Garden Tour Mania: How To Find Your Authentic Voice When Surrounded By A Tidal Wave of Perfection

– Posted in: Garden Design

2004-03-06 18.06.02The first time I was asked to be on a garden tour, a combination of unadulterated excitement and raw fear kept me working at break neck speed with little sleep for the month prior to it.

I’ve got to admit that I felt privileged to be asked to participate. But I also felt like an actress on the opening night of a play. I was exposing my beloved garden—a piece of living art that represented years of hard work—to strangers who might callously rip it apart within a few minutes.

Was I up to the challenge? The answer was a no brainer. As a keen gardener who wanted to share what I had created with others, I knew that having my garden on tour was a must. My ego could handle being bruised a bit, I told myself.

On the day of the event, I was cleaning up an already almost perfectly coiffed garden when I heard car doors slam shut on the cul-de-sac. I quickly put the broom in the garage and raced inside. I was too scared to meet the initial crowd of folks as they sauntered through.

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But after 15 minutes of doing busy work in my kitchen—which had wall to wall French doors that allowed me to observe the visitors stopping at certain plant combinations and chatting, or gazing at the garden from the long distance perspective, or standing close to a tree smelling the blossoms— I realized that my garden was getting a lot of ‘thumbs up’, took a deep breath, stood erect, and walked outside to meet and greet.

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It was truly a fun and rewarding afternoon: I felt that the years of creating my personal paradise were being appreciated by others. It was also wonderful connecting with other inquisitive and keen gardeners.

robinia pseudocacia 'frisia'

After that initial event, I was asked several times to participate in garden tours, I taught workshops for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in my garden, and gardening clubs made visits to my garden—often in conjunction with an outing to Chanticleer which was a 10 minute drive from my home.

I noticed that when I had folks over from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for 3 hour workshops, I never felt the need to create a manicured and over planted garden the way I did when it was on a tour. If a pile of mulch was piled up in the driveway, when 20 folks piled into my kitchen for coffee, muffins, and a discussion, so be it. Other than tidying up the landscape a bit, everything remained as is.

Change is inevitable—in the garden, as well as in life. As my garden matured and took on a different look, I became interested in pushing the boundaries of what gets labeled as ‘the garden’. Without over-analyzing why, I began to let my garden become more natural and less tended.

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At some point in that time period, hosting garden tours started feeling like an imposition. I observed myself staging a garden for these tours rather than showing my garden as it normally would be –in process. Not only did preparation require a tremendous amount of extra work and dollars to make it look like a ‘showpiece’, but the question I continued to ask myself was: “Is this the best scenario for other gardeners to learn from?” My garden tour mania had transformed itself into garden tour apathy.

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Around that time period, the folks at Scott Arboretum asked me if I would participate in a garden tour in early May. Without even mulling it over, I reflexively said , “Yes, of course.” So much for listening to my instincts.
But as the snowy, freezing March turned into the damp, cold April, I began to experience some discomfort. I had a bad cold and truth be told, I just didn’t have the desire to turn my garden into a show piece.

About a week before the tour, I made the conscious decision that I was going to break out of the ‘garden tour mentality’ of perfection and let my garden be viewed ‘au naturel’.

When the day of the tour approached, similar to my garden tour years ago, I was nervous but for a very different reason. This time around, it was about letting other gardeners see what I hadn’t done yet. A piece of me felt like I was inviting someone to my home for a dinner party and then opening the door in shorts and having an informal b-b-q instead. My inner critic had a field day reminding me that I was destroying all the years I had built my reputation as a serious garden designer, communicator, and teacher.

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But rather than hide inside as I did years ago, this go around, I put on my sun hat and walked out to greet visitors as they came up the drive. I purposely didn’t go out of my way to explain to anyone that I had made the decision to keep the garden as is unless someone engaged me in conversation about it.

My father, who came to offer moral support, chatted up the guests and took several of them around the garden. He was having a grand time. When he stopped in front of my in-ground rectangular fountain which had not been cleaned out and planted up yet, I felt like waving my arms and screaming “Don’t. Keep on moving, Dad.”

Without missing a beat, he said: “This is one of my favorite places in the garden. It’s so simple and elegant. And look at that view.” With that, he swept his left arm open, pivoted and turned his head towards the expansive, long garden to the left of him. He was right. The view was pretty darn good. And the fountain? To my Dad, it may have been beautiful –or he was just one heck of a good salesman.
Since this was a large tour with hundreds of people visiting over a span of 3-4 hours, I didn’t talk with everyone. I would guess there were some folks who found my garden less than appealing. I chose not to even think about it.

