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.