Saturday, September 5, 2009

Keeping it subjective

I'm not sure it's really possible to look at a garden objectively. When I read about gardens and gardening, I'm always irked when I sense that someone passes judgement in a negative kind of way. Luckily, I have not found much of this, because in all the different arenas that elitists can be found in the world, being a gardening elitist is almost an oxymoron to me. I do believe everyone is entitled to his or her own personal opinion. In fact, in the blogging world, that's exactly what most of us are doing - expressing personal opinions. However, upon evaluating other gardeners' gardens, I personally will strive to live by the motto - to each his/her own. Some illustrations...

You will never find dirt under my fingernails. Dirt under the fingernails seems to be somewhat of a gardening cliche. I read something somewhere recently that implies that one is not a "true" gardener unless one has dirt under one's fingernails. Though I come in from gardening with my clothes and hair covered in dirt, grass, bugs, etc., you'll never find dirt under my nails. Why? I just don't like it. I own about 10 pairs of gardening gloves and wear a fresh clean pair every time I walk out the back door. I hope my hours in the garden, and not the dirt, would qualify me as a "true" gardener nonetheless.

My neighbor has Mickey Mouse statues in her garden bed. The statues of the original Disney characters are about 10 inches high and are dressed for Christmas, with Mickey as Santa. I don't understand this. I don't like it. I would never have it in front of my house. I chuckle in my head every time I walk by. However, I try not to scoff. I try not to shake my head. Surely there must be some reason? Maybe they were a gift from someone special? Maybe they sit on cement bases that are buried in the ground? Maybe someone died this year and they've not gotten around to putting them away? Maybe they just like them? I really don't know, but I do know this - Merry Christmas, and more power to them.

I almost got the silliest tattoo. When I was 16, I was certain the coolest tattoo would have been a skull with rainbow eyes. It had a symbolic meaning for me. It was an amazing concept. I would have worn that tattoo with pride. For about 2 years. Until I realized it was pretty silly. Surely tastes change over time. Surely what I think is really cool this year and took pictures of, and maybe even posted on this blog, I will look back a few years from now and think - oh how embarrassing that I would think this was attractive. Hopefully my artistic eye and gardening skills will improve over time as well. Garden elitists - surely you started somewhere too? Surely you were inexperienced and naive about what looked good at some point in your life? Surely as dynamic individuals, your tastes have evolved over time?

I live in a split level house in the suburbs of Maryland. The walkway to my house from our little driveway is a typical curve, and I have shade on the left side of my house. My husband grew up in Florida with a dirt/sand front yard and he loves our grass lawn. All these factors play a big part in how my garden will look. I basically have a little patch of land in the suburbs. As much as I would like to subscribe to the anti-perimeter planting school, I don't have a lot to work with. I don't have tons of money to put into landscaping (not more than I've already invested in my backyard slope project). Aside from some colorful Target pillows and chair pads, I don't have great backyard furniture. Regardless of the garden that is put in, it will always exist next to a beige siding split-level house in the suburbs. I can, and will, make it a lifelong goal to improve the way my garden looks, but it will never be a charming clapboard cottage. It will never be a stately brick colonial. It will never be a modernist bungalow.

I plan to grow hyssop. I don't know what this is. I do know that one day, I plan to have a special herb garden dedicated to my mother in law who passed away several years ago. There were certain herbs she always talked about such as hyssop and echinacea. Hopefully hyssop will not be an ugly plant. If it is, hopefully no one will stop by and judge the ugly hyssop, or the common echinacea, because there will be deep meaning behind their existence. When I find a garden with plants I don't love, I need to remind myself that I'm really not sure why a certain plant has found it's way into that garden.

Similarly, my mom used to wear Tea Rose perfume. She used to wear it when I was little - about 10 years old or so. Personally, I feel the rose is fairly common. To me, common usually means boring, though I've come to like the rose more and more each year. However, I do have one tea rose and when I catch that fragrance each summer, I am instantly transported to a different place and time. Of course I feel young, but I also feel protected, innocent, and just totally carefree - like I don't have to make dinner, or pay bills, or make doctor's appointments, or go to work. Like I can just play tag outside with my sister, or wait for my mom to tell us what the plan for the day is. This is why a tea rose will always have a sunny spot in my garden.