The people who did interact with me, though, commented on how much they appreciated the fact that I hasn’t transformed my landscape into a show garden, like some others on the tour. Several visitors said how much more they were able to relate to my garden because they were able to see it in its natural state on a crisp, damp day in early May.

By the time the last few visitors and volunteers had bid farewell, I was exhausted. But I also felt like doing a victory dance. I had taken what felt like a huge risk of breaking out of the ‘garden tour mania’ and made it to the other side. I had shed what had in recent years felt like a false mantle of ‘perfectionism’ in hosting these garden tours and let the real ‘me’ shine through.

Now it’s your turn! I’d love to hear if you go on garden tours and if your garden has ever been part of a tour. Share any thoughts, reactions, and ideas.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please pass onto friends via social media. Sharing is a wonderful way of being generous!

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Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

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Fran Sorin
39 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Bracey Tiede March 15, 2015, 9:34 am

I agree that after having our garden on tours, we reached a point where staging it for the event becomes less important. As we have a collector’s garden with just a few designed elements, the plants shine on their own and labels become most important.

(By the way, the shift key is not working in the Chrome browser in this comment box. I do usually use capitals. and the text is weirdly centered.)
I’m not sure the submit button is working either.

Jenny March 15, 2015, 9:46 am

What a wonderful article and so timely. I have been that route of the garden tours making sure that everything was about as perfect as could be. Running myself ragged on days before the tour. SOmehow I always say yes to tours and then wonder why I did once again. But this year is a different year. Last year I arranged to have 2 tours this april not realizing at the time that my hip was failing me and making the life of a gardener very difficult. By the end of the year I could hardly spend more than a few minutes outside. A month ago I had the hip replaced. When can I get back in the garden I asked the Dr? Not for 3 weeks he replied. It is now 4 weeks and I still have little staying power. The garden looks out of control with larkspur and other seeding annuals covering the gravel. Several large plants have reached the end of their life. A tree has died. I haven’t removed winter crops from the vegetable beds. The tours grow close. I have chosen not to cancel. Your piece was so timely. I will accept the way it is and hope the visitors will enjoy their day here. Thanks again.

Susan Newell Portman March 15, 2015, 12:00 pm

I loved this! I have hosted many garden tours and attended many garden tours. Both are a challenge. I believe the approach to both host and guest is to find what makes this garden special, that one bust of genius inspiration. Only Then is it all worthwhile. Otherwise, it is just another beautiful garden. Ho hum. Thanks so much for this. It made my day!

Loree / danger garden March 15, 2015, 1:55 pm

Thank you for this! Last year my garden was open to my fellow bloggers, as we hosted the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling in Portland and my garden was one of the stops. Having 80 bloggers with cameras file through was a little stressful, but being part of the planning committee I only had so much time to spend on my own garden. It was what it was. Now this summer I’ve agreed to be on a fund raising tour. I’ve been running various scenarios through my head, just how much do I want to present it as it is, vs. make it what I think people expect to see. You’ve added a great perspective, I hope others will join the discussion too.

Debra Lee Baldwin March 15, 2015, 2:00 pm

Fran, this couldn’t be more timely! I’m feeling the same insane desire for perfection as I prepare my garden for events and workshops this spring. Although it’s overwhelming (I have a half-acre, and don’t think I don’t know every square inch), there’s something about preparing it to be seen that has galvanized me. My creative juices are flowing, and all I want to do is be in the garden. It won’t be perfect, but I couldn’t be happier as I reconnect with that part of myself. I am a gardener! It’s my passion, it’s performance art, and it’s fun and rewarding. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t want to share it. What is art if no one sees it? When in the garden, I find myself thinking “OK, they’re going to come around that corner and they’ll see…” or “how does this shoot? Too much going on?” I want to be out there right now! Must prepare for the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, though.
Can’t wait to see you there—I’m so pleased you’re giving TWO presentations!

