I’ve run into this before, the disdain some feel towards what they perceive as being not as interesting, attractive, sophisticated (you choose the word) as what they’ve determined meets those criteria. This makes me sad. Not just because condescension is boring, but because the joys of the garden are something precious, something we all can share. At the first talk the speaker said something along the lines of, “don’t let anyone tell you what colors go together, nature doesn’t care, so why should you.” I wanted to stand up and cheer. I’ve helped create a ridiculous number of green and white landscapes for people who don’t want to “make mistakes,” far too many gardens where the only flowers allowed are lavender or blue, and tons of “tasteful plantings.” What I want to know is how do we discern what’s “good” from what’s “bad”? And why should we care? If someone wants to combine every color under the rainbow, they absolutely should. If what you think looks cool is a combination of red, white and blue, go for it. I combine pale yellow, hot pink and tangerine orange. I like bloody blue reds with pure bubble gum pinks, and plant chartreuse with everything.

None of us are wrong. The only one who’s wrong is the person who’s decided that there’s a judgment to be made.

I’m not saying that there are no rules in gardening, there certainly are; but only if you want to achieve a specific look. Why should anyone be allowed to say that what you like, what you find exciting or peaceful or attractive, is any better or worse than someone else’s choices? Sure I try and encourage people to not just add plants one at a time, polka dotting their property with hundreds of different species and cultivars, but that’s because they’ve told me they want their garden to flow in a certain way. Buying plants with a “one of this and two of that” method will not give them the experience they’re after. And if they’re plant collectors chasing after their own personal holy grail, who am I to tell them they need to plant it “en masse”?  You’re crazy about gladiolas? Fantastic, plant swaths of them. The English look down upon hydrangeas as being common, while Americans almost worship them, both for the same properties — big, billowing, bombastic flowers that last almost all season long. On one continent it’s a desirable trait, on the other it’s declasse.

I remember when dahlias were frowned upon, the flower of those who didn’t know better, and now the blooms are celebrated, embraced and adored. Even carnations have had a renaissance. And I say outstanding! I don’t care what flower you get excited by, just the fact that you are pumped up about one fills my heart. Collect African violets or rare snowdrops. Grow snapdragons or Japanese hepaticas. All I care about is that you’ve been bitten by the gardening bug. Rubber plants used to be considered suitable only for dentist offices, yet now they’re popping up all over pages of the most stylish shelter magazines.

I get uncomfortable when people start talking about good taste. The assumption is, that much like pornography, you’ll know it when you see it. I feel differently. There are gardens I respond to the same way I do with specific artist’s work. I love Bonnard, but Renoir leaves me cold. I’m big into Louise Bourgeoise, Louise Nevelson not so much. Does this make one “better” than the other? Not in the least. It’s just what appeals to me. You can tell me that a Jackson Pollack is better, more important and worth tons more than a Joan Mitchell but I’d snatch up her work over his every time.

There’s a billion ways people use the ideas of taste, style and fashion to make others insecure. The entire fashion industry is built on one group of people telling the rest of us what’s “good” and what should be hidden in the back of the closet each season. I’m here to say there’s no room for that sort of dictatorial spirit in gardening, to tell you we want no part of it. One of the best parts of gardening is the desire of us gardeners to share. To tell people which plants excite us and why, to dig a snippet out of our gardens to gift to a friend, or a plant’s newest fan. We like to teach each other, to explain why we use lime on vegetable plots, and our favorite methods for battling slugs. We like to commiserate and celebrate together. I’m not saying we’re all linking arms and singing Kumbaya, some of us are actually pretty seriously antisocial; but there’s no room for contempt if you’re both elbow-deep in the weeds, literally, trying to determine what’s a rare self-seeded baby from an invasive weedling.

Condescension and gardening don’t want to go hand in hand. It’s not who we aspire to be. We might not want to live surrounded by the garden you’ve created, but we don’t need to be derisive towards yours to justify our decision to go a different way. You might think that seeing floral arrangements featuring dahlias and ranunculus in ice cream colors everywhere you look on Instagram is a bad thing, but I’d like to point out that, thanks to social media, Flower Farmers are being feted for their celebrity in ways recently reserved only for rock/movie star and chefs. Houseplants are a huge Millennial obsession. Both cutting and vegetable gardens are deemed as tres, tres chic.

Please just tell me how, if you have any passion for things that grow, you could possibly see all this as being anything other than a good thing?

Follow Paige Patterson at @wildgardenstyle and see that she, too, sometimes likes sherbet tones.