Be critical! by Tristan Gregory

February 10, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

I have had no difficulty getting reviewers of books or magazines for thinkingardens, but people are still backward in coming forward with garden reviews. We need them. Tristan suggests why and how…

I hope it will encourage you to send them piling in….

Anne Wareham, editor

PS I realise this sounds a little ungracious towards those of you who have generously sent in reviews and twitter reviews. But given the number of gardens that you must all be visiting, I do find myself wishing for and wondering about a great many more…

Daylily at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham s


 Tristan Gregory:

It is a misconception that with the rise to power of TripAdvisor we have become a nation of reviewers and that as such the nation’s commercial gardens are held to proper account.  I have used the aforementioned to check a place’s wheat/chaff status and it did save me a long drive to Trentham Gardens but these brief reviews, as often spiteful as insightful and sometimes of dubious provenance, (you know who you are,) are just a rough sort and no more.

 For an art form to retain its vigour it must be prepared to offer itself up to the critics in the proper spirit and in the hope of identifying what might be improved upon.  As consumers of arts we seek out the best of what there is and spread the word of its existence whilst at the same time eschewing the sub-standard.  We take for granted that there are critics of literature, theatre and film and that these people have a licence from us and indeed a duty to be honest and if need be brutal in their pronouncements.

 Clematis at Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham

More decoration…..

In Britain the criticism of food and dining is considered best when it is served hot’n’spicy to the point where the most violent, brutal exponents are televised as they reduce their subjects to tears.  Like them or not, the critics in these areas of the arts have contributed to the quality of their fields and raised the expectations of the punters which is healthy and from a horticultural perspective to be envied. By contrast we must consider gardening; silly, backward, polite old gardening.  A trip out to one of our finest establishments can be equivalent to a Carry On matinee at the local flea pit followed by a seafood platter of squid rings and orange scampi at the pub before heading off to bed with a Dick Francis.

Dick Francis cover on thinkingardens 001


Unless we say something, though, who can blame them for offering up the same old pap, time after time? Not you if you kept your mouth shut and your keyboard idle.  Incidentally if you have been fortunate enough to find something great out there amongst the chips and gravy, a place that got under your skin and inspired you, who have you told and how have you gone about it? (send links? ed.)

In the very few reviews of gardens that I have done for Thinkingardens I have tried to form my responses in such a way that they accurately reflect my experiences, prove useful to others and importantly leave space for debate on a garden’s merits or lack thereof.  For what it is worth I have found the following structure useful both as a tool for reviewing but also appreciating.


Back to decoration…

A garden ought to demonstrate technical proficiency and failure to achieve this should be acknowledged as a failing.  This is the biggest and most contentious area and it will throw up the most disagreements because everyone will weigh things differently.  In it you find included: design, planting, maintenance and all the bits and pieces which seem so immediate when you visit a place. While important, this area is also the natural environment of the little man and we should elevate ourselves above him lest our appraisals be too dominated by personal bug-bears or worse, dissolve into bitchiness.

It is impossible to move past this section without a few words on allowances and bluster.  Allowances are the mitigating circumstances that nice people come up with to excuse the failure of others and they are usually unwarranted.  An example might be to forgive poor maintenance and that “end of the garden feel” because there are few resources. This is rubbish – the design should be commensurate with the resources available; restraint can be a skill.  When it comes to the unfortunate and unforeseen a common sense approach is all that is needed.

Bluster, it should be remembered, is the device of the salesman and never to be taken uncritically. The price of a garden and its worth are not necessarily the same.


A garden ought to relate well to the environment around it and this does not necessarily mean complementing a bucolic rural scene with open vistas and generalised loveliness or reflecting an urban environment with a superabundance of hard landscaping and pre-fossilised plants (yes, that’s your Fatsia and Black Grass).  Success here is about using the environs to inform the garden’s creation. An excellent example of this being the terraces of Powis Castle and their exploitation of dramatic topography and microclimate.  A failure would be an Italianate block or mini-Versailles with wild views and disorder infringing or dominating the designed vistas. Such things clash as surely as bright pink and bright red.

