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

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Personal Taste in Gardening: a Controversy

A topic runs through the gardening community like a silent brook that abates and crests from time to time. It is the subject of good taste in the garden and it has risen to the surface in the most unlikely of places- in the pages of the magazine Fine Gardening. Once upon a time, there would be no such debate on such a topic in that magazine. The publication used to be the epitome of refined garden design. Changes in our society in general and gardening in particular has forced Fine Gardening to become less patrician and more mainstream. That is a loss to the serious gardening community, but understandable in a publishing industry where it is more important to be profitable than to be correct.

Consequently, it was not surprising that in its April 2010 edition, the magazine ran an article by Michelle Gervais that dealt with the design of garden entryways. In her article, Michelle stated that an entryway ought to be an expression of “who you are”. I cringed when I read that line but I understood why it was written. We are the resultant generation of those raised in the 70’s, a time that institutionalized bad taste with the directive to “do your own thing and to “let it all hang out”. This value encouraged and still encourages individual self-expression in public, even if that expression is in poor taste.

That attitude is in synch with the American tradition of individual liberty and the right to self expression. However, I believe that many gardeners have taken this attitude a bit too far. The public should not be assaulted by someone’s bad taste. Human beings are not isolated islands. What makes us human is our sense of community. In a community there is always an understanding of what is appropriate and what is not. The essence of a healthy community is that there is a consensus on what one can and cannot do. Bad taste is never acceptable because it is not pleasing to the majority.

If that premise is correct, I am saddened to say that there are too many among us that prefer to live beyond the boundaries of community. The hermit mentality is rampant among us. Many chose to design gardens that please themselves, in bold and blatant defiance of what the neighbors might think. That is not healthy for society, even though adherents to that point of view consider it healthy for themselves.

Lois D. Hunt and G. Katheryn Shumaker wrote to the editors of Fine Gardening, in the August 2010 edition, to rebut Michelle Gervais’ position. In their letter, they refer to sound design principles of repetition, balance, scale, proportion, and rhythm. As a garden writer, I would be politically correct to present both points of view on this subject without taking sides. I cannot do that because I would be pandering to those with whom I disagree. That would be false journalism. A writer needs to take sides, not only to advocate for a position but also to stimulate debate. My opinion falls on the side of sound design principles. Those of us that are moved by beauty recognize that gardens or entryways, which can be seen by the public, should be designed to be beautiful. One can further argue that if all of us led our lives as “an expression of who we are”, with no consideration for others, our society might be weakened someday by anarchy.

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Reader Comments (4)

You sent me scrambling for my April 2010 Edtion of Fine Gardening. Obviously none of the front approaches impressed me because I couldn't even remember seeing this in the issue. I do remember reading about the cutting garden, the bulbs and herbs.

Upon revisiting the article, all of the homes presented scream for garden coach or designer (like you or I, ha! ha!). They are amatuerish to say the least, too much, not enough, messy etc. I don't think too many people looking at these examples would think they were doing their own thing.

I just did plans for several containers for a person who had this huge home, and not one pot was the right size for her home. SInce it is getting late here to be putting in annuals, we decided to work with the containers she had, but advised that she be scouting for pots for next season. Many of the outliet stores have great deals on containers at reasonable prices.

I am not into the wild front entrance, but I have see some with large grasses that look wonderful. Good topic, Allan.


June 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEileen

Allan, This is a very interesting and thought-provoking post. I am of two minds about it. As a sociologist, I am very aware of both the existence and the importance of community norms for appropriate behavior. I agree with you that these are at the heart of community. But norms for appropriate behavior emerge out of social interaction, and our increasingly global world means that communities have become more diverse, which makes the establishment of norms more contentious. (I am thinking, for example, about a Somalian immigrant in Maine who was stopped in the supermarket by a stranger who told her the bright colors and patterns she was wearing together were in bad taste.) I wonder if the issue here is not so much one of personal taste, but of different cultural communities of taste.

June 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJean

Good its very nice useful post, i like it.

Well “hurrah for you”, Allan. You have not only managed to make home-ownership sound just as fun as trying to fit in at high school, but you managed to throw Fine Gardening under the bus as well.

Diversity is important in you might lean from study. My particular appreciation may be for design principles such as repetition and deference to scale. What if I live next to a development with contractor’s choice rolls of sod and orange mulch? If they have 20 entryways done in that standard, is it unfair of me to stick with what I happen to respond to aesthetically?

We cannot all control our neighbors or our neighborhoods and we do not all have the luxury of deciding to move when somebody chooses to hang a macrame planter from their porch and paint their door orange. What we can do is try to appreciate the ways we differ and see this as a positive offering rather than a negative one.

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCeleste Fossel

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