The Roots of Plant Snobbery

Recently there have been two excellent posts on the nature of gardeners’ personal plant likes and dislikes, one in The Blooming Garden and the second in Angie’s Garden Diaries. These thought-provoking posts reminded me of a very disappointing experience I had involving impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) and The Wall Street Journal.

new yorker

In March, 2013, I wrote a post about the impatiens blight that got a fair number of views. One of the viewers was Bart Zeigler, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He asked if he could interview me on the impatiens’ decline.

Now, I am at best an occasional reader of the WSJ. I don’t like their politics, and it seems that the quality of their reporting has declined since the paper was purchased by Rupert Murdoch. However, I admit I was thrilled to be contacted by the paper. Politics, shmolitics, I thought. My blog is going to be mentioned in The Wall Street Journal! And that means VIEWS!

So I did the interview and waited in an agony of anticipation. When the article appeared, I was dismayed.

Mr. Zeigler’s focus was less on the impatiens blight and more on the “good riddance” attitude held by certain practitioners of haute horticulture. The article had quotes from three people who were glad to see the back of impatiens. The most instructive came from Manhattan-based garden designer Jeffrey Erb:

“I try to give my clients something they are not expecting, and impatiens don’t really fit that bill … I guess what really bothers me about impatiens is that people plant them because they are easy.”

snob 2

So. Right there are two foundations of plant snobbery: scorning plants because they are common, and because just anyone can grow them.

Now, I like to grow unusual plants. I like it when people point to a plant in my garden and ask, “What IS that?”. But I don’t dislike a plant simply because it is common. I like marigolds. I like Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’. I could go on, but you get the point.

I would say that a garden consisting only of the most common plants is likely to be a less interesting garden. However, there is nothing wrong with a garden that combines the old standbys with more unusual offerings.

As for “too easy” – most people would consider that a virtue. And here’s where plant snobbery and class snobbery can overlap. I suspect that many of Mr. Erb’s clients who opted for plants that are not “too easy” are paying Mr. Erb or someone else to take care of those plants.

In addition to ubiquity, people criticized impatiens for having leaves and flowers that are “withery and wimpy” as well as “flat and dull”.  This only shows how emotion shapes perception, because otherwise these statements are just silly. Either that, or the impatiens in question are planted in too much sun, or maybe they just need some water.

Impatiens
White impatiens spilling over the back of our wheelbarrow planter.

I was the only person in the article who had anything good to say about impatiens (as opposed to the three impatiens critics). I wish Mr. Zeigler had asked for my reaction to all the disdain heaped on this poor suffering plant, but he didn’t. The takeaway quote from me was this: “They’re a really nice, easy plant.” In other words, my role in the article was to be the unsophisticated dimwit who likes “nice, easy” plants.

I believe in the original draft of the article, it read:

“They’re a really nice, easy plant,” he said, adjusting his polyester stretch pants and wiping the hayseeds from his hair.

And after all that, the article didn’t mention my blog, or even that I wrote a blog, even though that’s how the reporter found me.

However, I’m not bitter. In fact, even though it’s been a long time since the article appeared, I’m considering sending the reporter a thank you gift. Do you think he would like a nice basket of impatiens?

73 Comments on “The Roots of Plant Snobbery

  1. There’s nothing wrong with an easy plant grown well in an appropriate space. Appropriate, grown well, with good design thrown in; any simple plant can win my heart. The WSJ has probably never grown anything himself.

  2. Ha! Yes!! Send one his way for sure!! And as for this plant snobbery I have experienced it several times. Once I was at my local nursery returning a perennial (can’t remember the name off hand) I had only had it for about 4 days before it started turning in a bad way. I brought it the counter and I had my 3 beans with me. Keeping them all under control while explaining to the “plant expert” what happened. She began to quiz me on where I had it planted with what other plants how much water I was giving it. It got far worse and I could sense that she was challenging me….the whole time I think she was looking at me with the beans thinking what does she know about plants. I finally looked at her and said “hey I’m a gardener” I can’t stand the snob stuff. Basically I like the folks that like to teach people and pass on the good. Good for you for taking the high road and congrats on being contacted by such a large publication even if it didn’t go the way you thought. Happy week to you Jason! Nicole

    • There is that dark human impulse towards exclusion, towards creating outsiders and insiders and a hierarchy of status. It pops up everywhere.