A garden ought to reflect its commissioning actor or and their perceptions of the world as they found it which is about as general as I can make this and should mean that there is an answer to the question of why a garden exists at all.  This mixture of historical and social context is the continuity that keeps gardens interesting and individual.  There are extremes, of course, such as the sponsored Chelsea show gardens or the “the 12th Duchess would only have white roses in the garden so 250 years later we have 30 acres of them” rationales but most people are able to determine when too much context has caused calamity.

Well, there you go. There is probably as much there to disagree with as to agree with, but that is all any series of subjective statements regarding an ephemeral subject can ever expect.  What I do hope is that if you haven’t already then you start reviewing gardens and taking as much time as you need to fully communicate your experiences to as many people as possible. It’s important.

Tristan Gregory

Tristan is Head Gardener at Kentchurch Court

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

paul February 21, 2014 at 6:28 am

Hi all, from down under Australia.
We have some problem here with the element of critique.
Gardening is considered a gentle art (despite the competitive nature and bitchiness behind the scenes) but for a ‘judge’ to give criticism is not looked upon kindly.
On one aspect you have the gardener/owner who has dedicated years into creating the garden as they like it. Like art, it is very personal and subjective.
The garden ‘expert’ allocated to judge should follow a guide for point allocation that provides a standard for which to assess a garden with descriptions for allocation of points – I have seem some very good judging criteria formats and some shocking poor ones.
I agree we need to educate the general public that gardening should be critiqued and, as John Lord suggested, with taste… and a bit of humour 🙂
Unfortunately those of us who try to make a living in gardening, we need to balance this carefully. If I truthfully critiqued all the gardens visited, I believe many gardeners may not ever like me back to judge the following year 🙁


annewareham February 21, 2014 at 9:58 am

Interesting, Paul, and you raise an interesting additional point: is judging a garden (what’s the context?) the same as reviewing/critiquing?

As someone who has invited and encouraged criticism of my garden, I’ll acknowledge that it hurts – and improves the garden. And that having your garden given that serious attention and consideration is rewarding. I’ll also acknowledge that few people seem to welcome that opportunity. Maybe it depends how serious people are about the quality of their gardens? AW.


Tristan Gregory February 17, 2014 at 6:30 pm

I agree that there are very few gardens that would emerge unscathed if the critic’s sole preoccupation was the technical, amongst the losers would be some truly great places. The problem we have is that so much of the common currency of horticultural conversation swirls around just this small range of topics and it is this, that for me, lies at the heart of our aesthetic failures and absence of wider artistic credibility.

However the little man cannot be excluded from the picture as on many occasions poor technique distracts from the higher qualities of the garden and those of us that look after them for the public need to be aware of this and need to know what we’re missing.


Rory Stuart February 17, 2014 at 11:16 am

Aren’t we misled by the verb ‘to criticise’? It can mean ‘to find fault’. But the job of a good critic is to pay concentrated attention, isn’t it? To be alert to everything the novel, painting, symphony, garden may be making him or her feel and think. And then the critic must try to articulate as clearly as possible for others the experience, and attempt to show what is was in the work of art that made him or her feel that way. It isn’t all cerebral, nor is it all fault-finding. Or have I got it all wrong?


annewareham February 17, 2014 at 11:44 am

No, Rory – spot on. XXx


Paul Steer February 15, 2014 at 5:06 pm

I have refrained from commenting until now because I needed time to reflect. My first instinct was fear. Having come through the sometimes harsh and almost soul destroying critical analysis of the discipline of Fine Art, I came to the conclusion that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art was really a matter of taste. Creativity however comes from what Charles in his comment calls ‘soul’ which is almost impossible to define. I remember being deeply moved by seeing Rothko’s dark and brooding panels in the Tate, and being equally moved by a naive amateur painting of a harbour in an art and craft exhibition in Pembrokeshire. I think it is possible to see the sparks of creativity at both ends of the spectrum. There is always a danger that we create a kind of snobbish division and garden making and gardeners become polarized. I am still wrangling with these thoughts, but I am also excited by the debate and the possibilities it creates. Thank you for providing a forum for this debate Anne, and an excellent article Tristan.