In China there are certain flowers all great gardens have. My father is obsessed with his large-flowering chrysanthemums. In a month or so, he will have about 40 or 50 potted plants all lined up on his patio. I thought he was just being nutty and going overboard like he does with most things, until I bothered to ask him why the hell he was growing so many. I also suggested he grow dahlias, which are also very pretty but bloom all summer. He told me that in China the traditional gardens of royalty all included large-flowering chrysanthemums. This is when I looked around and viewed his large pond filled with waterlilies, edged with weeping willows, framed by peonies, and realized oh my god. He is trying to create the China he left when he was a boy. While I thought he was just being dismissive when he shot down my dahlia idea, turns out there is a cultural and extremely endearing reason for the composition of his garden.

I do have personal opinions. I do think certain things are tacky. I do enjoy certain gardens I see more than others. I hope to refine my taste. I hope to gain knowledge over the years and become very successful at what I enjoy doing. And when I'm an expert in my area of interest, when my garden is totally kick-ass and looks straight from the pages of a magazine, when I'm asked to do shows and write feature articles about garden trends or garden classics, I hope to remember some of the factors that I've mentioned above and realize that a lot about gardening is subjective. We all love gardening for a reason, maybe many reasons. We all love certain plants, colors, combinations, fragrances, styles for a reason.



  1. Great post, Wendy! I agree we can't help but have opinions (good or bad, right or wrong) about the gardens/gardeners we see around us. I too have neighbors that..should I dare say 'decorate' their front door area(!) with eyesores such as trash cans, big tubs of bright plastic flowers (the really UGLY kind!), and yards that desperately need weeding or mowing! I know this is not 'garden style' per se...but it boils my blood every freakin time I drive up and down the street! To each his own applies here for me but come on, get a clue!

    A few years ago, I was thinking of a silly tattoo...a daylily..haha! It was relevant to me then and still will be for a while, I think. But nuttin' wrong with naive...we can only improve and get better with age! Unless your 90 and have a skull tattoo..jk!!

    Yes, grow hyssops...lots of them! They are great plants. There's a variety with really pretty lime green foliage.

    I love when a plant you see, touch, smell bring about memories of dear ones. I have many 'gifted' plants in my garden and even though not distinct, the sight always jog my memories of good friends...I love the sentiments of your rose ;)

    As you for father's large flowering mums...I would LOVE to see pictures of any?

    Okay, sorry for all the blabbing. Again, great post!

  2. As long as we keep things open ended, we can always expect creativity to thrive. Even when we try to be very objective with gardening, the element of subjectivity will always come in as interesting surprises...

    I always keep my nails short, so not a trace of dirt!.. haha.

    have a nice day

  3. Gardening is definitely subjective, and I find that my opinions sometimes even counteract one another, putting me right into gardening hypocrisy. For example, I enjoy some whimsy in the yard, as long as it doesn't cross the line into what I would consider tacky (Mickey Mouse would definitely cross that line). I might admire perfect yards, but I would never want one. I get a bit of an attitude about yards so groomed they don't look natural, or so perfectly healthy one immediately thinks of wasteful watering or use of pesticides or fertilizers. But that doesn't mean I can't admire the beauty of a flower, the artistic skill in the gardener's plant selection or landscape design, or the fact that there isn't a weed in sight.

    I do feel a sense of longing when gardeners talk about a scent or flower that reminds them of their mom, dad, or grandparent gardening. My parents didn't garden when I was growing up, but they do some now, with their new spouses. I never learned from another how to do all this. And as an organic gardener, I'm pretty much on my own there, too. We might talk a bit about plants, but there's a divide, too. I'm all organic, and they're... not. They also aren't Internet people -- do they read my blog? Nope. So while we are close in other ways, gardening actually isn't a regular part of our conversations. But I feel glad that one day my kids are going to have their memories of being in the garden with their mom, and hopefully a bit of me rubs off on them.

    FYI, I do have dirt under my nails much of the time. But that's mainly because the dogs steal and chew up my gloves. Oh, and I do have a tattoo. Two actually. They're both tasteful and all me. One day I'll share a pic!

  4. Wendy,

    What an endearing post! I am so glad that a gardening blogger chose such a controversial topic for their blog! I have to agree with you, dear - to each their own. When it comes to gardens and the art of gardening in general, one can see such an extreme variation in the art just by walking down a single street.

    It always amazes me at how simple some choose to decorate their yard and how others have weaved such intricate designs into their landscapes. I like how you mention that you never truly know the "story" behind a particular plant or idea in another's garden. It truly makes one stop to think before making that critical, at first-sight, snap judgment about a particular arrangement.

