Tag Archives: garden assessment

What price public accountability and garden reviews?

We put the closed sign up late last year

We put the closed sign up late last year

We have been part of the open garden scene in New Zealand for 25 years but at the end of last season we put the closed sign up. We don’t know what the future holds for us yet but we are certainly enjoying taking a year or two out. It is interesting taking a step back.

I have long advocated that it is possible to assess gardens and that not all gardens are equal. Like any other human endeavour, some gardeners are simply better at the task than others. Whether you like a garden is a matter of personal opinion. Whether it is a fine example of gardening is, to my mind, not a matter of opinion but able to be measured by certain criteria. I can think of some very good gardens that are not to my personal taste just as there are gardens that I really enjoy, even though they are not top notch. Mind you, I shy away from the very thought of ranking gardens in a single line hierarchy, as required by competitions. I am only willing to work in broad bands or categories.

I have also advocated strongly for accurate garden descriptions for open gardens. There is a certain folly in letting garden owners write their own descriptions. Some are far too modest and fail to capture the essence of their own place, shying away from anything that might be seen as boastful. Too many, alas, are not.

So it has been interesting this week to debate the issue of garden reviews. This came up on a British gardening website (www.thinkingardens.org.uk) where the editorial policy is of honesty, sometimes brutal honesty. A contributor posted a particularly critical review of the historic garden, Rousham.

Rousham House (photo credit Grahamec via Wikimedia Commons)

Rousham House (photo credit Grahamec via Wikimedia Commons)

I have never been to Rousham which is in Oxfordshire and it is not likely to feature high on our visiting list because we prefer different gardening styles. My English garden guidebook (written by an independent, not the garden owners) describes Rousham as “the most perfect surviving example of William Kent’s landscaping….an Arcadian experience.” It dates back to the early eighteenth century, one of the earliest and best preserved examples of English landscape gardens, drawing on influences from ancient classical times. In other words, it is mostly green and architectural. It is still in private ownership, apparently run with a relatively small budget. According to the reviewer, the owners are not doing a very good job of it.

Does charging an entry fee make a garden fully commercial and therefore fair game for disaffected garden visitors? Most New Zealand open gardens are in a similar position to Rousham (though few are of any historic note). It is a rare garden here that is part of a fully commercialised set-up with cafe, craft shop, plant sales and a full complement of service staff. In fact I can only think of two such privately-owned gardens. Every other private garden I know is a labour of love by individuals where the entry fee, if charged, adds up to a minor contribution to the costs.

Would it help lift open garden standards here if there was a *robust* and public review system? The advent of the internet has made this possible – would the Trip Advisor garden section become an integral part of planning? The neo-liberal, consumer approach says yes. A comment on the aforementioned website by one such on-line reviewer defending himself read: “Being a petty, rude and generally disrespectful smart-arse is the right of those that pay money for a thing.”

We were underwhelmed in every way by this overseas garden so I prefer not to identify it or write about it

We were underwhelmed in every way by this overseas garden so I prefer not to identify it or write about it

I may be a bit old fashioned in these matters, but I think it is a privilege to be able to get into private gardens irrespective of whether an entry fee is paid or not. If I really don’t like a garden after visiting, we analyse the reasons why in private discussion. Would I write a scathing review? No, that just seems discourteous. If I wrote about it, I would try and balance out the negatives with some positives. If there were no positives, I wouldn’t write about it.

On the day we put up the closed sign on our garden, we received our first ever letter of complaint. It was unpleasant, written by an angry woman who accused us of ripping her off. It hurt. Fortunately it is the only one but we have kept it as a reminder. Of course she had paid to come in so she had the right to vent her displeasure. Just as we have the right to decide that we don’t want people like that in our garden. It wouldn’t take too many experiences like that to make us decide never to open again.

So-called honest reviewing and feedback is a fraught path.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Garden assessment and the NZGT

Mark, nose pressed to the window (or door, in this case). On the outside looking in.

Mark, nose pressed to the window (or door, in this case). On the outside looking in.

Hamilton is playing host to some good gardeners this weekend. It is the New Zealand Gardens Trust (NZGT) having its annual conference in the city. This is the parent organisation of many, but not all, open gardens in this country. We are not attending. We were enthusiastic founder members. Indeed, we even contributed $2000 to get the thing up and running. There is nothing like resigning on principle and being totally ignored to remind one not to get ideas above one’s station.