annewareham February 17, 2014 at 11:50 am

Paul, I think one of the joys of more universal and considered reviews (see Rory’s comment) would bring gardens which are currently neglected or swamped under the ‘lovely’ gardens label to our attention. At the moment we generally only give real weight to historical gardens and those of celebrity designers or artists. I think that our appreciation would become much more free ranging and inclusive. (if also, yes, excluding of some of the most over praised)


Holly Allen (gardenbirdblog) February 12, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Unfortunately, gardening is associated with retreat, escape and sometimes even denial – certainly not lively or challenging discourse.

You often hear it said that gardening is a ‘balm for the soul’ ‘cathartic’, ‘therapeutic’ (and other clichés). I think a lot of people would rather keep gardening as their retreat from the world than utilise the garden as a platform for showcasing controversial ideas, or introduce it to the battleground of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas.

Gardens are treated like a sacred ‘inner sanctum’ that should not be polluted by critique, and I really think that this is the crux of why nobody wants to truthfully review a garden.

Broadly, I think criticism has an essential function, in that we can’t progress without it. That said, it’s very difficult for critics to provide a balanced perspective when they have been asked to write an entertaining, truthful account of their experiences, which are only ever going to be highly subjective. You could pick out a few minor points and call them objective, but opinions are still just opinions.

As a graduate of Critical Fine Art Practice – handy mnemonic CFAP, (or affectionately referred to by myself as CRAP) I would agree that while criticism is essential fuel for improvement, when it tips over from being constructive to being criticism for its own sake, it can become a brilliant way of completely destabilising and possibly even derailing the creative process altogether.

I think balance is needed to allow freedom enough to think creatively and on the other hand acknowledgment of the context in which you are working. There should be an expectation of critique, rather than this irrational and defensive fear of it. We need criticism and context to progress – that’s how civilization refines itself and becomes more sophisticated.


Tristan Gregory February 12, 2014 at 8:44 pm

I would never dream of critically reviewing any garden that fell outside the commercial or widely acclaimed spheres and for me that does not include NGS gardens. There needs to be space for the pleasure of gardening for its own sake.

I do, however, think there is more room for objectivity than one might find in the fine arts given the relative importance of technical proficiency in the description of a garden maker or designer’s artistic vision and the applicability of this vision to the site at hand.

I also believe the critic should be prepared to stand behind their review which is why this format is so valuable.


Charles Hawes February 12, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Another excellent piece from Tristan. And one I find nothing to argue with. Is there anything missing? Perhaps that difficult area of the “soul”. That hard to define but nevertheless important question of whether a place adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Whether it moves you, touches you. I find few gardens affect me emotionally but I think a great garden would. But would everyone be moved by the same places? Would all be moved by certain pieces of music or visual art? Maybe not. And yet maybe this is the greatest thing that a garden can do, so is still worthy of more contemplation.


Tristan Gregory February 12, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Yes, absolutely.

Those are the places I want to visit rather than picking from an list of reputations


Adam Hodge February 13, 2016 at 7:26 pm

Charles This is the first comment so far that gets close to the point of gardens and the discussed isue of whether to and how to review them.. I like what you say, a lot.


charles hawes February 13, 2016 at 10:46 pm

Thanks Adam. I do think it’s something to aspire to.


