Garden Snobbery: Or, how I learned to love red

By Glennis Byron
June 27, 2022
Filed in Flowers
6 minutes

I’d just enjoyed a long season of flowers from a gorgeous Clematis montana I’d inherited with the house and, being a huge fan of clematis, I was eager to discover what the next one to bud might be. This was a very old plant that obviously hadn’t been cut back for years, a tangle of old vines that concealed ancient bird nests and dog toys and a bone I thought best not to examine too closely. Early this spring I’d decided that the only solution was to be brutal and hacked it down to a foot. It quickly regrew to its former size which seemed promising. The first bud appeared, and the excitement grew; it opened, and my heart sank: ‘Nelly Moser’. She may be one of the most popular clematis ever, but I simply cannot live with ‘Nelly Moser’ in my garden. She is history.

Image by LittleThought from Pixabay. Mine is already chopped.

There have been several such moments already this year. There was nothing to beat the horror of all those red and yellow striped tulips that popped up everywhere, clamouring for attention. Or so I thought. And then, after happily watching most of the roses open in pleasing soft shades of peach and pink, the last one burst into bloom …

I could possibly forgive this rose if I thought it might be the old French ‘Ferdinand Pichard’, but I strongly suspect it is that gaudy imposter, Weeks’ ‘Rock & Roll’. I am no rosarian and cannot be sure, but the thorny stems suggest it is not Ferdinand. Would I change my mind about it if I discovered it was? Would I really like it just because it was old and French rather than new and American? Since that moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about garden snobbery.

When James Bartholomew published his tongue in cheek Yew & Non-Yew: Gardening for Horticultural Climbers in 1996, it seemed a relatively simple matter to distinguish what was and wasn’t considered ‘tasteful’. Appropriating ‘U and Non-U’, the phrase coined by Alan Ross and popularized by Nancy Mitford to distinguish the English upper from the non-upper-class, Bartholomew lampooned the idea of different kinds of gardening.

The ‘Yew’ (named for their obsession with Yew hedging) preferred discreet plants, nothing that could be accused of being garish, best if they didn’t even have flowers: euphorbias, viburnums and hellebores were the stars. No privet, dahlias or chrysanthemums allowed. They planted only old roses, preferably those named after some French Madame someone or other, or some Souvenir de somewhere. No matter if these roses were martyrs to blackspot or flowered only once a season. They used garden sculptures of bronze or stone, natural ponds, York stone paths. If they grew vegetables, it was in a potager. They subscribed to Gardens Illustrated, and their gurus included Gertrude Jekyll and Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse. They would know the correct pronunciation of Jekyll. And even of dahlia, so they could sneer more knowledgeably. Vita Sackville-West was the ‘Yew’ pin-up. White gardens were on the wish list.

The ‘Non-Yew’, on the other hand, indulged in mass plantings of busy lizzie and lobelia and begonia and geraniums and petunias, all preferably in cheerful mixed colours.They had a criminal liking for stiff modern hybrid tea roses with such names as ‘Sexy Rexy’ and ‘Dee-lish’, and for pampas grass, preferably pink, and dwarf conifers. Their gardens would contain colourful hanging baskets, plastic Grecian urns or herons, and concrete patios complete with barbeques. They had allotments where they grew huge vegetables and rows of gladioli and dinnerplate dahlias for the village show and would subscribe to Garden News. Gardening gurus would be anyone writing for said Garden News, or anyone appearing on Gardener’s World. Charlie Dimmock was the ‘Non-Yew’ pin up. Water features were on the wish list.

Taste is always a way of passing judgement and asserting superiority, and in the garden I suspect it works both ways. If the ‘Yew’ sneered at the colourful preferences of the ‘Non-Yew’, the ‘Non-Yew’ had a good laugh at the impractical pretensions of the ‘Yew’. In my ‘Yew’ days, I adored my rose ‘Souvenir de Madame Léonie Viennot’ – old, tick, French, tick; Madame, tick; Souvenir, tick – with her voluptuous big pink blooms. My husband, clearly lacking all romance in his soul, said Madame Léonie sounded like a brothel keeper. Similarly, while I was proud of my rose ‘Crepuscule’, others thought it sounded like something you need to be vaccinated against.