The purpose of the trust is to vet gardens, rank them and give garden visitors an accurate idea of what to expect. Along the way, it aims to provide a pleasant membership club of collegial conviviality for the garden openers and this is really the only aspect we miss.

There aren’t many circumstances where garden assessment is required. There is the occasional local competition which invariably gives lie to the idea that gardening is a non competitive activity – for some at least. There are plenty of people who would like to claim the biggest pumpkin, tallest sunflower, prettiest road frontage, or the best vegetable or flower garden. Winning can be wonderfully affirming.

Some of the garden festivals around the country insist on vetting gardens before accepting them. In this case, assessment is only setting the base line for inclusion. It can be alarmingly controversial but anybody with experience knows just how necessary the process is. Too many gardeners wear rose tinted glasses where their own patch of dirt is concerned.

Show gardens such as seen at the Ellerslie Flower Show are judged and there are some excellent international precedents for how these are assessed, emanating particularly from Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society. Interestingly, the RHS is taking a close look at its assessment processes right now.

And there is our national scheme for ranking gardens, administered by the aforementioned NZGT. Of course you can still open your garden independently, as we do these days, but from the point of view of the garden visitor, some credible outside endorsement and ranking can be helpful. Originally, this open garden scheme had three categories with the top tier being grandly named: Gardens of National Significance. We were really honoured to be named one of only six private gardens to carry this elevated status in the first year. That meant something. These days, with a huge number of gardens in the top categories, it doesn’t seem anywhere near as prestigious. Do we really have over sixty two top tier gardens, of national significance and a few even described with great puffery as being of INTERnational significance, in this country?

Equally, it seems really odd that the next tier of gardens down numbers a mere thirty six. One might expect a pyramid shape – fewer top gardens and a whole lot more in the next layer who would like to move up. Either the organisation is singularly bad at retaining membership below the top tiers, or it gives out its rankings way too cheaply.

The problem, I would suggest, is likely to stem from too heavy a dependence on a points based system. By that, I mean allocating so many points for the state of your lawns, your paved surfaces, how neatly your hedges are clipped, how you support and tie up plants, plant combinations, plant health and so on. It matters not a whit if you are scoring out of 10, 100 or 300.

In practice, slavish adherence to a points based system can mean a damned ordinary or downright awful garden lacking in any charm or originality can get through as long as it scores highly in sufficient categories. The sum of the parts is sometimes greater than the whole. We saw it happen a few years ago when someone with a good level of knowledge trotted around a number of local gardens, clipboard and marking schedule in hand. “When I got to the end,” he told us, “and added up the points, I was astonished at who came out with the highest score.” As indeed we were, too.

A marking schedule is just one tool, not an end in itself. Neither is it a shield to hide behind, to justify decisions. It needs to be used in conjunction with clear definitions, agreed frameworks, some bigger picture thinking about downstream outcomes, maybe a mediated process and preferably in the hands of a convenor. Done well, assessment can even be an empowering experience for the candidate.

I have no idea whether NZGT is now employing a wider range of strategies in assessment. They certainly didn’t in the past. From my current position out in the cold with my nose pressed up against the window pane, the current outcomes are not suggesting that there has been significant change.

Notwithstanding those reservations, one hopes that the keen and dedicated gardeners visiting Hamilton this weekend will encounter fine weather, wine and gardens to be enjoyed in convivial company.

Before becoming a garden writer, Abbie Jury spent 18 years working in education, across all sectors before specialising in adult learning. She was appointed to an advisory committee to the Minister of Education, to a standing committee of NZQA and was awarded a Commonwealth Relations Trust bursary to study alternative forms of assessment of adults in the UK.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Three years ago, I published the reasons for our resignation from the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Despite being widely read then and in the intervening years, those comments appear to have fallen into an abyss.

Eight years ago, I wrote in strong support of the NZGT. That does seem rather a long time ago now.

Why we resigned from the New Zealand Gardens Trust

Latest update, published April 27, 2012, looks at matters related to garden assessment and NZGT. Not, as has been suggested, because we have not “moved on”, but because, fundamentally we still believe in the concept of NZGT. It is just the implementation with which we have issues.