Jason Real Garden Co. February 12, 2014 at 6:10 pm

This is a reactionary call for garden critique I believe, because of the pervasive etiquette that dictates mind numbingly polite drivel is written about gardens and the abundance of mundane – and out and out rubbish gardens. If we had our garden versions of A.A. Gill and Giles Coren all along, there wouldn’t be such an outcry and perhaps not such a surfeit of dross. However the ‘nice’ middle class activity ‘of don’t make a fuss, embarrass or offend anyone’ gardening has grown like a fungus unchecked by the anti-biotic critic.
Yet I dislike the negative impact of criticism as noted by Jean Woodhouse; one bad review can ruin a business. This is why I prefer the term review to criticise. I think the huge number of ‘national trust’ style gardens with lawns and herbaceous borders ad nauseum, catering for the tea and cake brigade need putting in their place, but to me this seems to be achievable only by presenting a new shiny definition of gardening, and waiting for the tea and cake brigade to shuffle off the mortal coil, leaving their style where it belongs – in mothballs. No amount of criticism will usher them out while they are still around to be spoon fed the denture friendly output of gardeners world and coach tours of Sissinghurst.
Remember the buzz about gardening when that huge wave of media attention was generated by groundforce? 95% of what they did was dross but I still hope that the post GF generation could be inspired to creative foment by the right stimulus – when there is a new drive in an art form criticism seems more relevant – where it forms more of a commentary and debate, where it actively adds to the evolution of a ‘movement’.
Whilst criticising a dead horse, failed, tired art is correct and needs to be done I find it of limited use if an alternative is not presented. I know there is a wide audience who will still be shocked to have their beloved garden stupor shaken up – but how can we progress, be constructive and change our art?


Tristan Gregory February 12, 2014 at 7:12 pm

There is an element of conservation and conservatism required in a big public garden, they have a market which funds their activities and an artistic duty to preserve what was best about THEIR past but while “Old Fashioned” may be a matter of taste it is the joyless air of burden and dismal observance of horticultural rites which I find so painful and when I’ve paid money for it; infuriating.

I also want gardens that question, unnerve and even frighten me but until someone can afford to build one and then lets me I to see it I will continue to trying to impress upon people the need to improve what we have.


Jane Stevens February 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm

There self-evidently is a problem with getting these reviews going – perhaps it’s not helpful just to keep saying there shouldn’t be. Food criticism can thrive on nit-picking, in gardening reviews nit-picking sounds mean-spirited. I don’t fully know why and I don’t think you get that feeling in art criticism – I can’t pin down why that is either. But it seems to me to be a genuine problem that stops people hankering to write or read critical garden reviews.

But obviously the terrible garden magazine type descriptive review are hopeless and way too polite. I think they are where honesty has been lost and a ghastly template set up. A reviewer should not feel obliged to love a garden, but equally not to peer around gimlet-eyed looking for the problems. It is honesty that I want, attentive perception and the ability to expand usefully and illuminatingly upon a genuine design attribute or an intention achieved, even if it’s not your style.

I think I must be saying that I just want high quality garden reviews, I won’t feel that they’re more honest if they pick something out to dislike just for the sake of it, or because it’s there. Balancing what is a pity as opposed to a sin and a rank failure is always important, knowing whether it matters is vital too. Honest, but sympathetic to the enterprise, that’s a good tone I think.


Jean Woodhouse February 12, 2014 at 1:33 pm

It’s a tricky one. There are gardens out there that need some constructive criticism, ’tis true. However, I do know a friend of mine who has had one bad review on Tripadvisor and his business has suffered even though there are plenty of good reports about the same place. A.A. Gill is entertaining and although I know the dining experience has improved in recent years I also know that his reviews have crippled places. I think it is a case of ‘despite of’ rather than ‘because of’.
I do agree that there should be some way of judging gardens but how?
There are so many aspects to consider and it is certainly not as easy as deciding whether pea froth tastes right with slowly cooked pork belly or, whether or not having an iPod playing sounds of the sea enhances your seafood starter.
Perhaps we should all write in with our categories to be judged and then some clever whizz kid can devise an ‘app’ for the job.


annewareham February 12, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Garden criticism is important also because it helps to democratise gardens. The way in which they are all presented to the novice garden visitor or gardener is that they are ALL wonderful and ‘lovely’.

