We should find out what people think by Anne Wareham

October 3, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

Autumn colour Virginia Creeper, Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

I really cannot illustrate this piece, so I’ll decorate it.

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.

Garden Gnome copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Ironic gnome

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.

Helianthus, Veddw copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

(Just decoration….)

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.

Geranium procurrens, September, Veddw copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

More decoration.. (geranium procurrens, since you ask..)

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.

Cyclamen hederifolium at Veddw, copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

you know… just a pretty…

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.

Anne Wareham 

portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes blog

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Don Statham January 8, 2014 at 7:20 pm

I had plenty of critiques in art school ( i was a painter) and in the end I had to toughen up and use the experience as a spring board. When someone is lost and does not know how to proceed then a critique of your work can be helpful or devastating. In the end I either agreed or disagreed with those critiques. I did find the process useful when I was younger. As an artist the muscle you are always trying to develop is trusting your own intuition. At this stage I would not ask visitors to my garden what they would suggest. I am too far involved in my process nor am I at a loss at to what to do. My intuition is what I trust and after all its my garden – not a public space.

annewareham January 8, 2014 at 7:58 pm

When a garden does become a public space – open for money, perhaps, then reviews are useful and can be illuminating for maker and visitor. I have found a critic’s eye when offered an invaluable if painful help. I understand what you say about intuition – and that is what I bring to bear on the critique.

Don Statham January 8, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Anne, I am in agreement with you about Public Gardens. I just wrote a review of the Scholar’s Garden in Staten Island, NY and I did mention in my review that the hardscape was already in need of repair. If I had gone on I should have critiqued the Sasa bamboo planting at the entrance was in need of weeding and there were other details that caught my eye. When institutions take on the running of public gardens the little details can be neglected. I had a friend take over a major public garden in NYC and it had been neglected for years and I don’t remember ever reading any criticism of it. I see your point. Best Don

Amy Murphy October 21, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Where can I get myself one of those gnomes? Does anyone know if it comes in different colors?

annewareham October 22, 2013 at 8:25 am

It is a special Golden Gnome, which was awarded to me as the Best Female Television Presenter (of all time, I assume, as no date was specified). I believe it was Hand Painted. In which case, a pot of paint and the same award could be yours.

Linda Casper October 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm

It is indeed a very special gnome. When I retired from teaching, a colleague made me a gnome dressed in the school uniform, accurate to the last detail. I was really touched by such a personal gift.

annewareham October 22, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Gnomes can be very expressive!

Larissa/landofsunandsky October 20, 2013 at 2:05 am

You also have to take into account changing perspectives. When I first visited the Desert Botanical Garden after moving here from Savannah, Ga, I thought it-and all the cacti-were ugly and dead. Now, after growing to appreciate the desert, I love watching for the wildflowers show every spring and the desert birds hunting cactus fruits. Gardens, like all art, have to first be about expression. Not everyone likes Shakespere, but he is not going to become less lauded…

annewareham October 20, 2013 at 8:54 am

Right – and good criticism can help open people’s eyes. People can even learn to love Shakespeare if they are introduced to and come to understand the depth and richness of his best work.

Tristan Gregory October 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm

On a re-run of a BBC “Arena” episode Orson Welles stated that the only reviews he considered useful were the negative ones, some of which he carried with him throughout his entire career as encouragement to excel – and he did.
A tough road to take but the message is if you think you’ve cracked it you’re utterly wrong. When all is said and done our gardens are most likely our best opportunity to make a complete stranger a little more like us so why put that connection at risk by not attending to the things that could be better.

Amy Murphy October 8, 2013 at 11:48 pm

This discussion reminds me of the Aesop Fable “The Man, the Boy and the Donkey” the moral of that fable being ‘Please all, and you will please none’. Asking for feedback is all very well, but where will it end?I would consider the suggestion of asking for feedback, but I will not consider giving all opinions equal consideration, since I do not consider every opinion worth consideration. You mention someone you know who traveled far at some expense to visit a garden that “despite it’s press” was awful. Perhaps the press was truthful, but only this one visitor found the garden awful, is that not a possibility? I like to find in gardens, and other art forms, individual expression, whether I find them aesthetically pleasing or not. I cringe at the thought of design by committee, there are a number of well known garden designs done this way with less than wonderful results (Parc Citroen in Paris and the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston are two examples). Asking for advice from someone whose work you admire is a vastly different process than culling ideas from the masses who visit.

annewareham October 9, 2013 at 9:10 am

I don’t think I said ‘abandon your discrimination’ – or, indeed your own vision. But it is easy to lose touch with that in your own garden. Seeing it every day, and often focusing on the gardening issues means it is easy – maybe inevitable – to stop seeing it clearly. And even the masses can help you re-envisage it.

