Peer review by Bunny Guinness

September 2, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

Bunny Guinness recently wrote this piece for the Telegraph and it was published in the newspaper. It has not yet appeared online though, so I asked (and received) her permission to use it here.

Many thinkingardens readers will already be familiar with this topic and the arguments, but I thought it worth putting in front of you. It’s good to see this topic being discussed elsewhere and that in itself is good to acknowledge. And then, there may be some new visitors to this site who haven’t yet come across this discussion, in which case it makes a great start.

I haven’t used the Telegraph pictures. They are other people’s copyright apart from one of Veddw by Charles Hawes, and you’ve seen enough of those. So I have just scattered some vegetation to break up the text.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon

 

 

 

 

 

Bunny Guinness: No one is perfect and gardens can always be improved, so don’t get too defensive when someone offers you some constructive criticism.

There is nothing so infuriating,  but also potentially rewarding, as when someone leans over your shoulder and points out an error in your garden – a prized tree that is blocking out a view, for instance.

I had a couple of professional gardeners over the other evening. They maintain a regularly opened garden to a very high level. So I asked them for a “peer review”. They looked a little uneasy – few of us embrace criticism – but eventually they kindly gave me a couple of pointers. In my orchard I have sheets of Symphytum ‘Hidcote Blue’ clothing the ground under the trees which the bees adore. It flowers relentlessly from early spring and was just starting to go over so they advised to cut it back to neaten it up. Many ground-cover plants, bergenia and geraniums especially, respond to this and perk up and look leafy and lush in no time. My husband, who is very protective of his bees, asked me quietly to leave them alone until the flowering had finished. Well, my lack of time is on the bees’ side in this case.

TG leaf Copyright Anne Wareham SAM_8427The second point they made concerned the four holm oaks in my courtyard, which are interspersed with four poodle-pruned lime trees. Why not remove the limes, they said. Sore point this, as the limes were quick fillers to work until the tiny transplants of holm oak grew up. When I got out the chainsaw a few years back to remove the “temporary” limes the family tree-huggers went berserk. But their comments pushed me into it and the next day I did the deed. The tree-huggers are not pleased.

Stephen Anderton is an enthusiastic critic. At the end of tours around gardens he has been known to ask visitors how they would use a bomb on the garden? He is the only other person who has offered criticism to me – he visited my garden some 20 years ago and said, “too many pots”. I have even more now and they give me huge pleasure.

TG 091Clematis heracleifolia Copyright Anne Wareham

Anne Wareham, garden maker and writer, is adamant that gardens need critics. She has been developing her garden, Veddw House Garden (veddw.com) in South Wales, with her husband for 28 years. She campaigns for serious reviews of gardens so that they can take their rightful place among fine arts in British culture (thinkingardens.co.uk). When she asked visitors what they thought of her garden she found it difficult to get more than “it’s lovely” from them. Whereas, as the novelist Sara Maitland points out, when you publish a book you expect a “certain robustness in the reviewing process” and she welcomes reviews. They help  in many ways, such as how she might balance her next book. She points out that a polarity of views are often reflected in high sales. She wants the same in garden reviews.

Somehow we tend to take garden criticism personally, even though the comments are aimed at the garden not the owner. But, in reality, getting a garden to work does involve many different facets and positive criticism can invariably be turned to good effect. No garden is perfect 12 months a year. Anne asks her garden visitors “what two things would you do to improve the garden?” She acts on some of the answers – removing a tree that distracted from a focal point and burning a lovingly tended maturing holly hedge which framed a view that was not the best. Tim Richardson (a non gardener) gave her a “sensitive and detailed critique” and the crux of it was edit and focus. Another question she continually asks is “what can be removed?”

Tim started off as a theatre critic for Country Life in 1994, and is now a garden historian and critic. He cannot see the point of writing a review of a garden without highlighting the good and the bad. But, he says, even when people ask you what you think, they often get prickly when you tell them. He points out he would never go to a private garden and lay into it in print. That is quite different from a garden open to the public and charging money. “Criticism can praise, it is not just pejorative and the point of writing a review is to get the reader interested, enthralled and informed,” he says.

Hydrangea flower Copyright Anne Wareham SAM_3394

Penny Snell is familiar with criticising gardens. She was chairman of the National Garden Scheme (NGS) for six years and is currently the county organiser for London. For many years she has visited gardens and had to decide whether or not they are up to scratch for opening. The NGS rejects a good 25 per cent of those offered. Sometimes they accept a garden but then get letters of complaint from visitors: they wasted time and money going to see something that did not live up to their expectations. One man’s meat is another man’s poisondoes certainly apply to gardens. Although the owner writes the description, the NGS edit it to try to avoid misleading visitors.

