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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Consultation and coaching for do-it-yourselfers is provided. Occasional emailed questions are welcome and answered free of charge. Oui, je parle francais.

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There are no Rules in Cool School of Gardening

I was scrolling through a fellow gardener’s blog when I came upon a photo of her front yard. Protruding out of the lawn were several rocks and I admired how much they added character to the landscape. Another colleague noticed the same photo and was unimpressed. Her opinion was that the rocks had to be removed. It was then that I realized I was participating in a clash between old school and cool school.

There are rules and habits that some traditional gardeners follow that will cause younger, busy people to turn away from horticulture. Old school gardeners tend to venerate old masters whose experience and advice they admire. Cool school gardeners consider these sages to be stale and anachronistic. Another source of concern is the newbie gardener who has managed to memorize all there is to know about gardening from a recently read book, even if that book is outdated. Sometimes garden books become outdated; a few by virtue of their style of writing and a few by the laborious methods that they recommend to busy, impatient readers.

Advancing technologies increasingly shape the kind of world we live in. As a result, we have experienced significant changes in lifestyles, values, priorities, and the way we transmit and collect useful information. Nature, of course, does not change but the manner and perspective that we bring to dealing with nature does. Some of us have little time to garden or to research botanical information due to many obligations we cultivate at home, in community and in the workplace. Because all converge to place severe demands on time available, a short cut to accomplishing anything is often appreciated.

In the last fifteen years, we have experienced an exponential growth in the numbers of people who have discovered the pleasures of gardening. Among the new adherents are independent thinkers who are unencumbered by other peoples’ rules. They bring to their new-found passion either irreverence for tradition or a desire for the immediacy usually found in technology. These new gardeners reflect the fact  that North America is a continent of innovative people. Many look for newer, more efficient ways to accomplish traditional goals. This population worships the future, more than it venerates the past. Its members are legitimate representatives of a forward-looking society. That perspective has allowed some of them to conclude, about gardening, that there are few absolute truths and hardly any sacred rules. Welcome to the new, cool school of gardening.

 Here are a few aspects of the changing attitudes about gardening:-

  • Tom Fischer, horticulturalist, garden writer and publishing editor has this to say about color in the garden: anyone who claims that there is a theoretically correct way to approach color is full of hooey…..  the biggest fiction of all is the color wheel, that tired, utterly artificial arrangement that gets trotted out in book after book to “prove” various assertions about which colors “go” together.
  • Horticulturalist, educator and author, Linda Chalker-Scott has warned that some types of compost teas, thought to improve the health of plants, might be breeding grounds for e coli bacteria and salmonella. This author has been busting myths about many more widely held but erroneous horticultural lore.
  • Some gardeners ignore the zones of hardiness printed on plant tags.
  • Gardeners have begun experimenting with natural looks for their properties by allowing lawns, once though to be essential, to be converted into meadowland that they imagine, rightly or wrongly, the original settlers found in North America many years ago.
  • Some adventurous gardeners ignore the type of soil in their gardens; they plant whatever they please and are prepared to live with the consequences.
  • Carefree gardeners allow nature alone to irrigate their established flowerbed, regardless of the kind of perennials they’ve planted.
  • The eminent American garden writer, Stephanie Cohen, has boldly declared that the original, authentic English garden has no home in North America. Finally somebody has said it emphatically! Here is her opinion as quoted by Sally Cunnigham in the Garden Rant blog titled “Dishing With The Diva” on June 22, 2010:- On English gardens and English garden books: "The light is different, the soil is different, the climate is different…. People read these books, they see a picture, decide that’s what they want, and then drive everybody crazy. Buy a book written by and for Americans. We have heat, humidity—our sun, come summer, is so strong that some of the plants they talk about would crisp in one minute."
  • Tilling poor soil in order to amend it is now considered back breaking work. Instead, we are encouraged to layer additional nutrients onto the original soil using the “lasagna” method.
  • Some gardeners no longer cut down their perennials in autumn, preferring instead to allow the dried plant stalks to provide textural winter interest and food for birds.
  • Some homeowners prefer to leave natural occurring rocks protruding from their lawns in order to preserve a wild look.
  • Impatient gardeners are discovering that it is more efficient and exciting to invest in mature plants, that deliver instant pleasure, than to watch and wait as a seedling plant matures.

The way to a beautiful garden may be a never-ending journey but the path we choose is a personal one. Some of my fellow bloggers prefer to perpetuate traditional gardening techniques either because they experience a kind of spirituality in the older, patient methods or because they are more comfortable with the true and tried. On the other hand, some newer weekend botanists, harried by their lifestyle, look for quick fixes in order to create instant flowerbeds. Both approaches bring their respective adherents enormous pleasure. That is why gardeners should never be admonished for the choices they make. For this blogger to write such words is a veritable reversal of position. I am the one who warned his readers to consider the neighbors by never gardening in poor taste. Now I consider it more important to respect colleagues who choose to garden without restrictions. In a society, unfettered by social convention, we garden as we please.

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Reader Comments (8)

Allan, great post! I would be one who would go along with many of these new methods, not all. I have read several of these new thoughts and either took them to heart or discarded them.


October 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEileen

Allan, just discovered your blog via the popular posts feature on that listed your "blog posts losing flavor" post. Just wanted to say, what great writing! I just subscribed and will be looking forward to more of your thoughtful posts.

ProfessorRoush (

October 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterProfessorRoush

Love this post Allan. I'm in your camp, firmly, esp with English gardens not being at home in America. Seems obvious from the name, doesn't it?

October 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

I have had your blog open on my desktop for part of the day, while I muse over what you have written. There is lots to think about in what you write and I am not sure I have decided exactly where I stand. I do not believe for a second that we live in a society "unfettered by social convention". This may not be the best example but, you can just walk down the street naked to discover a renewed appreciation for your neighbor's "conventions".
I think that good design tenants are a matter of opinion rather than scientific truths. For example, I do not see any reason why a gardener can not question that blue looks great pared with yellow.
Other gardening methods are more based in fact. For example, plants need nutrients. We may garden as we please, but sooner or later nature has a check and balance system that rewards the gardener who patiently augments their garden's soil. We may plant what we please but a cold winter can wipe out in a single Arctic blast, all those zone defiant garden flowers.
I do agree that we garden for personal pleasure and that the path we take is a personal one.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Another fantastic article as usual.

As a complete newbie myself, I feel inspired by those like you, who accept the many different ways there are to come at this garden writing/design gig. It shouldn't be intimidating and you break it all down so well.

Thank you.

October 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Markowski

Excellent post! You have concisely expressed thoughts that have swirled around in my own head. I am in the new camp, mostly, because I've never studied horticulture or garden design and I just do what works in my own garden. Rules? Who knew there were rules? I have found, however, that zonal, nutritional, and water requirements are important. Plants that are suited to my climate and soil are definitely going to grow better than others. I have tried plants that are marginal, and that's the kind of success I have had with them.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdebsgarden

Bravo, Allan. Bravo, bravo, bravo!

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjodi (bloomingwriter)

Excellent post. Has there really been such a dramatic change in the last 15 years to reflect a want of immediate gratification in the garden? Perhaps. But then, there is the self satisfaction of watching my Dwarf Korean Lilac freshly planted 3 years ago as barely a twig, grow into a mid size, well rounded and continuous heavenly scented bloomer. What could be better? Or digging deep into my clay soil, amending with all sorts of 'good stuff' thus giving my annuals, perennials and shrubs the nutrients they so desire and deserve. The choice of 'how to garden' is ours personally to make or break the rules. Maybe a good question to ask is why do we garden?

October 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoris McComb

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