Do we need Garden Experts? by Anne Wareham

July 20, 2015

in General Interest

I know – you waited all this time for a new piece and now it’s just me.

Still: is it time we changed our perspective on ‘Garden Experts’? What do you think?

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham



Variegated Ground Elder and Lysimacia Firecracker M

This is a good look, to me.

Anne Wareham:

This winterGraham Rice , a garden expert if ever I met one,  put up a post on Mr Fothergill’s (a seed company) blog called “Top Five Plants to Avoid in 2015!” (here). Two of his no no’s were disputable to me. He portrayed variegated ground elder as an evil spreader, and warned us off hellebore seedlings that our friends might offer us.

Well, my variegated ground elder is getting swamped by quite ordinary (if vigorous) garden plants, and where it once was a dramatic ground cover, doing a sterling job of keeping weeds down, it is now reduced to looking super in spring in rather small patches. (see here).

Nor have I personally found that it or ordinary ground elder actually seeds much (if at all?) – my plants of both seem remarkably static. As well as useful. ( see here.)

Pots in ground elder at Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham 245

Ordinary ground elder looking good. But I’ve not found seedlings yet.

So I objected a little on twitter and instantly we got a variety of responses. Jane Perrone of the Guardian grows it in gravel and eats it, so finds she never has enough. Whereas Philip Clayton of ‘The Garden’ has had it spread into his lawn and finds it a pain. Chris Young, also (editor) of ‘The Garden’ ripped it out when he found it was too rampant and smothering all his many treasures. Two people added their appreciation of my ground elder on the evidence of their visits here, someone else spoke of how good it is restrained in a pot. The discussion spread to Facebook where David Stevens defended it – and other people howled about it.

And hellebore seedlings? Graham thinks they come up inferior and weedy. Well, I love the ones that come popping up at my mother in law’s all the time: she keeps bare soil, unlike me, so she gets lots of seedlings and never a dud, I’d say. Other people also seemed to treasure all their random seedlings too and said so.

April 2013 Hellebores at Jessica's

Seedling Hellebore at my Mother in Law’s. I like it.

So – my point? I don’t want to have a go at Graham. He knows a lot and has experiences, for example of new plant varieties, which make him a valuable resource and help. But I think this little episode illustrates something.

Most of the people I quoted above would get called ‘experts’ in the garden media and they had a variety of experiences and thoughts about Graham’s bad plants. That was interesting and illuminating. And online where we could all comment, people could see that the subject was not resolved by Graham’s opinion, so no harm is done. Social media and the comments on many online articles mean that people can read a variety of responses to an issue now and begin to make their own judgements.

Hellebores March end of 2014 at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham 062 m

Do we want it to seed? (yes!)

But elsewhere and ordinarily, in magazines, television and books, ‘experts’ are able to pontificate unchallenged. They present authoritatively rather than hesitantly, and we’re supposed to believe their every word. And what’s more they are expected to be positive all the time. I had many struggles with my editor in relation to my  (warning, advert...) new book about garden pests, when I honestly declared either ignorance or despair. Some rather tense emails were exchanged with pleas for me to be more positive. It was a struggle to stay honest.

Isn’t it time we let the world know that gardens and plants are infinitely variable and the notion of a garden expert is largely a fallacy, unless it’s on a very specific, well researched and updated topic? That we should all watch television and read the garden press armed with a huge pinch of salt?

What do you think?

Anne Wareham 



Anne Wareham portrait copyright Charles Hawes

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Jane Harries August 21, 2015 at 11:41 am

What a long discussion, and I am adding to it!… I think I started realising that there are several ways of doing things by listening to Gardener’s Question Time. The debate here with ‘experts’ flatly contradicting each other is illuminating, though sometimes a bit confusing if you really want a definitive answer as to why your plum tree died or whatever. Anyone who listens to GQT regularly knows to take things with a pinch of salt!

Mary August 20, 2015 at 4:39 am

What’s a garden you ask? A garden MUST evoke an emotional response. Otherwise it is just a grouping of plants, however artfully arranged. I’ll bet if you think about it, all of the remarkable gardens in your lifetime were an emotional experience. It seems to me, expert or amateur, sometimes we focus a bit too much initially on the utility of a garden where emotional might be more compelling. (how do you want to feel in it vs how do you want to use it).

Paul Steer August 23, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Yes – for me an emotional response is a must .

Katherine Crouch July 31, 2015 at 9:00 am

yes we need more garden amateurs as well as professional gardeners! Messing about in gardens is great!

