Round Robin: Justify That Plant

| December/January 1996

DENVER, Colorado—How many friends do you trust to tell you the truth? How many of them will let you walk around with a blob of ketchup on your tie, mismatched socks, spinach in your teeth, or an open fly—all the while telling you how great you look? It’s the same way in the garden.

I like compliments on my garden, and I hope I accept them gracefully, but good, constructive criticism is even more valuable.

There’s a difference, of course, between a helpful critique and a negative comment. There’s not much point in saying, “Holy cow, that Artemisia ‘Valerie Finnis’ has choked out half your herb garden,” when the gardener is painfully aware of the problem. A better approach might be, “Can I lend you a goat?”

I tire of visitors’ giving unsolicited advice. Too often, they dismiss plants as inferior to some form that they cultivate, or they warn me that something is going to get out of hand even though they don’t understand how some other­wise aggressive plants may stay docile in a semiarid climate. Sometimes, they forget their manners altogether, like the guest who looked around and said, “It looks like things are pretty much past their peak.” That’s when I muster every ounce of graciousness I can instead of telling them, “Don’t let the front gate hit you on the way out.” I dislike basing garden strategy around peaks. People who value gardens only when they bloom demonstrate a lack of respect for the plants they profess to love.

Nevertheless, we all fall into gardening ruts or run into problems that we can’t solve alone; I’ve found that a friend’s fresh perspective can make an enormous difference. I solicit opinions from three friends whose taste and judgment I admire.

I recently stayed in Dublin with my friend Helen Dillon, a gardener with a formidable artistic reputation. Few visitors would dare offer her advice, so I was honored when she asked for mine. While photographing Helen’s garden, I’d run into some blah spots. We both agreed that a camera was a good way to find the dull areas. Gardeners get so used to some plants that they stop seeing them in a critical light. “What’s that doing there?” I asked as we walked past a hunk of Sedum spurium ‘Red Dragon’ spilling out onto the walk. “It’s been there for twenty years,” Helen said, “and I don’t pay the slightest attention to it.”

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