  3. We all need to be wary of the Garden Police. They are everywhere, always telling us what we ought to plant and what we ought NOT to plant. There seems to be more emphasis on what NOT to do. You will be glad to know, I hope, that my few impatiens are doing just fine. I do keep them kind of away from general view, but I wouldn’t call that “hidden.”

    • My neighbor planted a bunch and there is no sign of the blight. If they make it to the end of the season I think I’ll plant them myself next year.

  4. OMG Jason! This is one of my favorite posts! You told this story so well and I totally agree with your assessment of plant snobbery and impatiens. So funny, I recently had somewhat of a gardening friend say similar things about impatiens. I wonder if she read the article! Anyway, I love your candor and humor in this post! Maybe your next op with a large media outlet will turn out much better!

  5. Spot on Jason. I just reread your post on my front porch while sitting next to a blue ceramic pot planted with a deep red geranium, dwarf marigolds and light pink verbena.

    We’ve had one of the hottest, driest summers on record for the Pacific Northwest and sometimes I water that pot two or three times a day and never fail to deadhead as I walk in or out. I’ve had as much joy, satisfaction and fun observing and tending that pot as from any difficult alpine.

  6. I’m with you Jason, easy plants are also usually those adapted to the conditions they are planted in. Give me a swathe of ‘easy’ plants looking fantastic rather than one example of something ‘special’ looking sad every time.

  7. I really enjoyed this post Jason – THIS should be published in the WSJ! I’d send him a whole barrow full of Impatiens. I’m not keen on them myself, I think mainly because they don’t do well for me, but I do plant Geraniums (Pelargoniums) every summer because they are easy, and I am not ashamed of that! You clearly have a perfect position for your white Impatiens as they have almost convinced me I should give them a second chance!

    • I would never suggest that everyone should love impatiens. Just that a plant shouldn’t be despised simply because it is common and easy to grow.

  8. Love it! Great post Jason and I have just read the other two, I think more people properly read and interact with your blog than the WSJ so here is the outlet for such well written honest subjects.

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience with this article. I notice that plants seen as common will in some years get a nod from a garden writer as an old-fashioned must-have. Maybe you should skip the reporter and brighten someone else’s day with a nice basket of impatiens.

  10. Aah, the good ‘ole press and their knack for twisting facts to suit themselves! I fall firmly into the ‘love’ camp for Impatiens. I have some gorgeous orange and white ones growing this year that have delighted me and others who see them. They really are quite stunning, and I’m happy they’re so easy to care for. With so much else going on in the garden I need something that gives me a bit of a break 🙂 .

  11. Your article so speaks to me, as I have encountered some of that snob attitude in the horticulture world. I could share many stories of the feeling one gets when that happens. I voluntarily share my love of plants every day, and work as a designer, and I’m a blogger – but I have often encountered a “plant snobbery” attitude in scenarios – by people, no less which could serve as mentors instead. I try to offer gardening advice and organize garden related events with the tone of everything is worthwhile in the garden – even amateurs have amazing ideas and experiences to share. And gosh, impatients (despite the recent problem with one species) are amazing and always a great candidate in gardens and container gardens. What is happening with these sometimes snobs, I believe, is they want to maintain their status of ‘elite know-it-alls.’ By putting down a plant, they think they are. OK, I said it! Thanks for a great article, Cathy T

    • You’re welcome! I think you are right, defining some popular plants as passe or unworthy is a way to establish status, just like with fashion or cars.

  12. An “unsophisticated dimwit” myself, I am thrilled to find myself in such good company, though I’m quite sure I am on the lowest end of the unsophisticated dimwit scale.

  13. I loved this! Wonderfully well written, but then I have the odd hay seed in my hair too!
    I can’t abide any form of snobbery or pretension, people are individuals and of course all have different tastes in everything from food to art to music etc…..
    As for the class system, that is another outdated debacle that is still clinging on in there in Britain…..the sooner we get shut of it the better.
    As for the reporter, that is sadly often the case, I have been in the paper several times and not once has anything I said been reported accurately. I don’t think he deserves anything… or maybe he should be sent this post along with the comments!xxx

  14. Ah plant snobbery – so much to say. But, I’ll be concise and say some of us just enjoy plants from our childhood, some choose not to spend a fortune on plants that need to be coddled, and some like a balance. Whatever – we’re all gardeners who love getting dirt under our nails as we pull weeds. 🙂

    • Exactly, and I wouldn’t argue that all people should love all plants. The reasons we love or hate a plant can be logical or reflexive, which is fine. I just don’t think we should entirely reject a plant because it is widespread or easy to grow.

