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Garden Visit Etiquette

Naughty dog in the garden

It’s late spring, and as a lifelong gardener, and currently, the first vice-president of the Garden Club of Somerset Hills and the chairman of its Garden History and Design committee, this time of year--full of beautiful blooms-- brings both delight and dread.  From mid-May to mid-June, when my peonies bowl me over with their glorious shades of coral-reds and pale pinks, and the Wisteria drips elegantly from its arbor like so many amethysts from a bracelet, my phone rings off the hook with requests to ‘take a quick peek” at my flowerbeds.

And that’s the dreaded part. I think I speak for gardeners worldwide when I say we are thrilled to show off our gardens to friends and fellow diggers in the dirt, but it is work to have you visit. We take your request quite seriously. And as any good hostess would do if you wanted a tour of her house, we spruce up our “rooms” before you pull onto our recently raked gravel driveway and pretend we are always this tidy. Allow me to translate: we weed, you vacuum. We deadhead; you pick up all dirty laundry off the floor and stuff it into a hamper. We fluff up the mulch, you bat at the sofa cushions. And we give everything a nice long drink to make the flora perky and fragrant, while you spritz all with rooms with Pledge as you dust. We are a proud lot, of both the rooms we live in, and the ones we sleep in. So, with that in mind, please call us any time, but humor us by keeping to these simple caveats of visitor Dos and Don’ts.
Dos and Don’ts of Garden Etiquette:
1. Please call at least a few hours in advance. Gardeners are a grubby bunch, usually in desperate need of a tissue. We are slathered in zinc oxide and dressed in our husbands’ oldest tee shirt. There is plant material in our hair. Our pants generally are missing a back pocket or a bit of fabric close to our crotch, so give us a few minutes not only to ‘make our beds”, (see above) but to clean up our persons, as well.

2. When you do call, DO NOT ask, we beg of you, to bring you’re two year old child just up from a long nap, or your dog, on or off- leash.
Small children hate these outings. If there isn’t a swing set nearby (which most gardeners hide behind an outbuilding) they will waddle through the Lamb’s Ear, pull apart the pretty Bleeding Hearts, and trample across the emerging day lilies with abandon. There is no way for the poor garden owner to politely say “Get your kid off my foxglove because he’s ruining it! And oh, by the way, it is highly toxic to humans.”
Dogs, on the other hand, love these outings, with plenty of new smells to ferret out and fresh territory to mark, they are in doggie heaven. Alternatively they put us in gardener’s hell as we watch their first squat.  Female canine urine browns our grass, and although male urine does not, most of us prefer salad dressing on our herbs and lettuces. This is to say nothing of their large, enviable poops that will follow (yes, we know you are shocked because they just ‘went’ at home).

3. A word to the Imelda Marcos’s in the crowd: Did you know that the word Etiquette originated from Louis the XIV’s horticultural staff?   Miffed at visitors meandering through the Versailles’s immaculate landscape sporting their pointy heeled haute couture booties of the day, the head gardener posted signs with the word ‘etiquet’ written on them. Allow me to translate (loosely): It means, have some manners and do “keep off the grass”, you oblivious clod; stick to the gravel paths.  Gardeners spend an inordinate amount of time and money growing, greening and weeding their lawns. It is the all-important main stage for the good stuff in the distance and around the edges. We aerate our lawns in early April before we seed. That means we rent a very heavy and unwieldy machine that leaves little tiny holes in the ground on purpose. Your high heels are not that tool. Bring your flats, or better yet, sneakers.

4. Unless we offer, we really don’t want to give you a sample/cutting of our very rare, very EXPENSIVE whatever it is you’re drooling over. But if you are extra complimentary, we might give you some Lily of the Valley (that we just weeded out of the lawn and tossed on the compost heap). And do BYOB (bring your own baggie.)

5. It would be nice to think you loved everything about our gardens that we do: the various rooms we slaved to create with their meandering paths and antique focal points– the shade beds filled a variety of ferns collected from roadsides during a decades time, bridal veil Astilbe, Salomon’s Seal and Hellebore–our one perennial bed that yes, we intentionally keep to a specific bloom order, height and color scheme. But you won’t always agree. And you’ll be tempted to tell us what YOU think we are missing — a spot of yellow “something” here, and maybe a viburnum Carlesii there — but don’t do it. This is our masterpiece, and when you have us over to show us your gardens, we’ll be equally as respectful and be sure not to say ‘my kid could do a better job with planning.”

6. Most serious gardeners know Latin phrases because it is the way we differentiate the species we collect. A Dicentra Formosa is a very different plant from a Dicentra Spectabilis, but we try to spare you those details because if you aren’t a full tilt garden enthusiast, the terminology is baffling, boring and you’ll have no idea what we are talking about. So in return, do spare us with your garden language too, because I don’t know what happened to that “big, yellowish-greenish-leafy-thingy” that you planted in a not so sunny side of your house and forgot to water. I have no idea what you are talking about. Stop stealing my moment.

7. And lastly, but not lastly, do compliment us. Tell us you’re impressed with our “children”, the ones we feed and water, fret over in a draught, and wring our dried out hands with broken fingernails over during a late season frost. Then maybe we’ll let that kid of yours out of the car.

Ryder S. Ziebarth, a freelance writer and well-mannered GCA member, was most recently published in the Metropolitan Diary section in the New York Times,  Brevity, a flash- nonfiction literary journal, N magazine and among other publications. She sends way too much time transforming her four acre flower beds into wonderlands each spring, and is grateful when November puts them, and all their vistors, to bed.


some homes are showplaces, carefully staged.  some have plastic on the furniture. others have dog hair on the couch and half dressed children.  Gardens say a lot about the poeple who cultivate them as far as style and purpose and substance go.  I keep my dog out of the garden because she likes to play the roll of godzilla to my seedling city.  But kids are welcome. welcome to water like little prison guards hosing down the new perps, they are welcome to taste and smell. and yup pick flowers. the first time I smile and say yes it is beautiful, and then I take a minute to teach them how and why to pick a flower in a way that does not damage the plant. The best part of our community garden is seeing the creativity and individuality of each persons space. Happy planting :)

Linda-- you're so right.  I think Ryder is thinking of the formal fantasies that garden clubs host to visit on Open Days, especially, although word seems to get around about whose garden to go and see.

Home gardens are so much more welcoming, on the whole.

Thank you for reading my essay, Linda, and you are right. This piece was meant to be satrical. I have dogs, kids and even neighboring ponies on my grass, and pinching off my peony buds, and enjoying my mint!  But I absolutely have toured many gardens were this essay applies..and they are beautiful, but mine aren't quite as precious!


I love invitations to those perfect secret gardens for inspiration some day I way aspire to garden club but for now community garden fits my style. My garden is packed with food crops Mostly but I can't live on food alone so I always have zinnias, snap dragons and otherss good for cutting and fool proof on Nantucket. If you would like to visit Nantucket Community Garden please stop by on June 15, you will meet a gloriously quirky bunch and their equally quirky gardens. Hummock pond road. Cheers to all of our gardens

I will work on my satire radar. How fortunater you are to have 4 acres to garden. I recently went to a whaling museum brown bag lunch lecture about the history is Nantucket gardens. My favorite part was of a Main St gardener who had an exotic plant that bloomed one night a year. They would put it in the parlor and half the town would come to see it on the blooming night. :)

Linda--thank you for all of your interesting comments! I will absolutely come see the Nantucket community garden on June 15th and thank you for the invitation. I'll look for you there.