Kjeld Slot July 30, 2015 at 2:29 pm

sorry I mean


Kjeld Slot July 30, 2015 at 2:26 pm

Of any kind.

– And more than ever.

Too many garden amateurs have lately (at least the last 15 years) had the opportunity to play the game as professionals and experts on Radio, TV, Sites, Gardenblogs and on Facebook. Everywhere there´s a big gap between quality, and only a small shortcut between quantity. Never before has the world seen so many bad pictures and subtitled sad solutions being pricked down in front gardens, poor garden- and landscape designs realised in both public spaces and private backyards. The main interest for many of to days garden-practitioners are garden styling with flower-arrangements. And hordes of `urban farmers´, are telling us, “they´re sustainable” and can fully supply the worlds towns with vegetables!?
That´s the biggest lie!

The question is:


Lots of lovely Gardenthinking summergreetings to all,
both the garden experts and the garden amateurs


Paul Steer July 22, 2015 at 10:45 pm

What a great debate ! Perhaps we all become experts of our own gardens. I ignore some advice because I am lazy and I break with conventional gardening advice – yet I still seem to have something resembling a garden – whatever a garden is.

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 10:53 pm

O, well, there’s another discussion, Paul. What is a garden? Xx

Katherine Crouch July 22, 2015 at 11:38 pm

woah, here we go, what is a garden? Gyre-den, that which is surrounded, as in girth, garth, girdle, guard. If not surrounded (in pre-Enclosures Act times) then the area is prey to hooved grazing animals, in which case it is a park or field or common. So far so good………………………..

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 11:40 pm

We are definitely prey to hooved grazing animals. Wonder whether Veddw is a park, field or common?

Katherine Crouch July 23, 2015 at 9:51 am

well you don’t intend to have the munchers on site and you have tried to enclose the site to keep the buggers out, so that certainly makes Veddw a garden. Successful result or not!

Second definition in my book – you manipulate the plants for your pleasure within the boundaries.

annewareham July 23, 2015 at 10:00 am

I take it you will be writing the piece?

Katherine Crouch July 23, 2015 at 10:15 am

dang, I walked into that one! Hmmmm……

annewareham July 23, 2015 at 10:19 am

Yep! (well, discuss?)

Lynda Harris July 22, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Thanks for the interesting article. I really enjoy listening to BBC Gardener’s Question Time exactly because on every episode, without fail, the experts disagree and it’s very entertaining when they do! And because of that I understand that the advice they give is information from personal experience rather than set in stone. However the tips they give can be useful, informative, or maybe just worth a try and I enjoy and benefit from their information. There are so many plants, soil types and weather conditions that gardening can never be an exact science and a bit of advice can come in handy.

In commenting on the aesthetic point of view, experts are on shakier ground as the creation of a garden is an art form and therefore much more subjective.

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Yes, re aesthetic. We need more garden critics, because it is a learned and important skill and they offer great illumination. This should be another discussion on here maybe – what does it take to be a good garden critic?

And, yes, I imagine Gardener’s Question Time must do just that and I’m surprised therefore that you’re the first to mention it.

Rosalind July 22, 2015 at 4:27 pm

YES to the topic of what makes a good garden critic…this should be a much debated topic!

Abbie Jury July 22, 2015 at 11:45 am

LOL, Anne! Experts are not like the pope – expected to be infallible. But I’d a lot rather get good information from someone who knows more than I do than to rely on local anecdote.

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Local can sometimes hit the spot? I think that novice gardeners have a different perspective, perhaps, and still believe in authority. Maybe that also gives them something to lean on though. It can be a confusing world at the start.

But the weight ‘Experts’ are given in the UK is daft and warrants confronting. Time we all grew up a bit?

James Golden July 21, 2015 at 10:05 pm

I think it’s helpful to have experts so long as you realize that more than half (probably more) of what they say will not be true where you garden. So gather their advice, then test it. You’ll learn why they say what they do, and why that advice isn’t true in your particular situation. With a basis for building your knowledge, you will learn on your own simply by paying attention. Most “experts” would classify many, probably most, of my plants as thugs, and in certain situations they would be right. But in my garden, they make peace among themselves.

We may need experts, but we give them far too much credence. And we probably shouldn’t call them “experts.”