  15. I was interviewed by “More” magazine for an article on alternatives to marriage. Like you, my contribution was reduced to a few minor comments. The magazine did not even contact me when the article appeared; I found out about it from my sister-in-law, who happened to pick of the issue in an airport when looking for something to read in flight. Question: if someone has a garden but does not garden in the garden, is it really a garden? Or just landscape?

  16. Oh my, what a disappointment that they didn’t even mention your blog! I love your imagined “original” line, Jason:) This reminds me of a discussion I had with a long-time Master Gardener at one of our work days some time ago about sedum. When I told her I grew mostly ‘Autumn Joy,’ she pooh-poohed the plant and said something like, “Rose, you’re a Master Gardener, you surely can do better than that.” Needless to say, I had a slightly different opinion of her after that:) Anyway, I totally agree with you, Jason; I think impatiens look lovely, especially in shady areas where it’s hard to find color–and in your wheelbarrow planting. And I like the old stand-bys like geraniums, coneflowers, cosmos, zinnias, and on and on. I hope no plant snob visits my garden!

  17. I love your sense of humor. I grow impatiens. I like seeing them in a mass of one colour as you have them in the wheelbarrow. Cool and refreshing in the shade. As usual, this reporter was only able to see the story in terms of what it means for wealth and in doing so missed the real story. We are taught that expensive flowers like begonias are better. Impatiens are a people’s flower. He only touches on the science as it impacts the market but doesn’t dig in. What is this blight? Why now? What does this mean for native impatiens varieties? More fungicides in greenhouses? What are the health costs of using those? Is the blight tied to those kinds of unsustainable practices? etc I increasingly find it frustrating to read mainstream news. These reporters never have anything of value to actually report.

    • There are still a few good reporters out there, but they are a distinct minority. Most aren’t familiar with the issues they are covering. Some are overworked, some are lazy. And then there are the owners, who seem to be much less shy about driving the news from the editorial page.

  18. Thanks for the mention Jason. I love your wheelbarrow with white Impatiens I grow it too, under my silver weeping pear.
    I love this post, it really made me chuckle although I can see how infuriated it must have made you at the time.
    There are certainly fashionable plants, and on the other hand, ones that are looked down on by plant snobs as ‘common’. Maybe this happens when they become over- used and are seen everywhere.
    I think we all agree that the taste police are bullies and a good plant is a good plant however ubiquitous it may be.
    On the other hand we should’ t be afraid to say if we don’ t like a plant because it doesn’t do, or it is invasive.
    And then there are the plants that we just don’ t like. Not because they are unfashionable but they just don’ t appeal to us. They don’ t stir our hearts. I hope we needn’ t be afraid of saying so. I like to learn what plants people like or dislike. But sneering at other peoples’ tastes is never acceptable. And it’ s bad manners too.
    You made a serious point but I’ m still laughing about your idea of the original draft of the article.

    • I was thinking earlier that plant snobbery is not OK, but plant prejudice is. There are rational reasons to dislike a plant – too needy or aggressive, for example. And then there are those reflexive reactions we can’t really explain, they could come from unconscious associations we may have with a shape, a color, even a word. We are all entitled to these reflexive reactions, which is what I think of as plant prejudice. Plant prejudice is about individual preference, plant snobbery is about social status.

  19. Too funny. I happen to love marigolds and impatiens. Every garden. I have ever planted has has marigolds in it. Sometimes I feel like the only one planting them anymore. WSJ just had an article a couple of days ago you may like, “Oh, Come On Marigolds? Seriously? (Google wsj and marigolds to find it). It’s actually the opposite of the article you were quoted in, extolling the virtues of theses common annuals. Far more positive on the use of a whole palette of plants.

  20. I’m sorry that you got painted as the unsophisticated hayseed in the article and that your blog wasn’t mentioned – bummer. The reason that common and easy plants are widely used is that they are beautiful! I love impatiens and, although I didn’t plant any this year, often use them among all of the snobby green plants to be little jewels of color spangled about my shady beds. Not everyone has a garden designer, team of gardeners, and a maintenance crew swarming about his/her estate. Like you, I revel in finding the new and unusual for my garden but also love including the cheerful commoners. We simply have a more egalitarian attitude toward our gardens! (Nice way of saying that we’re plant sluts and will allow just about anything in our beds.)

