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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