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 11:37 pm

Wise, James, wise.

adam skinner July 21, 2015 at 9:53 pm

An almost infallible cure for ground elder is to have a dozen or so geese grazing it. Unfortunate side effects will include removing brussel sprouts and purple flowering broccoli at ground level. Curiously, they only strip the leaves off climbing french beans, leaving nude bean pods exposed for easy picking.
I did get rid of a patch of G Elder in one part of the garden using double thickness landscape fabric and building a raised bed with old sleepers. the unfortunate consequence of this G E free area is a bonsai magnolia stellata…

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 11:38 pm

It’s a beautiful plant,in leaf and flower..

Graham Rice July 21, 2015 at 7:35 pm

I absolutely stand by what I said about variegated ground elder! But part of the point about writing about plants (and gardens, of course) is not to tell people what to think but to encourage people to think for themselves and to make up their own minds. If they agree with me, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine too – as long as they’ve actually thought about the issue (as have the commenters here) and not just reacted thoughtlessly. The point is that people are not “supposed to believe every word”, they’re supposed to decide for themselves. And if Anne and I and the rest of us “experts” help make people think, we’ve done our job.

I stand by what I said about self seeding hellebores, too. And here’s the “why”. The very best hellebores are usually those individuals that demonstrate, as a result of their unique genetic make up, very special qualities. But the flowers develop in such a way as to encourage cross pollination with other hellebores and, in the resulting self sown seedlings, that unique genetic blend is diluted. Over the years, each generation of plants will tend to revert closer to the wild type with more plants with poorly shaped flowers in unremarkable colours. A few gems will still appear but, over the long term, it’s downhill all the way. And I’ll bet you a million billion pounds that the hellebore that Anne has captioned “Seedling Hellebore at my Mother in Law’s. I like it.” is not a seedling at all! Looks a little like ‘Ivory Prince’ to me – and, as far as I know, although the pods sometimes swell up, it’s sterile so never produces a single seed.

But perhaps I’ll follow up on those Top Five Plants To Avoid with five more. The “people’s choice” this time – any suggestions?

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 11:45 pm

I don’t think people know that they are supposed to make their own minds up when experts give an assertive opinion (see above). They may very well do that. They almost invariably do that, but that’s not the implication of advice giving.

I guess you could weed out reverted hellebore seedlings you didn’t like? (And I think you’re wrong about my mother in laws’seedling but it’s too far for you to come and see it in the flesh. Neither was it selected especially out of her bed of babies)

Katherine Crouch July 22, 2015 at 12:43 pm

hmmm, 5 plants to avoid…..anything with an aggressive running root stock is usually top of the pops, My top choice for avoidance after years of enjoyment is Papaver Patty’s Plum. Flowers for only about 10 days and I never really found any other flowers as suitable companions, apart from stipa tenuissima and a very muddy mustard yellow bearded iris. I would grow Papaver Medallion instead, a more definite damson. You-don’t-wanna-grow-that-you wanna-grow-this is a game we can all play ad infinitum – more suggestions please. We are all ‘experts’ where our personal taste is concerned.

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 12:54 pm

I love running rootstock and think that the dismissal of ‘thugs’ is one of those things that plant freaks don’t like but which could serve the general unenthusiastic garden person very well. Maybe experts tend to think their audience is always keen to have as many plants as possible in a tiny space? (because they do?)

Annette July 21, 2015 at 11:20 am

No matter which subject you turn to, you’ll always come across experts of all sorts. It’s important to exchange thoughts and to listen to experts (the real ones and not self-declared ones) in order to learn and develop. As much as I love reading good expert books I’ve always found that you can’t beat your own experiences and what doesn’t work for one, works beautifully for others. Your ground elder is a good example. It’s a plant I do fear big time as it spread terror in my last garden. And no, I certainly couldn’t eat it all! With even more horror I noticed I had brought in bits when moving some of my plants to my new garden but I’m keeping an eye on it, fingers crossed. I was a bit surprised at Graham’s choice actually, but it only shows how personal this thing is. I guess you’ll get to know the experts you can trust as times go on. No harm to use one’s own head too 😉

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 12:17 pm

You remind me somehow (thinking of Graham?) that media experts have to go on and on finding things to write about. Just what does that lead to? Hope you stay ground elder free…

Annette July 22, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Among other things it leads to more expert and garden books so the authors in our midst should be pleased 😉

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 4:03 pm

O, I am! Xx

Penny July 21, 2015 at 11:11 am

Although I try to get rid of ground elder in my garden as it takes over where I would like other things to grow, I do appreciate it in surrounding woodland. I know that plants such as ammi majus and orlaya are becoming popular but I think that ground elder flowers are much better and much more easily grown.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 12:16 pm

That’s true, about the flowers – and I understand they keep better in water than the others. (but don’t trust me on that one!)