  21. You’ve touched on my BIGGEST pet peeve: media bias! There is little written with integrity or objectivity in any publication I’ve picked up lately. Your WSJ writer had an agenda for a story as opposed to an idea for a story. Huge difference!
    Regarding impatiens. I had a long front walkway at our first house (Melrose Ma.) and PACKED impatiens of every color down the length of it on either side. randomly mixing the colors with no design or pattern. Those simple, cheap flowers caused people to stop their cars and look. They were THAT striking!
    I’ve never used them since but they were perfect for that house and that spot. IMO plant snobbery precludes many beautiful arrangements!

  22. Well said, my fellow hayseed! You’re spot-on about the plant snobbery-class snobbery relationship here. Those who actually tend the plants have a very different relationship to them than those who admire them from a well air-conditioned distance. My own relationship to a number of plants–ajuga, for one–changed when I saw how well they performed without any assistance from me. Any plant willing to do its own heavy lifting is more than welcome in my garden, regardless of how many other gardens it’s simultaneously working in. And I think if the old standbys of the gardening world lure more people out into nature with the promise of gardening success, then they’ve more than proven their value.

  23. It is a shame that those plants which are eager to please can be taken for granted sometimes. They tend to be undervalued, both in a monetary and an aesthetic sense. There is some snobbery in the plant world, a world which can overvalue the novel, the rare and the difficult to grow. Shame we don’t take an objective view of the merits of each plant, and then treat them accordingly. Dahlias were scorned for many years when they fell from fashion, and now, everyone falls over backwards to list their charms …

  24. I grow impatiens each year because they are easy, but that’s not the only reason-the neighbors say that seeing them on their way to work cheers them up. If a garden doesn’t make people feel better, or at least feel something, then what good is it?

  25. heh heh, I just read the WSJ article on marigold use the other day, and I recall a few years ago seeing Mr. Herb posting away on an online forum promoting himself. Small world.
    I happen to love those in and out proclamations, I plant away anyway, usually putting my “out” plants front and center, it’s not what you have it’s how you use it!
    … but that said, there are many plants I don’t grow because they’re so common. I can admire them next door or down the street, and save my own limited real estate for the stuff I can’t see elsewhere. Plus there are billions of plants out there, I can’t imagine limiting myself so much!

  26. I just despise plant snobs! People should plant whatever makes them happy. Gardening should never be elitist. I’m sure if the people in question were taking care of their own gardens, they would be stuffed with petunias and sunflowers because they’re ‘easy’. How rude of Erb to just use you to promote his agenda. I love impatiens and will be glad when they’re back.

    • You touched on the heart of the matter: plants, and gardens for that matter, should make people happy. If they do that, they need no justification.

  27. I don’t give “plant snobs” the time of day. They sound like the kind of people that wouldn’t know the business end of a fork even after watching an instructional video. Your wheelbarrow with impatiens spilling over the sides is just wonderful. I can’t do that with mine since it’s just about brand new!

    • Definitely don’t turn your wheelbarrow into a planter until it is no longer functional. Otherwise it makes for a very expensive planter.

  28. Oh poo-poo on that so-called journalist! People should plant what they like and enjoy! As for “withery and wimpy,” perhaps those people should learn how to actually take care of impatiens! Now, go change out of those polyester stretch pants and brush the hayseed out of your hair!

  29. That’ s exactly the type of snobbery I was referring to the other day in my blog because I just can’t stand it when people look down on plants just because they’re easy creatures. As for journalists…you get these guys I suppose. Never mind 😉

  30. I agree entirely with you Jason.
    I once saw a shady garden which was all impatiens. I would not have it myself but it was rather attractive. Personally I would find it boring to look at nothing else for the whole season. It also seemed a waste of money (they obviously had spent a lot on impatiens). The flowers themselves were beautiful.

    • Certainly a garden with nothing but impatiens would not be so interesting, but that is not a reason to avoid them in an overall design.

  31. Oh Jason you are my hero…I laughed and laughed….plant snobbery indeed. I guess I like the simple easy plants…who wouldn’t. As long as they bloom, have pretty blooms (and just about all flowers do) why not love them. You know I never had much luck with impatiens which is why I don’t plant them (and I have too much sun)…go figure!

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