Letter from America – further comments

December 3, 2010

in Articles, General Interest

In October I published a piece, Letter from America, which described some gardens as ‘crap’. There has been quite a lot of correspondence about this, so I am publishing a second page of comments, which I think are a useful discussion about this difficult issue. Anne Wareham

From Chris Young

It was me that raised the concern for including the word ‘crap’ in the garden review. It was not, as some people have suggested, due to a sensibility to a swear word – that wasn’t the issue for me as a member of the thinkingardens panel (though I do think the garden owners could have been somewhat miffed at such a dismissive summary). Rather, it was because a one word summary on a website that aims to get people ‘thinking’ about gardens isn’t that useful; just as ‘OK’ doesn’t teach us anything more, ‘crap’ doesn’t take us much further either. We don’t expect reams and reams of text, but I believe a description/explanation of why something worked or not, is necessary.

Of course, the original text from Susanne was intended as a ‘letter’ and so one could argue that we should relax, not worry about the style, presentation or content of the summary. But I firmly believe that what we publish on the website should be useful and thought-provoking. Ironically, the ‘Letter to America’, which for me, didn’t set off as a useful, informative review of some of the gardens mentioned, has in fact sparked a debate all in itself……

From Charles Hawes

If someone wants to describe a garden as “crap”, then they are entitled to do so. I agree with Corinne that this does not constitute reasoned argument, so is limited in what it says. However in the context in which it was written (very brief opinions about many gardens which the person had visited) it gives a clear sense of whether the visitor thought the garden had any merit.

From Anne Wareham

Is “I likedany better than? “Crap”

From Philippa Perry

When someone describes something as ‘not their cup of tea’, it is telling you far more about them than the garden. When you open a garden to the public or publish a book, you are going to get unhelpful criticism which is more about the critic than an objective, informative view of the work, but still will influence other people and how they see the work. It’s the nature of sticking your head above the line of the ha ha, that’ll you’ll get unqualified judgments rather than evocative descriptions.

The article in question is more of a holiday diary than a considered piece of criticism and I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you lay down guide lines about how people are supposed to comment, I fear that it would be too inhibiting for them.

I would concentrate on those comments that are more informative, evocative and considered and not worry about the bland, non-specific judgments.

Reading it all has made me want to walk round a garden though!

From Avril Korman

This goes to the point of what you’re trying to do with thinkinGardens.  If all you’re doing is strictly speaking to other garden professionals, then that’s one thing. But you and I know that the internet is open to all, so it’s hard to control access.  Further you know as well as me that just like with design, due to the advent of the internet and cable television, every and any idiot with a patch of dirt and access to a garden centre fancies themselves a gardener (just like everyone who has somewhere to live, HGTV and access to a home depot fancies themselves a designer). That being the case, if you are trying to teach something about gardens, garden design, professional landscape design then it is not enough to say “I like it, I don’t like it.”  It is in your best interest to take the approach of a design critique.

The letter you received from the woman in the states doesn’t really do that. Yes, she visited many gardens, but she isn’t really explaining anything that those who have never visited those places or are indeed not landscaping professionals would understand.  It is totally okay to say “I like this. I think it’s pretty.”  But that is not really speaking to the point of gardens and professionally maintained landscapes from a design perspective.

If she’s just someone who sent a letter you decided to post simply because she had visited so many, that’s one thing. But I think it’s important to consider that thinkingardens is called that for a reason- it’s about ‘thinking’ about gardens. That requires explanations, and discussion, and dialogue.  It’s a learning and teaching experience as well as a place to have opinion on what is liked or not.

From Emma Bond

I saw the article but was not offended, indeed mostly people are far far too polite. Often the attributes of a garden are in the eye of the beholder and we can’t all like the same thing, but we British folk are so entrenched in our way of thinking, and are totally force fed bland so that anyone stepping even slightly out of line and using the c word – although there are better c words out there – would upset the old apple cart, but not mine.

My beef is with garden designers and landscapers and indeed my own work often – inasmuch as nothing has moved on in the last 10 years in the least. Everyone is churning out the same old rubbish because that is what people want and it is very hard to educate the great public to trying new and different things There is so much boring and middling work out there, it abounds, it is in every street, in every town, in every place where builders turn landscapers and then call themselves designers.