Helen Gazeley July 21, 2015 at 10:23 am

I think anyone who ventures even a toe’s dip into gardening soon realises that for every two gardeners there’ll be three opinions. Expert advice gives people somewhere to start.

Having said that, there could be room for qualification of statements, but magazines etc don’t seem to want to give it. I’d suggest that this tends to be because an awful lot of gardening articles are by gardeners turned journalist, rather than journalists turned gardeners, and most media are looking for that personal approach all the time.

Catherine July 21, 2015 at 12:23 am

I think that some gardening experts get lazy about continuing professional development, forgetting that they while they are educators, they must also be life-long learners. As a garden writer, I have a ‘3 things’ rule that I apply to my stories – that I have to research the topic until I come up with 3 things I didn’t know when I started. It’s a regular wake-up call to move beyond my personal experience and my original knowledge before I start pontificating, and to realise that one man’s meat can be another’s poison.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:19 am

That is seriously impressive. Though how do you check your research? Or maybe – how do you get to trusting your sources?

Paul Steer July 20, 2015 at 9:31 pm

Nicole de Vesian made a beautiful garden without much plant knowledge – perhaps she learnt as she went along ? I agree that we all need some help along the way – starting out in particular – but now we can look and learn online. Good to see Tristan commenting again I’ve missed him.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:23 am

Most of us start knowing nothing unless we are professionals? I remember a neighbour asking me how I knew so much about gardening (I didn’t, he just thought I did). I said ‘books’ – and at that time it was books, by about four or five well trusted writers. (see Bad Tempered Gardener).

Since then Experts have proliferated like dandelions..

Katherine Crouch July 20, 2015 at 7:31 pm

I have many clients who are demoralized and overwhelmed by expert advice, saying they don’t know enough about gardening to make a start. Being an expert, I tell them that I started gardening without reading a single book, following the example of family matriarchs, thus…..

Figure out what space is mainly for people and which mainly for plants. Dig soil, remove weeds, stick plants in brown end down, green end up. Water until established. If they die, try to figure out what went wrong, but plant something else. If they live they will self seed or expand. Move the plants about. If you end up not liking a plant or it is taking over, re-home or murder it. Observe, review, improve. Repeat your successes. Listen to advice, act upon it if it suits you.

That covers most of gardening. Read books to expand your knowledge, the best sort of gardening in the winter… my expert opinion….

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:28 am

Good stuff, Katherine.

Graham Rice July 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Well, between us Anne and I seem to have sparked a lot of thinking. And that’s one of the great things about the “Five Plants For This… “Ten Plants For That…” format: people instantly start thinking about what they would have left out or added in – and why.

But I know what Katherine means about people being overwhelmed by “expert advice”. But what is overwhelming for one gardener may be superficial for another and just right for another. Writing for, say, Amateur Gardening magazine is different from writing for The Plantsman and the content of one would rarely satisfy the readers of the other.

At least we don’t see newspaper columnists in their own little world insisting on propagation by grafting, any more; that really puts people off. But we do still sometimes see taking cuttings with a knife recommended. Just about none of my readers even possess a garden knife of any kind and as for using it to take cuttings…. So my knife is lost in the back of a drawer somewhere – I use secateurs like everyone else. (Although, I have to confess, I do very occasionally use a sharp kitchen vegetable knife! At least my readers are likely to actually have one.)

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Can’t resist – I use scissors and a bread knife…

Different formats are fine and of course, demand different copy, but the real learning maybe comes from discussion, which happens most here (as in thinkingardens, of course, and the web generally). I remember how bewildered I was as a beginner and envy people the way they can now ask questions and engage in discussions which have not been filtered through the BBC or any other media. This is a great new age, things are changing and hurray! After all – it was your blog started this, went on to twitter and then here. Xx

Julia July 20, 2015 at 7:06 pm

I love layered naturalistic planting because it creates depth and a long season of interest for pollinators as well as people.
Ground elder is a thug. It spreads like a carpet, leaving no room for neighbours. Of course you can use it in quirky ways, but it is an antisocial thug, very common in neglected spots and gardens where the gardener has given up fighting it.
Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It would be boring if we all agreed. Enthusiasm rather than qualifications excite me when fellow gardeners share their knowledge. Alys Fowler is a great example. She has plenty of qualifications but it is her enthusiasm and willingness to experiment/break the rules which is so inspiring.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:30 am

People often say it would be boring if we all agreed. But maybe, if we did, we could all take the next steps towards really amazing and beautiful instead of paddling around in the shallows of ‘maybe’..