But things have changed in the gardening world in the past fifteen years. The difference between garden art and garden gnomes is no longer quite so clear. It’s difficult to confidently place plants or gardens or gardeners in such easy categories. Monty Don – ‘Yew’ or ‘Non-Yew’? Tough call. Sarah Raven might seem obviously ‘Yew,’ but she is to a great degree responsible for popularizing dahlias. She may have given them such elegant names as the ‘Venetian Dahlia collection’, but they were still dahlias. But now they are covetable– even dinnerplate dahlias. In my last garden, I grew many new and old roses, including both the beautiful old rose ‘Madame Ernst Calvat’ and Meilland’s modern ‘Line Renaud’, which I was horrified to later discover was the rose sold in North America under the name ‘Dee-lish’. Serves me right.

One of these is the old rose ‘Madame Ernst Calvat’, the other ‘Line Renaud’, aka Dee-lish. Which is which?

Times change, tastes change. The difficulty of keeping the categories intact is, I suspect, partly due to advancements in breeding. Think of the David Austin rose: looks like an old one but is new and often far healthier and with better scent. Then again, perhaps the David Austin rose has become the equivalent of old roses in today’s society: David Austin as ‘Yew’ opposed to the ‘Non-Yew’ of the Knock Out Rose or the (shudder) Oso Easy Rose or Flower Carpet. 

It is probably also in part down to the rise of the florist farmer in North America and the move of gardeners into social media and celebrity culture. The influence of every flower gardener’s current crush, Erin Benzakein of Floret Flowers, is immeasurable. If she likes it, I’ll try it. Being American she perhaps avoids the categories more easily. She has a good collection of old roses, but her cutting garden preference is for David Austin shrub roses and for modern hybrid teas. In her arrangements she uses soft and beautiful colours, not garish hybrid teas, and none of those dreadful florist roses that look artificial.  Think soft peaches and apricots and pinks, and some other very unusual colours:’ ‘Koko Loko’, ‘Butterscotch’, ‘Honey Dijon’, ‘Ash Wednesday’. No ‘Chrysler Imperial here’.  

‘Chrysler Imperial’ and ‘Koko Loko’

Even if you don’t know these roses, you can tell by the names that the colours are subdued and tasteful. Today we favour a range of colours that to a large degree duplicates the early ‘Yew’ disdain for bright colours. The early ‘Non-Yew’ gardener would laugh out loud at these odd hues and consider them dreadfully dull.

A medley of colours popular today: includes Phlox ‘Creme Brulee’, Phlox ‘Creme Caramel’, Sweet Peas ‘Piggy Sue’ and ‘Mollie Rilstone’, Cosmos ‘Apricot Lemonade’.

Taste is not an innocent or a stable term, neither in personal nor cultural terms. I have seen many changes in my own gardening preferences and beliefs over the years. After cultivating a ‘tasteful’ pastel garden that worked so well in the dull light of misty central Scotland, moving to Spain taught me that bright colours looked better beside the walls of a white villa in the sunshine: ‘Yew’ preferences became irrelevant. Now, here in Victoria, I suddenly find I have ended up with pots and pots of the most vibrant red flowers, even some red and yellow that would previously have made me cringe. What was I thinking? I have discovered the joy of hummingbirds of course.

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  • Fascinating account of a garden class system. My elder sister, who prefers shades of green and white, calls my love of pale pinks, blues, and purples, with the odd cream colour “garish”! I told her that we get enough white in the garden in the form of snow during our long Ontarian winters!

    • Glennis Byron

      I always think I’m a shades of green and white kinda person, but my gardens always end up pink/blue/purple..

  • Interesting!

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