Linda Casper October 8, 2013 at 10:13 pm

That first sentence should have read: Surely a garden is one’s personal preference and every garden is a work in progress.

annewareham October 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm

You might say the same of a piece of music, or a painting? Feedback is invaluable. And if you are going to charge people to see it, you owe them your very best. (And that is my very best gnome)

Linda Casper October 8, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Surely a garden is one’s personal preference Although not a lover of gnomes, I am loving the one in your picture.

Catherine October 8, 2013 at 3:58 am

I have found that visits to old gardens have disappointed me more often than newer ones. Heligan was a good example. Other gardeners I knew who had visited loved it but all I could see was a poor design of oddly-shaped spaces and non-existent connections, although beautifully maintained. Like a very ugly antique that’s polished every day. Age, and a mystique generated by adding ‘lost’ to its title isn’t enough to turn it into something good. But when visiting someone’s own garden, I’m always wary of criticising it too much. Mostly they fail in my mind because of a compulsion to fill them with stuff. Nice open space? Let’s put a sculpture/birdbath/specimen plant in the middle of it. Pretty soon there’s no room for people – Great Dixter comes to mind with its claustrophobic garden rooms. But it’s stuff they obviously love and I suspect most people have an appreciation of the donut rather than the hole – they like looking at things.

annewareham October 8, 2013 at 10:31 pm

A very refreshing comment, for which many thanks.

Annette Lepple October 5, 2013 at 7:22 am

I wonder what’s the point in asking visitors what they’d change in our gardens? Didn’t you plant all these artichokes for a reason? Don’t we create gardens for ourselves, to reflect our own philosophy, development and passions? I for one do and am very happy to accept if someone else doesn’t like it. After all it’s MY garden and I’m not out to please others but to please myself. A garden is a voyage, a very personal one too, and one can never expect all people to share or like never mind understand it! I often visit gardens and I certainly don’t approve of all but what I do appreciate is the personality and motivation behind it which can result in happy discussions and even friendship.

annewareham October 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

There is so much more, aesthetically, to a good garden, than liking it or approving – or not, and personally I welcome criticism (even if painful) because it opens my eyes and enables me to improve it. It is personal, it is my own, but in opening it I have a responsibility to the visitors too to make it the best I can.
I suspect that if I stopped wanting it to be as good as I can make it, far too many things which take effort and some cost would cease to feel worthwhile and the whole thing begin to degenerate.

Jane Stevens October 4, 2013 at 9:10 pm

I’ve only ever opened my own garden once and was interested at how self-critical and suspicious of all reactions I instantly became. Suddenly that phrase “you must really love gardening” sounded like code for absolute condemnation. I have been involved in other garden openings and I have visited gardens, critically and appreciatively, for about 35 years. I see a huge variation in standards and intentions, lots of tired, overwhelmed gardens jostling alongside highly maintained ones, National Trust setting the bar pretty high on the latter front. I am forever grateful that we have this tradition of domestic garden-opening, few other places do and that may be why foreign visitors are expecting something very different. They’ve also read about English gardening since ever and the reality is not the hype. That may indeed be the fault of the hype and I quite agree with you about vapid untruthful journalism.

It’s great (and relatively new) to have the garden-owner asking what you think and giving you the chance to say. The one thing to improve your garden suggestion is a brilliant idea, because people need that permission and encouragement to speak their mind. But one of your central planks, that gardens shouldn’t charge money for sub-standard offerings, doesn’t ring true to me. Most garden entrance fees, if they’re not entirely charitable, are nothing like enough to turn garden visitors into hard-headed consumers, unless they have an underlying axe to grind. We know that the owner is not living the life of riley on the proceeds and if they employ anyone it’s unlikely to cover their costs.