    Thanks for stopping by our blog. We look forward to seeing your continued visits! ;0)

    --Jamie @ J&R

  5. I believe gardening is so personal, and each to his/her own. I am sure some people would ask why I have "tacky' whimsy in my garden. I do, because I like it.I guess I will always be a child at heart, and find joy in the simple things.

  6. Hyssop is a very nice herb. Its blooms draw lots of bees and its leaves smell very good. Wish I could grow it hear, but it needs lots of sun. Nice post.

  7. Wendy, this is an inspirational and thought provoking post. It makes me think back and ask myself this question of why do I like gardening? My reasons seem to change with time. I am also always changing my garden occupants. Regarding your dad's obsession with chrysanthemums, these are truly beautiful flowers, so it would be great if you could post some pictures on them. I love their fragrance too.

  8. Maybe later in life I will cultivate an appreciation for growing things for purely aesthetic reasons. At the moment, if I can't eat it, I won't plant it or take care of it.

    Part of it is that there's just so MUCH garden around our house--my MiL and FiL spent decades planting and growing flowers, trees, shrubs, etc. on these five acres, that it's just too overwhelming for me to contemplate. I need to learn about my vegetables first, and then maybe I'll have some room in my head to learn about all the other stuff.

    Or maybe I'll just leave it all to my MiL. That seems to be working for me so far.

  9. Wendy, This was an interesting post to read. My son turns 18 tomorrow and has the day planned at a tattoo place. I too think his decision is rash eventhough he has planned it for 3 years. It will be flowers chosen by all the important women in his, gram, sister in law, etc... All of our favorite flowers wrapped around his upperarm. I think he has spent way too much time around my garden. In theory it sounds good, but paint a picture and hang it on the wall or wait till you are 30 and see if you still want it. He says "seize the day, live a little, live in the moment, mom" Okay. I will talk to him at 30 and see if he still agrees. But...out of my control, as are the awful garden choices some seem to make, but they are their choices. I, myself have a couple of pink flamingos. They never fail to make me smile when I see them. It is sort of a joke between my husband and I. So most people think tacky, I think fun. Of course they are the only tacky thing I have, at least I think they are....hmmm. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, right? Thanks for a good read before bed time. I enjoyed your thoughts as always.

  10. Good, I'm glad we are in agreement!

    Teresa - how's the tattoo look?!

    Meredith- Good points. I think hypocrisy sucks. I think the less judgmental we are - or at least the less obnoxiously opinionated we are, the more we can avoid being hypocritical.

    Kristin - I remember thinking that I would never ever be interested in growing flowers - and I'm still not - kind of. Though I don't LOVE flowers per se, I do love learning about them, their hardiness zones, colors, heights, uses, preferences, etc. It's just about as addictive as learning about how to grow vegetables!

  11. Wendy, what a thoughtful and fascinating post. You're absolutely right. People garden in different ways for different reasons, and who am I to hoist my views on others?

  12. Are you saying it's time for me to take down my Christmas lights from last year, lol!

  13. I think all of us gardeners are opinionated, but that needn't prevent us from appreciating styles other than our own. Garden touring, I visited an exquisite 'collectors' garden', where the host highly recommended an entirely different sort of garden down the road. That one used more common plant materials, but in huge, dramatic sweeps. Both gardens were knockouts.
    Thanks for sharing you thoughts and revealing so much of yourself.

  14. I tend to judge the gardens in my neighborhood that do not please me, but the owners never know! I don't begrudge them, I just wish I could teach them a few things. Many of the tend to "landscape" their yards in the summer with annuals. Then all winter long we have nothing to look at! I'm glad they have flowers, I just wish I could gently coax them to do more. And you'll never find dirt under my acrylic nails either, that's what garden gloves are for!

  15. Ewww...DIRT! Love to garden, hate dirty hands. Must have gloves.

    I am a very opinionated person, but as far as gardens go, I just like to see people out there doing it! Go Gardens!

  16. Thanks for your comments ladies. Sometimes I'm discouraged by some of the more self-righteous garden writing I see and am heartened to know there are far more open-minded gardeners who just want to see people out there doing it like Sylvana said. And to those of you who still have x-mas lights up - as long as you don't have movable deer forms on your lawn, ho ho ho to you! :)


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