And from May 2009:
We were enthusiastic founder members of the New Zealand Gardens Trust, contributing $2000 to get the scheme underway and promoting it in every way we could. Now we are ex members.

1.      We do not agree with the way the Trust operates. This is an organization which appoints itself, (existing trustees chose new trustees with no input from the membership), meetings are closed, the AGM is held in what amounts to a closed meeting and there is little, if any, consultation with members.

2.      There is a failure to separate the governance role (which should rest with the trustees) from the operation of the Trust. The paid executive officer is also a trustee. The chief assessor is also a trustee, another assessor is the deputy chair of the Trust, a third person was until recently both a trustee and a senior assessor. This affects the ability of the trustees to objectively review Trust activities, including the processes of garden assessment.

3.      Garden assessment is a points based system – get enough points and you too can be rated as nationally significant. Without clear definitions, there are now gardens which carry ratings which describe them as being “significant” when it is not at all clear what is significant about them beyond the fact that they are well presented and tidy.

4.      Garden assessment so far has often been adversarial and lacking accountability, even to garden owners who are paying for it. There are other methods of garden assessment which set standards without alienating participants. We want to see a garden assessment system which nurtures and encourages, rather than burning people off. It was the discourteous and arrogant treatment meted out to the owners of a particular garden which was the final catalyst for our resignation. We no longer wished to be part of an organization which could treat its members so carelessly.

5.      We opposed the concept of Gardens of International Significance from the first moment we heard of it in April 2008. International reputations are earned on the international stage and not awarded to ourselves. This new category was introduced with no consultation of members. The method of selecting the first four allegedly internationally significant gardens lacked robust process and was not even by assessment to meet new criteria. International significance appears to be a Trust response to a top heavy nationally significant class but it is not an appropriate action, in our opinion. In fact, we would describe it as frankly embarrassing. Even worse is the indication on the new NZGT website that provided you can afford the $1125.00 fee, you too can self identify as a potential internationally significant garden and request an assessment. (Note: The pricing structure has apparently been changed recently. For us, it was never about the money in the first instance and this change is still mere tinkering to keep some people happy while the fundamental problems have apparently still not been addressed.) How long before there are so many Gardens of International Significance that we see the Trust needing another category – Gardens of Universal Significance, perhaps?

6.      There appears to be little understanding from the Trust Board of visitor numbers to gardens around the country and even less monitoring of actual benefits derived from membership of the Trust. A bottom line for us is that NZGT endorsement was not delivering up sufficient extra visitors to pay for the annual subscription.

7.      We tabled concerns in writing to the trustees in May last year. We never received a reply. When we resigned, we mentioned those concerns again but all that happened was that we were taken off the website at lightning speed and we received a letter which said nothing of note. Even though we were a founder garden, even though we have actively promoted the Trust, even though we have a reasonably high profile in this country and overseas, not one trustee picked up the phone to talk to us about our resignation.

8.      We still think that the concept of the New Zealand Gardens Trust is a good one but there is too large a gap between the concept and the current reality.

Glyn Church from Woodleigh Gardens comments:
I totally agree with everything you say about NZGT. We resigned from NZGT for the same reasons.

Nicki and Clive Higgie from Paloma Garden comment:
We’re very disappointed NZGT accepted your resignation (horrified there was no communication from them to you!) for we feel any scheme for garden visiting in New Zealand is totally deficient without your garden being included.

We remain members for now, as we’d really like the scheme to work. At present we feel it’s uneconomic for us: we’re not gaining financial benefit from membership but we feel the potential’s there.

With regard to the trust’s failure to separate governance from management, we agree with you. While trustees have so far done a wonderful job, it’s not desirable to put them in that position of performing both governance and operational roles, as trustees and assessors (or CE) at the same time.

The structure of any trust must allow for full member participation, total transparency and accountability.

As for garden assessment, it’s very difficult to award tangible points to intangibles. We feel a workable model’s been put in place and, personally, have few complaints. But at the end of the day, in any system, a points system or whatever, assessors’ personal taste, personal experience (or lack thereof) and even just the garden’s geographical position can have a large influence on results. An example of the last point is that a Japanese garden, even of international standards, should never, in our opinion, be assessed as having international significance in New Zealand .
Nicki and Clive