The design of a garden plays a large part in whether it will suit the NGS. It might be a style of design that does not appeal to everyone but as long as it is good of its type then it is accepted.

hydrangea flower Copyright Anne Wareham, at Veddw SAM_2626

Penny can instantly tell if it has been  professionally  designed and reckons that if it looks good on Christmas Day then that’s the acid test. Potential “openers” sometimes describe their garden as “a plantsman’s garden”. This often means they buy one of all their favourite plant and throw them in together. Others might be full of wall-to-wall Bizzie Lizzies for instance, which is just boring. A common problem is untidiness. Hoses left out, black pots scattered, tools out, shed doors open. If they do not tidy up before the organisers visit then they are unlikely to for the public.

When Penny is asked for help and criticism she is happy to do so but it is not easy as “everyone’s garden is a joy to them”. But if people are paying they do expect value for money even when the owners are doing a good deed for a charity. Probably one of the commonest things I hear is: “I love my garden but I know it’s not quite right”.

If you ever visit my garden, I will now demand from you two ways to improve it!

Bunny Guinness

Website

For more on the NGS and garden criticism, see here and for other articles about garden criticism see

‘Be critical’ by Tristan Gregory and We should find out what people think

 

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Christina Wakeford January 10, 2016 at 6:28 pm

Very pleased to have discovered this thoughtful site

annewareham January 10, 2016 at 7:01 pm

Thank you! xx

Derry watkins September 5, 2015 at 9:45 pm

I had the unenviable task of being on the receiving end of one of Anne’s first critical reviews. Terrifying in prospect. Testament to my true grit that i let her into the garden. But pleasurable to have someone take the garden seriously and some worthwhile suggestions which have been acted on. A breath of fresh air. We garden too much alone. I would love a community of gardeners who visited each other and talked aboutwhat they were doing and why.

mary james September 3, 2015 at 7:39 pm

A really interesting article and discussion. As a working gardener and a fault of being somewhat straight, I probably offer my opinion when not even asked, good or bad! However, I hope I am fair and don’t upset too much. Like you Anne, I think private gardens are generally Britain’s best as they have soul. As gardeners we should welcome critiques, as one can always learn from others and after all one doesn’t have to agree with suggestions.
Thinking Gardens is to be applauded for its approach, thanks Anne.

annewareham September 3, 2015 at 11:27 pm

Thank you, Mary.

Melissa O'Neill September 3, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Have had the good fortune to visit an enormous number of gardens this summer, all open to the public on a regular basis. Out of a dozen there were two outstanding gardens, June Blake in Tinode, Co. Wicklow and Pitmuis, Scotland. All of the others had some good elements, some less successful areas and some areas of neglect. I suspect each of the gardeners are fully aware of their problem areas but perhaps have restrictions placed upon them. One of the most striking elements of failure is a ‘route’ around the garden. In private gardens this may not be an issue but certainly it makes a huge difference for the design of the garden to lead around the garden path. Finally it is interesting to me that my two favourite gardens are privately owned and the owner is very much the hands on gardener.

annewareham September 3, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Do you mean a route is a good thing or not so good?

And I am increasingly of the opinion that private gardens which open to the public are our best gardens. (ed.)

Rachel January 22, 2016 at 10:13 am

I am a firm believer in routes – I don’t think anyone should even try to open their garden to the public if there is not at least one clear route around the garden, preferably with both detours and short-cuts, for the more interested and the less able.

As Anne knows from my earlier contributions to this website, I am a fairly critical garden visitor *laughs* and although I am generally quite forgiving regarding the actual planting (being a Professional Gardener myself, I know all too well how plants sometimes fail to perform!) I am quite firm on other aspects, tidyness and paths being two of the main ones.

If you want an example of a garden with abysmally bad “pathage” I would point you towards this:

http://rachel-the-gardener.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/bourton-house-garden.html

…although I haven’t been back there since, and who knows, they might have read my blog and made some changes? I’d be interested to hear if anyone went there last year, and if so, what they thought of the path/route/dead end issues.

skr September 3, 2015 at 3:56 pm

My wife and I were having a related conversation the other night. She has noticed, much to her dismay, that even though she works with a bunch of artists they seem to have a hard time with critical discourse. They will sit in a meeting trying to brainstorm technical ideas on how to achieve a particular goal where you would expect that the pros and cons of any particular idea would be discussed. However, if you bring up any cons, peoples feelings get hurt and you are viewed as being negative. She told me, “It’s like they were never taught how to think critically and they are just going through the motions.” That’s when I realized they aren’t having a critical discussion, they are engaging in a ritual like a cargo cult.

