A Visitor’s Guide
I just spent a delightful weekend as a docent in the glorious garden of a dear friend. Though most of the interactions were very positive and pleasant, a few triggered this (hopefully gentle) reminder. It’s timely, since the season of garden touring bliss is upon us and summer weekends are packed with opportunities to visit gardens of every size and description. There are sustainable garden tours, estate garden tours, tiny garden tours, collectors’ garden tours, native plant garden tours, nursery garden tours, public garden tours, tours of gardens that boast an astonishing array of chicken coops. All this bounty can lead to feverish outbreaks of shopping, both for plants and for the accouterments that can elevate a garden from simple to sublime (or staggering, at any rate). It can also reveal places where some of us could use a little lesson in garden courtesy.
Here’s the place to start: The gardeners, whether loving slaves to the goddess Flora or a paid team, have spent months of long, long days bringing their beloved gardens to a pitch of perfection. On tour days, the owners can usually be seen standing about their garden’s entrance, exhausted and proud, yet in the case of the actual gardener, often surprisingly diffident about their extraordinary accomplishments. Far too often they will, if allowed, make deprecating remarks about their masterwork, like a parent who disses a beloved child for fear of seeming biased about their awesomeness (of course we’re biased!).
Don’t Go There
As a visitor, your task is to vehemently deny any such derogatory comments (even if you privately agree. Perhaps especially if you privately agree). When a gardener laughs a bit nervously and says “Well, it’s kind of a mess, really” you do not ever say, “Wow, it sure is. No design skills at all. How did this dump get on a tour?” No. What you say is, “To me, this garden is very (use a supportive adjective, perhaps ‘lovely’ or ‘joyful’). In fact, it’s a good idea to work up a list of appropriately generous and enthusiastic terms of approval in advance, so they slip naturally from your lips. Samples: playful, happy, serene, delightful, comfortable, inviting, personal, innovative, attractive, intriguing, amazing….
Please remember that you are not invited in as a consultant but as an admirer. Purchasing a ticket does not confer permission to freely voice criticisms, most especially if the gardener or a docent or another visitor is within hearing distance. If you must express yourself, do so in your notebook. What? You don’t carry one? I know several (rather famous and English, thus partially holy) gardeners who refuse to tell people plant names unless they have notebooks and writing tools in hand. These days, a smart phone does the same job, with the added advantage of being part camera. Take pictures (not snipped cuttings!!!) of anything that catches your eye. You can show them to your favorite nursery vendor and buy your own whatever it is. Seriously: no cuttings, and don’t ever ask for one, either (!!!!).
What To Bring
In order not to burden the weary gardener with your needs, please find and use a toilet before getting on the bus or in the car. Also, always equip yourself in advance with the following:
Stock your car or, in the case of bus tours, capacious handbag/manbag, with a sunhat, shades, sunblock, and possibly a light weight long sleeved shirt. Do not ask the garden owner for any of these things, especially if you tend to forget to return them.
Tours run rain or shine and it is not the responsibility of the garden owner to provide you with shelter, umbrellas, or dry clothing.
Plan to carry liquids of choice in suitable, preferably reusable containers. DO NOT abandon your cups, bottles etc. in the garden, behind a bush, on a carefully arranged plant table or in any other inventive place. If you brought it in, pack it out.
Second hand smoke can be disturbing and very unpleasant. Worse still, some plants can get disfiguring or fatal diseases if they are accidentally touched by a smoker (this is not a joke). Also, in dry, hot summers, gardens offer no safe, wise place to dispose of matches and cigarettes, etc. so save the cigs for the car.
Say This, Not That
Remember, sincerity can be overrated, especially when it leads to unnecessary unkindness. Not every garden will represent a style you admire or feel comfortable with and that is perfectly reasonable. However, it is far kinder to say nothing than to be disparaging or critical. If you feel it, fine but keep it to yourself. Still, stony silence can be just as cutting as a wicked whisper. Please make an effort and find something simple and pleasant to say.
When a garden is crammed with amazing plants, know that each one is adored and cherished by the gardener. Instead of saying, ‘Wow, someone has a lot of money to burn,” consider “What fantastic abundance”. If what is often called a riot of color leaves you cold, try, “How amazing!” (no need to clarify in what way). If a garden is highly decorated, say “What fun!” instead of “What a bunch of clutter.” Doesn’t that feel better, really? And really, isn’t it pretty fun to see someone else’s pleasure spilling through their art and work?
And Never This
Here are some overheards from past years that were both unforgettable and all but unforgivable:
“That plant is so last year.”
“I only grow the white form.”
“White gardens are so yesterday.”
“Money can buy everything but taste.”
“It just looks so random and crazy.”
“I’d never do this; some people have nothing else going on, but I have a life.”
But Always This!
There are plenty more, but you get the idea. Take home, I hope: Be kind or just smile and thank the owners for generously opening their adored garden in such a good cause (it nearly always is a good cause, right?). Now, there’s something we can ALL say and really mean it!