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