Local ngs gardens that rest on their laurels get fewer visitors over time, or so it seems to me. Word does get round. What we really need is more clean, well-designed modern gardens to open, that might pick things up a bit. But am I right in thinking that they seem less interested in letting just anyone in, or set themselves up differently and charge more?

But you’re so right Anne about how a serious garden opener needs to take responsibility for getting some feedback, making it possible and easy. I really applaud you for this because it takes a bit of courage and a real commitment. No reason why some gardens shouldn’t be really serious about striving for something really good. But it doesn’t mean the others don’t have their place. Gardening is just another thing that people do, skinning cats their own ways, getting it right, getting it wrong. Are you going to deprive me of the deep pleasure of visiting a garden and disliking it, then picking it to bits and arguing with my companions?

annewareham October 4, 2013 at 10:47 pm

(I’ll get back to you all soon.)

annewareham October 5, 2013 at 10:09 am

It’s strange, but I read this last night having just visited a friend. She had been telling me about a garden they visited when they were just beginning their present garden, and they were looking for ideas – and travelled a very long way at considerable expense to see a garden which turned out, despite its press, to be awful.

I think when people think of the cost of a garden visit they think of the entrance fee: that can be quite a bit for a family or pensioner. This doesn’t take into account travel costs and I know from our own visitors that people travel a very long way to see gardens.

I agree that we are not charging much in relation to the expense, and certainly not making a profit. This may partly be due to the market, which you might think is undermined by people opening for charity. There’s a discussion..? But it’s still an expense to many people, especially given the rural location of many.

I do agree about needing more good modern gardens (how will we get them without a culture of critique?). And – I don’t know what to do with this, but I was told (truly) this summer by a County Organiser for the NGS that they will take any garden, because the pressure to raise funds is what it’s all about. So who is going to care about standards and aesthetics?

And – yes, you are also right that gardens, like paintings are just something that people do, and no harm in that. Differentiating the ‘Sunday painter’ gardens from those, like the Laskett, that owners think merit being gifted to and subsequently maintained by the nation, is something I try to keep clear but gets repetitious for repeating every time I discuss this in public.

And I expect you are not alone in your pleasure in dissecting a garden you dislike. But be warned – that is where I began. I saw more, learned more and began to get very angry and frustrated at the way such gardens were praised and applauded. You see the result here!

Tristan Gregory October 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

No-one sets out to create bad art but gardening is a tricky art form in that it is never really finished and cannot be put aside in favour of another canvass when inspiration fails. As a result of this constant contact emotional responses when we are caught off guard by an unexpected dig are inevitable and usually elicit the wrong, defensive, response.

That said the best way to avoid criticism is to take on-board what is said and “improve” the offering.

annewareham October 5, 2013 at 10:09 am

All true.

David Herbert October 3, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Hi! I find myself making excuses for my garden, bits that need makeovers, untidiness and pruning that needs doing. As you say though all visitors are nice to my face, ‘the garden looks great’ ‘your doing such a good job’ etc. I don’t really like these comments and wish people would be more open, it creates discussion, new ideas to be born and encourages improvements to a garden. I will admit that mine is a work in progress so perhaps this train of thought would be different for an edtablished garden?

annewareham October 5, 2013 at 10:12 am

I think ours is established after 26 years, but the nature of gardens is change and process, so keeping it alive by ‘seeing’ it clearly and embracing/responding to criticism is still very important. The more also perhaps because our visitor numbers increase and there are more and more people to consider.

Christine Dakin October 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm

As I think I’ve said before, I am always striving to make my garden better because I know it needs some alterations. I have to admit therefore that I’m always quite chuffed when someone says how much they like it but never think to ask what they like. I will definitely look for more criticisms in the future. The thing I don’t understand is the garden visitor who only goes round part of the plot and is in and out very quickly, I shall have to start finding what their expectations were and why they didn’t look ‘properly’.
Visitors with more knowledge will be likely to be more critical whereas the person just finding something to do on a Sunday afternoon might be more easily satisfied. I think a lot of our visitors fall into the latter category.

annewareham October 3, 2013 at 6:31 pm

People interested in plants may take ages as long as there are lots of different ones. People interested in design may be very quick if it’s a plant orientated garden. People may take longer if there’s somewhere to sit….lots of reasons, but all worth knowing. Thanks for commenting. (I must visit you too!)

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