The gardens seen at Chelsea Flower Show and the like bear little or no resemblance to the gardens constructed and planted throughout the land. Few clients outside of the rarefied London market actually want daring minimalism or blinging roof terraces, they want a patio, and some lawn… mostly…

As far as public gardens goes, the general feeling is almost that they are like churches or hallowed ground that cannot be critiqued in any way, you never see anything honest, ever. Makes me mad as no-one ever really needs to try really hard or pull their socks up.

From Debbie Ireland

It’s an honest opinion. I wouldn’t be put off from visiting the garden as it’s each to their own. I woulld be upset if I was the owner.

From Karen Wilde

CRAP is acceptable. But I suppose it depends on age and sensibilities.

From Darryl Moore

As a unique arena in which gardens are given serious intellectual consideration, some of the recent comments published on thinkinGardens may seem something of a contradiction, presenting as they do views which appear to lack any kind of justification other than that of a purely subjective nature. The thinking behind them has not been made apparent, which tends to reinforce the idea that opinions on gardens can be made by anyone without recourse to explanation – one of the things that thinkinGardens set out to challenge .

The fact that TG is an open forum for discussing gardens, welcoming contributions from general punters and media pundits alike is one of it’s strengths, and the debate being raised around this matter is obviously not about who is contributing, but how they are doing it. The question it begs is whether there is an appropriate format for garden citicism, and what this may actually be.

Whilst all forms of criticsm are ultimately based on opinion, the heart of the matter is about how well expressed that opinion is. Is it presented in context, does it take into account background information, and can it stand to be critiqued as such? If it is simply a statement such as ‘I like’ or ‘I dislike’, then all further conversation stops there – it is simply a solipsistic viewpoint which cannot be challenged or debated further. Simple derogatory or dismissive expletives are not helpful, as they do nothing to up the ante on creating more serious debate around gardens, the very thing which thinkinGardens set out to do. In endeavouring to develop new forms of garden criticism, it would be unhelpful to encourage this type of relativism.

These kind of perspectives bring to mind the old adage “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”, which may be the case, but unless one can explain why one likes (or dislikes) something, it is neither informative nor illuminating. Opinion of this kind appears knee-jerk and unreflective, whereas criticism should be revealing and informed. It should be able to define and defend the position it is supporting,

So can there be a set format for critical views and if so what should it be? Should criticism be framed by a code of conduct? Such suggestions have been mooted, and reference has been made to adopting the standards of professional conduct within other forms of arts criticism. This is certainly a useful idea, but one which could be at odds with the open format of thinkinGardens which wishes to encourage contributions from an audience wider than a professional cabal. As such implementing such a structure seems unrealistic

But that also doesn’t mean that an ‘anything goes’ approach is workable either. The libertarian idealism some believe the internet represents is little more than a myth. The experience of the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour website, shows that open access can lead to a situation which is abused and abusive, one which eventually resulted in the site’s closure.

Democratic participation requires some degree of consensus, and therefore some degree of mediation. In any form of publication editorship is implicit, and thinkinGardens is no different, which is not something it should shy away from. Debates such as this should help to shape exactly what form this takes and as a consequence the nature and standard of the contributions to the site.

There are plenty of opportunities for people to rant about gardens, but if thinkinGardens seriously wants to live up to the ‘thinking’ part of it’s moniker (the aspect which sets it apart from the others) then it needs to be rigourous in it’s demands for considered and informed opinion.


I think it is interesting that one of the gardens was Mill Dene, considering you wrote an article on it a few years ago in 25 Glorious Gardens. Obviously your piece was not of a critical nature, so I don’t know exactly what your opinion of the garden is, which throws up another interesting issue concerning the difference between descriptive garden journalism (to pay the bills?) and critical reviews. Can one have different opinions on the same garden in each context – is there a relationship between them, or a code of ethics? or more possibly can a schizophrenic disparity be accounted for by the form of each piece? – which again raises the question of the format and context of writing being as important as the content.

(reply from Anne Wareham to the PS – Darryl, you know no magazine will print anything even mildly critical of a garden, which is why they no longer employ me to write ‘garden stories’. I am indeed poorer in consequence. )

From Suzanne Albinson

Corinne Julius is quite right. ‘Crap’ is entirely an inadequate word as a valid criticism and it was just used in a quick email to a friend who asked me what I thought of the gardens I visited. I should have taken the time to write more thorough comments, especially since they have subsequently been published, but I used a dismissive slang word from my vocabulary (which to me means something of poor quality) in the sake of expediency.

Note Darryl Moore has promised thinkingardens a full review of Mill Dene in the New Year, with no bad words.

More comment? Email: info@thinkingardens.co.uk

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