But to be introduced to possible flaws or weaknesses in these supposedly flawless creations is to begin to see the possibility of attempting something great oneself. It is, after all, a human, attainable thing, not paradise on earth.

And to have excellence demonstrated and discussed is to raise our sights and motivate us to deal with the weaknesses of our own creations.

What’s not to like?


lucy February 12, 2014 at 8:36 am

Tristan, you are very articulate and knowledgeable. By contrast most people will be intimidated I think by the idea of critically analysing a garden. Anne says that she gets books reviews all the time but I’m not surprised about that. My daughter was given homework from about the age of 6/7 writing up about a book. I don’t think she will ever be taught to assess a garden. I think most people appreciate a garden review and would like more, it’s just they can’t imagine doing the actual reviews themselves. That kind of thing is considered for the knowledgeable elite. The question is perhaps – how can we encourage people to feel empowered to engage?


Tristan Gregory February 12, 2014 at 6:41 pm

You are very kind and I have the advantage of living and breathing gardening and when I go a visiting I don’t have to slip into another gear.

That said I still take a notebook with me, far more useful than a camera I find, and towards the end the notes will have taken on a certain tone and it is this that informs the review as this is how, in summation, the garden has made me feel.

It is the feeling that I reflect on and the bits and pieces of craft and context that I have picked up are a sort of evidence base / justification


Ross February 11, 2014 at 7:44 am

Yes Tristam. Couldn’t agree more. Be nothing if not critical. It creates the shapes we play with. Before the doldrums hit the Fine Arts (note the capitals) the beginning of the spiral was heralded by a call to arms that I’ve never forgotten.

It was by Robert Hughes and it was ignored. In a nutshell, he called for a vigorous defence and a holding of the boundaries. Without that you don’t have the definitions to assault, bridge, hybridise, transcend (insert favourite verb here)…in short you got nothing.

Let gardening become a curatorial blood sport. It will contrast superbly with the blooms.


Tristan Gregory February 11, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Blood and bone is very nourishing leading both to vigorous top growth and more importantly; strong roots..


Jason Real Garden Co. February 11, 2014 at 7:38 am

Oh dear, it may be that the first bit of garden touring I do after emerging from hibernation may be to Herefordshire…watch out Kentchurch, and Veddw! Have either been reviewed recently? Can you recommend any other gardens near you? (now those would be tips taken seriously).
I’ve grown (or should it be groan) used to being thoroughly bored, then angry with skin crawling, by garden visits. The only exception last year being Marks Hall which was the only way to recover from a visit to the dirge of Chatto, it’s somewhere nearby. I’ll surely visit again and review.


Tristan Gregory February 11, 2014 at 6:43 pm

It was my despair after a trip to Bodnant that brought me into contact with this blog so it was not an entirely wasted day.

Veddw has been reviewed and from what I can tell the criticism has been taken in the spirit of this debate (not that there was much criticism of course). Kentchurch remains unchallenged which is an entirely unsatisfactory situation. While in Herefordshire there are several you may like to view, Hergest Croft for example.


John Lord February 10, 2014 at 11:32 am

Criticism has first of all to be entertaining in its own right in order for people to read it, particularly because there is so much stuff out there on the web. In the olden days there was always some sort of filter in place, usually called the editor. You could read A. A. Gill’s restaurant reviews even if you were fed from a tube because they are so good.
And from the entertainment point of view, you can’t beat a bit of bitchiness, tastefully done, of course.


annewareham February 10, 2014 at 11:44 am

Delighted to say that Tristan’s reviews are extremely entertaining in their own right. (from filtering editor, AW.)


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