Are show gardens making us bad gardeners? by Elizabeth Licata

Here some naturalistic plantings at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, a lovely site we happened upon on the way to Connecticut. It's the less famous sites that tend to have great practices.

Here are some sensible plantings at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, a lovely site we happened upon on the way to Connecticut. It’s the less famous sites that tend to have great practices.

Here’s an interesting debate. Late in December, a post published on the American Society of Landscape Architects website by David Hopman opened an attack on unsustainable, resource/labor-intensive approaches to planting design and plant palettes, particularly in big public gardens. I agree with a lot of the post—after all, Hopman is arguing for environmentally sound practice and plant choices that are guided by their suitability to the conditions in a certain area. These are principles we should all be following, and I have lauded them many times, most recently in a post about my friend Dave Majewski’s design for a parking lot that saves trees, conserves water, and supports wildlife.

More from the Berkshire site

More from the Berkshire site

The problem is that these laudable principles are contained within a straw man-riddled essay that keeps harping against the practice of “Fine Gardening.” It’s an unfortunate phrase to choose. I doubt that there is universal consensus among gardeners about what, exactly, “fine gardening” means. (And if I were the editor of Fine Gardening mag, I wouldn’t be thrilled with this.) What he really means is “show gardens,” and most of the examples he criticizes are from this group.

The Highline doesn't set too shabby an example.

The Highline doesn’t set too shabby an example.

As the essay notes, big public gardens, mainly visited by tourists, often regularly change out their most prominent beds, particularly when it comes to bulbs and annuals. For example, Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island plants over 300,000 non-native bulbs for spring display, basically treating them as annuals, and the Dallas Arboretum also does a huge bulb display—but, because of its inhospitable conditions, it has to add insult to injury by shipping in enough soil amendments as to almost completely replace its native soil. And so on.

The Edith Wharton homestead has a lovely garden with a mix of summer bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and annuals.

The Edith Wharton homestead has a lovely garden with a mix of summer bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and annuals. It’s managed on a shoestring.

This goes on at botanical destinations throughout the world, though many of them also devote large areas to native plantings and other kinder, gentler examples. It takes a lot of man hours and other resources to maintain any of these places. I wouldn’t work at one, just as—as much as I love to cook—I’d never take a job in a restaurant. However, I do love visiting many public gardens of all types. I take away something different from each one. Rarely do I imagine I could replicate anything from these places in my small urban space.

When our friend Susan Cohan shared this on Facebook (asking us to respond—thanks!), the FB commenters really hated on Buchart (never been), and a few suggested, as I do, that show gardens have their value and should not be expected to be models for home gardeners to follow. Do they need “Don’t try this at home!” signs? I don’t think so; I credit my fellow gardeners with more sense than that.

For my part, I love a good bulb display. These will be composted when they're done and replaced with big tropicals. Yay!

For my part, I love a good bulb display. These will be composted when they’re done and replaced with big tropicals. Yay! None of my friends would dream of doing this.

Finally, every picture on the post showed mass plantings of bulbs. Well, that’s how bulbs look best—planted in large quantities—though preferably in drifts, with perennials ready to take their place. I plant hybrid tulips in largish quantities as well, and I do treat them as annuals. That is the only way in my very limited and shady space, but I can assure you that my fellow gardeners in Buffalo are appalled at my composting almost all my tulip bulbs and always remonstrate with me about it. As for changing out annuals, I am routinely asked during Garden Walk if I try to “winter over” my $4.95 pots of Persian Shield and coleus. Don’t worry about gardeners. Gardeners are frugal. Gardeners have common sense. The gardeners I know might enjoy reading this essay, but there’s nothing in it they haven’t already absorbed through early experience and budgetary constraints.

*I do urge our commenters to at least skim through the essay before responding. Sorry for this long post. It’s not like me and it won’t happen again!

Are show gardens making us bad gardeners? originally appeared on Garden Rant on January 7, 2016.

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