This is a topic I have discussed with people on many occasions but it has jumped to my attention again in the last few days.
We are a small country, with a small population and a gardening community where everybody more or less knows everybody else so when writing about a garden we have visited it can be difficult to balance the need for honesty and accuracy against the desire to not cause upset or offense
For a number of years I edited the newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society and members would submit accounts of group visits to various gardens. They would always be pleasant and written with an air of gratitude to the garden owner who very kindly allowed the group visit. At times the praise could be more than deserved, even wildly flattering, and I found this didn’t lie well with me. While I didn’t wish the author to condemn a poor garden in blunt and unkind terms I certainly didn’t want to see a poor garden praised undeservedly.
It is important to distinguish between gardens we visit as guests and those where we pay for admission. As guests we should be grateful for the generosity of the garden owner and acknowledge that and in our comments be nothing but kind – which reminds me of many years as a school principal teacher and both writing and reading letters of reference. It was always the practice to never write anything negative about a person so the skill in reading such references was to note which areas were not mentioned. With garden reviews where we were guests it is always best to be kind and avoid mentioning the faults we may have noticed.
On the other hand, those gardens which open to the public and charge for admission deserve a more honest appraisal. There has been somewhat of a trend in England where reviewers seem to be taking a pride in being almost brutal in their assessments and I find this unpalatable and unacceptable. We have our own garden here at home; we have no thoughts that it is the greatest garden in the world or that it is perfect but it is ours; we made it ourselves and we take a pride in it and I have no doubt that if somebody wrote about the garden in a rude and hurtful manner we would be offended. Although people may charge for admission they are still perfectly human and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. So, a great deal of tact and diplomacy is necessary and should be employed. We are not writing about a soulless corporation but, very often, of the work of an individual or family who are simply sharing their joy of gardening with other enthusiasts.
I am easily vexed by low standards in gardening and regularly feel disappointed and annoyed after visiting some gardens. Perhaps this is because of my age but more likely simply because I can be a grumpy old git but I genuinely feel there are many occasions when these feelings have been perfectly justified, where an admission charge was exorbitant, where the gardener might have been better advised to keep the garden private or where the hype and publicity far outshone what was met on the ground.
There is a parallel in reviewing books and, for the most part over more than ten years, I have avoided causing offense. This is in the main because I only request books from publishers which I imagine I would enjoy and which would be of interest to Irish gardeners. So, I start with a good chance of having books to hand which I will review positively. However, it has happened on a very few occasions that I have been especially critical of books – two stand out in my mind for the long list of factual errors they contained – and pointing this out upset the authors. It is understandable that such criticism stung for they had put in quite an amount of time and effort and, even if the books had their flaws, having them pointed out obviously still rankles. One can only do it in a manner which does not aim at adding hurt or offense, I suppose.
Despite the dangers, as I have outlined them above, there is, I believe, a need for more candour and honesty in comments on the gardens we visit. They are not all wonderful, not all perfect, not all worth a visit but we must spread this word gently for they are still loved by their creators.
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9 thoughts on “On Garden Reviews”
Hi Paddy, you give a well thought out overview on the subject of garden reviews, both paying and as guests to private gardens also you touched on book reviews. I agree being super critical of private gardens who open usually for a charitable cause or a garden group is most discourteous.
We all have our own opinions on gardens and I agree badly prepared gardens that charge a fee can be discussed about more critically but in a more constructive way, ie very weedy, hedges not clipped, paths not accessible to wheelchair users when advertised..
Keep up the good work.
Many thanks, Nicola
Careful now, Paddy 😉 Seriously — well said! I do regret that some reviewers like nothing better than a good old bitch (which says more about them than the garden), but I also deplore the outright telling of glowing untruths about the state of a garden.
Hi Jane, Many thanks for your comments. You will be aware of a sort of a movement which started last year in the U.K. for more open and directly stated reviews of gardens. The reviewers who published subsequently via that group seemed almost to be in competition as to whom could be most blunt and brutal in their comments and there was almost a hunting frenzy to write about the better known gardens and the well known gardening personalities. While I agreed with the initial suggestion – that gardens should be reviewed in much the same was as books, restaurants, theatre and the likes are – I found the manner in which it was done appalling.
Here, in Ireland, we are inclined not to find fault – or, at least, not to put such comments in print though was are exceptionally good at spreading such as gossip – and I feel reasonable comment on gardens would be a good thing.
That was an interesting and balanced article. Having reviewed gardens and books I agree largely with your philosophy and I avoid making judgements on the matter of taste since that is personal – I may not like something but that doesn’t make it bad or wrong. When it comes to books i always remember what my mother told me which was that ‘if you can’t say something nice or helpful, shut up!’ So if I cannot say anything broadly positive about a book I just don’t review it. And as you say, most people put a huge effort into books and even if it is not for me it may be right for a different audience. Having been criticised for making minor criticisms of gardens in the past, despite the reviews being generally positive, I am now very wary. I visited as a paying customer. You have to be much more generous when it comes to private gardens open only occasionally and opened for charity. You have to be very careful what is written on sites that have a long life. Unfortunately the internet has made everyone a critic and also everyone has the right to take offence. I say this as someone who has looked after a garden open to the public.
Many thanks for your comments, Geoff, all very valid. I cannot agree entirely with your mother – though it is not the worst of advice by which to live ones life. A balanced review would mention the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a garden – and I believe this must be done very diplomatically and not to cause hurt or offense.
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Well yes – my mum wasn’t right about everything! Yes, diplomacy is important. And criticism is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help us improve if it is well meant.
Your point is well made. I would agree that one can write a candid and honest review and still remain civil and objective. I do think it requires more thought, more time and perhaps more skill than the average reviewer possesses. A good garden critic is someone to be valued.
The crux is that even the most civil and objective review may well result in the garden owner taking offense and feeling hurt. One can only do one’s best, I suppose.
Many thanks for your comment. Paddy