A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit a few of North America’s finest gardens when a group of garden writers went touring together in La Belle Province of Quebec. An incident in one of the gardens reminded me that there is more to visiting a good garden than just walking through the gate.
We were fortunate enough to be allowed to visit Mr. Frank Cabot’s very large and very private garden, “Les Quatre Ventes” (The Four Winds). Located in the scenic Charlevoix region on the St. Lawrence River, this garden is described by almost every person who can wrangle an invitation as one of the best private gardens in North America. Let us just say that my camera seldom stopped clicking.
There was another camera setup when we were there. It seems that Martha Stewart had been filming a commercial in the garden. She was long gone by the time we arrived in the garden but her film crew was cleaning up.
We’ll ignore for the moment the person in charge of this crew who demanded that our writer’s group leave the garden immediately because we would be in the crew’s way of cleaning up. You can imagine how much a bunch of writers enjoyed this little harangue from a television personality and our humorous suggestions in return.
What you can’t imagine is that the television crew was loading up 4 wheel dolly carts with all their heavy equipment and then pulling these thin-wheeled carts across the turf of the main garden lawn. These carts are designed for concrete or paved areas, not the soft soil of a regularly watered lawn. Rather than taking the time to walk the heavy equipment an extra 50 feet to the pavement and then load the cart, the crew was putting grooves into the lawn of the main view from the house.
Now, you have to understand that any gardener is going to be upset when his garden is damaged; and while I might speculate whether Ms. Stewart will ever be invited back to that garden, my objective today is to give you a few general guidelines to follow when you visit gardens. You do want to be invited back.
To begin with, the general rule is not to leave anything that would betray your presence in the garden. No garbage of any kind should be left. I’ve picked up more than one cigarette butt from my garden walkways after people have come to visit and I can assure you it is not my favorite activity.
Tuck stuff into your pockets but never, ever leave garbage of any kind in the garden. If you have to carry a drink bottle into the garden, then you have to carry it out as well.
It sounds very trite to say, “Don’t pick the flowers in the garden.” It happens. More than once in our garden and more than once in my friend’s gardens a visitor will pick a bloom. Sometimes the urge to pick a bloom for a vase or trip home overcomes even the most sensible of garden visitors. Resist the urge.
Also, resist the urge to pick a seedpod. While it is not socially acceptable to ask a gardener for a flower in bloom, it is permissible to ask a friend to give you some seed. Ask nicely. Many gardeners collect seed to share with other garden society members so even the seed of interesting plants is of value to the gardener.
I was once on a garden tour that stripped almost every seed pod of interest from a garden bed of rare Arum flowers. These were professional perennial gardeners who should have known better but the urge to collect the plant overcame their ethics.
Milkweed pods are food for monarch butterfly larvae
Similarly, don’t pick the weeds in a garden. Your garden design and plant choices are not those of the gardener. I do remember very clearly seeing two huge milkweeds standing in the middle of one garden bed and having the urge to rip them out – I didn’t – and the gardener did confirm later that she was hoping to attract butterflies. If I had taken these plants out, it would have ruined a season’s work for the gardener.
Stay on the path. Don’t walk on the soil or into the garden bed to see a plant more clearly. This is a serious breach of garden etiquette. Pathways are there for a reason and that reason is to stop curious people like you and me from walking on the soil, compacting it and possibly stepping on other plants. I’ve watched more than one rude gardener walk over the soil in a garden, inadvertently stomping small seedlings in the process, to get a better view of a plant. All the while, they were saying how careful they were being and not hurting anything. You can’t see what your host can see.
I have several native orchids in my garden and I once heard an expert say if anybody stepped within a meter (yard) of this plant, the blooms would be reduced because of the soil compression around the tender feeder roots. That didn’t stop a visitor to my garden from walking off the pathway right up to the plant, kneeling down beside it to have a better look.
If you visit a garden, make a point of thanking your host or perhaps bringing a small gift with you (try some home-made preserves, specialty cheese or jam) to let the person know that you’ve appreciated their letting you into their private space. Don’t bring plants unless you know that the gardener doesn’t have them and really wants them.
In short, treat a garden as you would a friend’s living room. I can guarantee that many gardeners feel more strongly about their garden than about their house. And, you’ll be invited back.