When Thomas Rainer, of grounded design, wrote a sardonic blog about which plants were “hot” and which plants were ”not”, a few of his readers expressed strong opinions against the promotion of trendiness in the garden. One commenter considered it nonsense and marketing misinformation. Another felt that celebrating newness is not what gardening is about.
These comments highlight a dialogue of opposing opinions that has become a recurring conversation among some gardeners. It represents the intellectual tension between two legitimate points of view, namely the traditionalists and the contemporaries. Traditionalists find comfort in the continuity and predictability of tried and true gardening methods, conventional wisdom handed down from one generation to the next, and familiar plants that echo gardens past. By comparison, contemporary gardeners are irreverent of tradition. They are also short on time, long on eagerness, and are constantly seeking out novelty and excitement. For them, gardening is just one of many pleasurable persuits in their lives.
Unlike traditionalists, the contemporaries prefer to streamline labor intensive chores and dispense with the patient, slow process of seed germination and plant maturation. They demand instant gratification. This new breed of gardener is happy, if not excited, to redo a flower bed when a new and trendier look or an improved cultivar is introduced. Spirituality and the awesomeness of nature, as well as strong sentimental ties to heritage plants, are less important than the pleasurable search for the newest and hottest plants.
Because these gardeners choose to allocate a large amount of discretionary funds to the acquisition of new varieties, they are more likely to buy bigger and therefore more expensive plants. That generates a significant contribution to the horticultural industry. Often, these perennials are allowed to grow only until something bigger or better or brighter is introduced, or until the gardener finally realizes, after many years of experience, that the quest for newness has been a never-ending journey that is no longer pleasurable. But the latter rarely occurs.
Is it wrong to deliberately make horticulture so exciting that it becomes a generator of economic success? I don’t think so. Serious commercial activity has always been at the root of gardening. In fact, the contemporaries share a spirit almost identical to that of the 19th century trail blazers who devoted time, energy, and large sums of money to the hunt and acquisition of perennials, discovered by their proxies in newly explored foreign lands. It was trendy then to see who could collect the largest number of unknown and unusual plants, irrespective of cost. That competition created a need for museum-like display gardens, which not only empowered and employed generations of plants-people but also gave birth to a garden of herbaceous perennial borders. Most of us who grow flowers today were inspired by that kind of landscaping, a tradition that is now over 100 years old.
Some gardeners take it for granted that perennial borders were always with us. They weren’t. As a matter of fact, in the distant past, gardens were not at all about growing perennials. Historically, large landscaped spaces were used as spiritual havens or symbols of political and commercial power. In some cultures they became expressions of social prestige or reflections of norms and philosophical values. Such gardens were mainly about trees, shrubs, paths, scenic views, ponds, sculptures and fountains. The focus on flowering plants is a relatively new experience. At one time, even the now traditional perennial border was considered a novelty and very trendy.
Contemporary gardeners reflect a societal and commercial phenomenon. An activity that was once affordable only for the wealthy, then copied by an emerging upper middle class, has now been adopted by the population at large and absorbed into their complex and polyvalent lifestyles. This well developed interest in gardening has spawned enormous international enterprises that employ thousands of people and generate millions, if not billions, of dollars for the economies of many nations. And that doesn’t include indirect monetary benefits to professionals in the photography, writing, publishing and marketing industries, who enable it. Without the commercial presence of this huge horticultural delivery system, many of us would not be able to garden at all.
Because such a mammoth industry is dependant upon an individual's discretionary spending, it requires newness and excitement to remain viable. It must always be relevant; and by reinventing itself each season and for each new generation with new cultivars and varieties, it ensures its own longevity. What harm is done by constructing a tempting nursery display of new and unusual plants, or by a marketing-induced trend about hot plants for the garden, or by a faux competition deliberately contrived to raise awareness of a plant, a nursery brand, or equipment? All these factors contribute to a buzz that is good for business.
Some of us who garden are far removed from the direct creation of wealth, but that should not impair our ability to recognize that a complex civilization, such as ours, cannot sustain itself without healthy commercial activity. Trendiness in the garden isn't nonsense; it drives the horticultural business which, in turn, enables so many of us to enjoy a satisfying and pleasurable hobby.