Mary Keen recently came across a blog post which was frank about the writer’s opinion of her garden. It was clear from her response both in her comments and a subsequent article that she was genuinely shocked and surprised to discover what they thought. It was what a lot of people that I have heard from also think of her garden. I was shocked that she was shocked. But I know she is not alone in her not knowing. We all know that Sir Roy Strong was astonished by this. There’s a kind of wilful blindness goes on.
It is generally true that if you open your garden to the public you will be complimented enthusiastically. That’s what people do. It’s good manners and people like to be nice especially to your face. But then, if you care for the truth, you must think on. This is not necessarily what they will be saying to other people or thinking to themselves, and all those of us who wish to give people a good garden experience need to be aware of this. And to try to find ways to get closer to the truth.
Of course this won’t be a final truth. Although people like to believe that it’s all a “matter of taste” it is more to the point that people do not necessarily see clearly or know how to understand what they are looking at. People who are preoccupied with seeing a garden as a resource for their plant purchases are not so likely to appreciate a stunning view. How many people look at trees? People who don’t know garden or political history will not fully appreciate an 18th political garden. Conceptual gardens will look odd to many, though people seem surprisingly open to references and ideas. People who are preoccupied with weeds will not understand a wild garden and those who love tidiness will sigh at the sight of a garden without manicured edges and ruthless maintenance. Some people manage to believe that ‘they don’t like grasses’. What does it take to appreciate an ironic gnome? And so it goes on.
But we still need to know what weaknesses people find, and to address them if they matter to us and are not intended. Explanations may well be worthwhile. We need to know clearly what our aims actually are too, to bring them into our own awareness, but that’s another story. So we need to endeavour to find out what people really do think. Not easy.
If you have coach parties, the leader with a little encouragement will often tell you, filtered by politeness, what the discussion in the departing coach was about. At Veddw we also get the tidiness and weed preoccupations, for example. (In spite of any explanation. It’s like not hoovering for your guests to some people.)
You can check online by Googling your garden’s name or seeing where links to your garden come from on your website statistics. That may take you to blog posts written by keen gardeners who may offer frank opinions. These are more reliable that the ‘TripAdvisor’ ‘lovely garden, smelly loo, expensive caff’ kind. You can ask those enterprising garden societies who write up their visits for a copy- and even include them on your website, to assist people considering a visit.
You may also ask someone who tells you that they admire your garden what one thing they would do to improve it. Asking for one thing I think frees someone up to go as far or to be as restrained as they feel comfortable with. They then often elaborate.
If you feel terribly warmed by what someone says, ask what other gardens they appreciate. If they are gardens you hate, you will notice the sudden appearance of a pinch of salt in your response to their appreciation of yours. If they love every garden they have ever visited the salt mound grows….
At Veddw we have created a situation where people know that we look for helpful criticism, so we get it. And it can hurt, but it is essential if Veddw is to be as good as we can make it. We benefit from it and use it. I also get a great deal of feedback about responses to other gardens, as people know I am interested. And I know thereby that no garden in this country has room for complacency – many (maybe all?!) of the so-say ‘great gardens’ attract a great deal of behind their backs criticism and really would benefit from discovering what people are actually thinking. Especially critical, of course, are knowledgeable gardeners but also visitors from abroad. The latter are often very forthcoming and very disappointed.
Neither is it, as the confronted may wish to think, all about levels of tidiness. And, most interestingly, there are remarkable commonalities in what people complain of about particular gardens, slapping the notion of ‘it’s all a matter of taste’ well in the face. People have a remarkable degree of shared perception and criticism.
So how is it that garden openers aren’t actively discovering all they can about how their garden is perceived? Don’t they owe something to people who frequently travel considerable distances and pay substantial entrance charges? Even have to make up a party and sit through an introductory video in order to cross the threshold? What kind of complacency lets people open their garden for years and not know what everyone else knows?
If you are a celebrity, even a minor garden type celebrity, that ought to make you especially cautious about what you allow yourself to believe. You must know that many people will wish to meet you, but that they are unlikely to say ‘lousy garden’ when they do. If you have a famous garden, sung about in the press and garden magazines, you must realise that this tends to make people distrust their own reactions and perceptions, but they do still have them, as the small boy presented with the emperor’s new clothes did.
You also know very well that garden ‘stories’ in magazines and newspapers will flatter, lie and admire, totally ignoring the fact that the writer felt totally overwhelmed by the fussy, busy planting, or suffered from claustrophobia. Or, to quote examples of frank comment that I have recently heard, that it was dull, twee, full of stupid wiggly-wobbly lines, over decorated, and old-fashioned. Or, quite simply, crap. The Americans tend to be especially blunt.
Increasingly these views will become public on the web. So let’s stop talking our gardens up only to disappoint, and start being honest about the challenges of creating and opening a garden for a long season.
And also put real effort making them just as good as we possibly can.