Its that time of year. Garden etiquette.

I am more than blessed to live in a city of gardeners. In Portland it is not just a hobby its an overwhelming passion for many people. I know that just growing up in Oregon my plant vocabulary was enriched immensely by what surrounded me. In our fair burg one of the great traditions is open gardens. Owners sign up and pick a date and then let members of groups and the public through. There is nothing more educating and enriching than seeing how a gardener interprets the climate, their own special aesthetic, and personal collection of plants. I’ve been in the nursery business for nearly 27 years in this state and this rich tradition allows a true democratic sharing of ideas. But, there are some points that are imperative to those who visit gardens.

You’re opinion is nice- in your own head

One of the most bizarre things I’ve experienced is people walking through a garden and and actually speaking out loud as they experience a space. They throw off their own opinions in some sort of free associating ramble. “I don’t like blue”. ” I don’t like Roses” “That isn’t hardy”. Well I would like to remind people- even some very mature folks that visiting another person’s garden is time for us to use our inside our head voice. Remember that this is incredibly hard work and it is an art- that having been said you do not need to rattle off your opinions. Most importantly, no one cares, and second its very, very rude. (Questioning plant hardiness is a pet peeve, I can tell you that I’m pretty good at this subject and way more than once I’ve been proven wrong.) This person has extended themselves in a very personal manner. A painting is open to interpretation. Someone who has been on their hands and knees, hucking mulch, and preening what can be a VERY substantial area deserves the most polite behavior. Save it for the car.

Keep your hands to your self

When I first worked at a nursery a dear friend and colossally amazing gardener would open her space each Mother’s Day to the public. That was years ago and the theme was flowers- really, really, well grown flowers. On that Sunday at work I was shocked when after the tour a person came to the nursery where I worked holding a not so small branch of a flowering shrub. Not only did she demand identification, she balked when I asked her point blank where she got it. She told me, I asked if she had permission and when she stammered no, I was not very helpful. NEVER, NEVER do this. If you were invited to a persons house and you ripped a swatch of fabric off their furniture likely you would not be asked back. Its 2016, time to use technology. First ask the owner’s permission to take a photograph and then use your telephone to record whatever the owner allows. I’m positive that a smart nursery professional will be more than thrilled to assist you in this form of communication.

Don’t touch.

Ripping off a piece of a plant is a really dramatic example of bad garden etiquette, but there are several other things that you should employ when visiting someone else’s personal space. Don’t touch.-No matter how obsessive you may be in your own garden that does not give you license to interfere. One of the worst things you can do on a garden tour is either point out or actually pull a weed. Don’t do this. Again, if someone came to your home and started dusting I’m pretty sure you would be pissed off. Every garden has a scale that the person is seeking to control. Some are informal and some are very precise, that doesn’t mean you should point out what you consider are errors. Instead, consider what the gardener is thinking , what they are trying to accomplish, appreciate each garden style and scale for what it is. Informal, formal, personal, wild. There are infinite categories of this medium. Open your brain to this.

Identity. Patience and polite

You most likely will encounter plants that are unfamiliar to you. Once again, this is a very complex subject in our town. And, people may use plants differently to achieve a certain effect. This combination of culture and design can confuse even the experts. First, ask the owner politely for the identity. Don’t be upset if even they don’t rattle off the name for you. There can be thousands of plants in a garden and some may know, some may not immediately. There may even be a tag hiding somewhere in the duff. Do NOT go  for it your self. Personal space. The owner may volunteer to search for the tag, crawling around someones garden is bad behavior. Sometimes its a mystery. No badgering the gardener. Leave it at that. Again, ask politely to take a picture- the owner may know where they got it- here, you can be a savvy investigator- do your own work. Technology is your friend.

Secret Spot

A few other tips

Botanical latin is a tricky business. We all know that its primary function is to refer exactly to a certain plant. Common names are often useless because they can be repetitive and even vague. The utmost important thing is that both you and owner of the garden realize that not every one has the same plant acumen. For example, as a nursery owner and plant sales person I have to constantly remind myself of this. One way that I have approached this this is to go into a bicycle shop in Portland. I know NOTHING about bikes and I’m completely intimidated by the subject- exposing myself to that reminds me exactly of how customers feel when people begin rattling off latin. So don’t expect people to know as much as you.  And as a garden owner, professional, or visitor- you must resist the urge to correct a persons pronunciation. Unless, it is hopelessly wrong and this prevents identification or if the person is struggling to pronounce it. Bikes, numismatics, physics- think of anything that has intimidated you- that is likely how the novice feels. You can be quiet or you can be gentle just don’t be an ass.

Visit gardens- there’s really nothing like it.

So- in this season of garden visits there is nothing more fun, more enriching than visiting another persons space. Take a moment to collect yourself, use your best behavior, appreciate what you see, how it is interpreted and above all consider the amount of work that has gone into garden making. There are so many styles and rich collections of plants you are bound to learn something that you didn’t already know. Don’t pick out errors, don’t shout out loud how much something costs. Personal control is key. Remember that it is 2016 and we all carry around not only the most powerful tools for research in our pockets but the means to visually record. Ask permission. Stay on the path and most of all point out to the owner of the open garden at least one thing that you liked. Because if you have nothing good to say just please fake it.


Its that time of year. Garden etiquette.