David July 20, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Agreed, Anne,
As a weekly garden columnist (15 years) I prefer to write of the joy and the challenges rather than give instructions, particularly as most turn to Google now. I often write of my own garden failures, which not surprisingly provides encouragement to those thinking I’m the “expert” — hah!

BTW, going to be in the UK for a few weeks in fall and I might just make it to Veddw.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:30 am

Man after my own heart – hope to see you here soon then! Xx

Tristan Gregory July 20, 2015 at 6:25 pm

We have experts in order to give us general ideas about what is generally possible and given that it is the basics that many people new to gardening trip over and become disappointed by a safe steer is useful when you start out or when you are embarking on something new.

Plants and aesthetics are complicated matters though and when advice morphs into opinion it stifles rather than informs. As for who qualifies as an expert gardener that can seem entirely subjective when one makes a list of the most prominent.

I hate ground elder and love the hoe and am, of course, always right.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:31 am

That hoe!!!!!!!!! No!!!!!!!!

Rosalind July 21, 2015 at 10:47 am

I would agree with Tristan on the expert front, though why horticulture should reign in it’s expert opinions any more than any other media outlet is beyond me.

For the record I hate ground elder having had to hack it out of several enormous, neglected borders. Perhaps I should start eating it or simply offer it to Jane (Perrone)!

Incidentally have you considered the 10,000 hours rule for gauging an ‘expert’ – Outliers ; Malcolm Gladwell

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 1:38 pm

That’s this – Outliers. That sounds apposite, if includes some of the hours being recent. Thanks.

It was variegated ground elder that Graham referred to – not as rampant as its parent, I believe. I don’t know anyone else but me who uses ordinary ground elder in their garden.

Rosalind July 22, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Sorry should have been more specific, one hack was bog standard ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), the other variegated (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Vareiagta’), both seemed as belligerent as each other…

Agreed hours would need to be recent… not sure that Gladwell states that though.

annewareham July 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm

May depend on soil, climate, 10001 other boring things that govern the merits or otherwise of ground elder? We have a good soil and wettish climate so you’d think it would drive us mad. But the variegated is well smothered now by its companions. The other I don’t notice much except where I actively cultivate it.

Katherine Crouch July 31, 2015 at 9:03 am

I think it was Mr Titchmarsh who wrote that saying that variegated ground elder was not as rampant as the parent was a bit like saying that Mussolini was not as bad as Hitler

annewareham July 31, 2015 at 9:35 am

There really isn’t much of mine left – all smothered by other (well recommended) perennials. Now, cleavers and bindweed are a different case…

Katherine Crouch July 31, 2015 at 10:05 am

oh the horror, the horror!!!!!!

…and if I read yet one more article chirpily recommending cleavers as a delicious addition to salads I shall scream. Then send out for pizza.

annewareham July 31, 2015 at 10:20 am

If cleavers was good to eat, Waitrose would stock it.

Claire Austin July 20, 2015 at 5:53 pm

I agree with you Anne, and I expect Graham would – if he could – counter it with ‘this is only my opinion’. Over the year’s I have discovered that most gardeners are experts in there own way; discovering what will grow in their own patches. I agree with you about Variegated Ground Elder. When I grew it in sandy soil it was not invasive. I’ve not tried it in my clay soil here at Sarn for fear of it going wild. I, like you, have lots of lovely hellebore seedlings – and I don’t care if they are not like their parents, or even too like the parents, they are always a joy.

But we do need gardeners with experience – all of us. A while ago a Dutchman told me not to grow Sanguisorba dodecandra. Boy was he right, its a running menace. While Noel Kingsbury (many years ago) said that Gentiana tibetica was an ugly thing and should not be included in gardens. I still treasure it. Perhaps an expert is only an expert in his own garden and with his own taste. If you have problems with a plant (I don’t like Solidagos) you are perfectly entitled to say so as long as you can say why. It’s all a matter of opinion anyway, but valuable non-the-less as you have just illustrated.

annewareham July 21, 2015 at 10:36 am

What is often missing is the why of advice, with the detail – which, for example, you are providing here. And the detail – the ‘why I hate this plant in these circumstances’ illuminates so much more than just the uses (or not) of a particular plant. Just as garden criticism with such exposition helps us see more clearly. (Goes off to investigate Sanguisorba dodecandra and Gentiana tibetica ….)

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