John Lord September 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm

One of the main reasons people read criticisms is for their entertainment value and negative hatchet type jobs tend to be more entertaining. It’s hard to be nice and funny at the same time unless you’re PG Woodhouse. Though it is a little difficult to be over critical of someone’s private garden which is their labour of love, it would be a bit like having a go at their children. Publicly owned gardens are different and much more fair game. I had a good go once at Ireland’s national botanic gardens, an institution well larded with taxpayer’s money, which had and still has one of the worse herbaceous borders north of the equator.
We have our own gardens now open to the public and we get the occasional bit of criticism, (far outweighed by all the praise, he says) so I know what its like to be on the receiving end. But if you give it you’ve got to take it.

Rosalind September 4, 2015 at 8:47 am

Really? restaurant, film, theatre, tv et al critics rarely ‘take it’ most of them can’t ‘do it’ to start with. That doesn’t mean that they are not arbiters of taste, consumers are after all the end game in this and if they don’t like what you’re effectively selling they have just as much right to say so regardless of whether they can do it themselves or not.
Well proportioned criticism is an art, just being mean spirited and or downright nasty about a garden doesn’t really fall into the category of well considered, informed criticism.
One of the big downfalls of gardens public or private is that one often has to guess what the aim is (or indeed aims are) sometimes one makes a good guess sometimes not. Gardens that are too obvious are on the whole a bit dull.

Laura trowbridge September 3, 2015 at 11:55 am

Please email me your blog

annewareham September 3, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Would be subscribers need to find the box at the bottom of this article, labelled “Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog”. Put your email in and you’ll get an email invitation to subscribe. Never miss another post…. Xx

Valerie Lapthorne September 3, 2015 at 11:19 am

I shall certainly now, following Anne’s guide, ask visitors what they would do to improve the garden from their point of view. It indicates that you value their suggestions (as you do) and allows them to make a positive criticism which won’t offend, which they don’t want to do. Too many “Ooh, its lovely”s make a gardener complacent.

Rosalind September 2, 2015 at 9:22 pm

But Adam why does criticism have to be negative? And of course a creator can reject criticism, positive or negative. Opinion is very valuable, especially if one can find one in tune with ones self. I recall a TimeOut film critic who hated everything I liked. I knew if he hated it I would love it and vice versa, a good service provided and received!

Adam Hodge September 2, 2015 at 7:55 pm

So many people offering criticism reminds me of the Aesop’s fable The Miller, his son and the Donkey. Lets let a garden be as the creator has let it be . Who has the right to say how something ‘should ‘ be? Can one really say that a load of Impatiens is boring , compared to, say, a mass of flowerless shrubs or big blocks of one type of grass? To some Yes, to others No.
I visited Veddw and whilst liking or understanding most of it, didn’t necessarily ‘like’ all of it. I certainly wasn’t going to be so rude, as I felt it, and start making any negative comments. It is an expression of Anne & Charles’ ideas and what they like. More power to their elbow !
As I see it the critic, if one must be one, must equally be prepared to accept rejection of their comments without getting offended. After all, the criticism is just an opinion !

http://www.bbc.co.uk/learning/schoolradio/subjects/english/aesops_fables/9-16/miller_son_donkey

Tristan Gregory September 2, 2015 at 7:29 pm

As long as the critics are prepared to stand behind what they say/write then you have a useful interaction between the garden and the observer. This way everybody has the chance to be wrong.

Rosalind September 2, 2015 at 7:05 pm

Good article, we certainly need more objective reviewing of the nations public gardens. But a regular mass media forum (newspaper, online newspaper) might be helpful in encouraging people to take the time to visit and write.

Katherine Crouch September 2, 2015 at 5:29 pm

we should not be prickly about visitors, gardeners and designers judging our gardens – if we have asked them to. The question ‘which two things would you change?’ is an excellent opener to a constructive yet critical dialogue.

Robin White September 2, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Incidentally, when I wanted to visit Anne’s garden out of season and she found out that I was a writer, she demanded a whole review as the price of admission!

😛

Robin White September 2, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Anne – nice to see you getting the recognition you deserve from Bunny. You really have done us all a service with thinkingardens. Maybe it should become a widespread practice for gardeners to ask that question and get used to hearing the feedback.

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