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 2:37 pm

Debra- I’ve thought of you several times because I know you are giving courses in your garden. I never told you when I visited your garden last year how we were working with similar palettes- 1/2 acre, steeply sloping, irregular shaped. I’m thrilled for you that you’ve re-connected with this piece of yourself. And yes, the desire to share our art, I believe, is innate. Looking forward to catching up this week. xo

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 2:39 pm

Loree- Thanks for your response. You offer an unusual perspective. It is a gutsy move to break from the pack and let your garden be in its natural state vs. creating a stage set. Please keep us posted on what you decide to do. If you decide to let it be more natural, I’ll be curious to hear the responses from those who visit. Fran

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 2:43 pm

Susan- Well articulated. I have always been drawn to gardens that are ‘soulful’, rather than those that are perfection. Somehow the ‘wabi sabi’ of gardening seems to appeal to my sensibility. Over the years, one garden that has stayed with me was at a B&B in Ireland. The owner suggested that I check out her gated garden. It was really a walled garden. When I walked through their were poppies galore, ducks roaming about and plenty of weeds. Of course, the walls were probably several hundred years old. The weeds didn’t matter a bit. That garden has stayed with me since visiting it. Thanks for your comment. Fran

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 2:45 pm

Dear Jenny- First, I hope you’re not in pain and that your healing is going well. My response to your note is that it looks like the universe is telling you exactly what you need to do — nothing. It’s a great opportunity to learn about yourself and your visitors. Good luck and most importantly sending you blessings and healing prayers. Fran

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 2:47 pm

Dear Bracey- Lucky you having a collector’s garden so that the emphasis is more on the plants than the design. Thanks for your perspective and for letting me know that something is off with our shift key. Fran

Jean March 15, 2015, 3:06 pm

this is good timing for me. Six weeks to go before my garden is on tour and nothing is growing. It’s been too wet and cold this winter. Oh well. I only agreed to be on it because I wanted the impetus to get some hardscaping done. I was on a garden tour almost 20 years ago, back when I was quite naive about people critiquing them (I didn’t expect any but I got it). Now when I go on a garden tour, I hope to see the garden as the gardener enjoys it, which is never perfect, always a work in progress.

Nancy Humphreys March 15, 2015, 3:09 pm

I loved this blog! I live in a mobile home on a tiny lot in NJ and I related to the mentality you experienced very well. While my garden would never be part of a tour, I have tried to make it into my own unique space. I am vexed by an ugly abandoned trailer next door, and rarely does a day pass that I don’t lament its presence and wish I had something more appealing to look at. I was embarrassed by it and while I still am; I also realize that it is not a reflection of me! The calm that comes from “letting go” and simply enjoying, has been liberating! Thank you for sharing:)

rosekraft March 15, 2015, 4:23 pm

gardening is such a dynamic endeavor, and the pursuit of a perceived perfection will always blind you to the everyday beauty inherent in your unfinished masterpiece.
Every four years we host the day-end potluck of a local plant society, and i always look back on the photos from that day as a road map of where the garden’s been, and where it still needs to go.

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 5:47 pm

I agree 100%. Perfectionism can blind us from seeing the inherent beauty in anything. I love that you host a day-end potluck of a local plant society every four years and use it as a road map for where you have been. Fran

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 5:50 pm

Nancy- And I love your response. Thank you for sharing where you live, the elements you are dealing with, how you are working at creating a unique space, and the power of ‘letting go’. Your comment moved me deeply. Fran

Fran Sorin March 15, 2015, 5:53 pm

Jean- Believe me, over the next 6 weeks you’ll see tremendous growth in your garden (as you know). But now, when it’s too cold and wet to work outside, is a good time to pause and reflect on how much work you are willing to put into staging your garden for this tour. Good luck! Fran

Pam/Digging March 15, 2015, 6:03 pm

This is timely. My garden will be on tour for the first time next fall, and I’m already running around like crazy trying to finish a half-dozen projects and get everything just right. I’m not at the point of letting the public see it as-is. But I do have garden-blogger friends over on occasion, and I feel much more comfortable letting them see projects that are in-process. After all, I reason, they’re gardeners and know how it is!

SARAH O'NEIL March 16, 2015, 2:32 am

Hi Fran. I really enjoyed this post. I much prefer real gardens, because the picture perfect can make people feel a good garden is unachievable to normal people. I had several garden tours over our summer and as mine is a vegetable garden, there is never a point where everything is aligned in complete perfection, so I had made the decision to go natural. It is what it is. If my imperfection makes just one of my visitors think – if she can, I can then I’ve won the day. Have a fabulous growing season. Cheers Sarah : o )

Fran Sorin March 16, 2015, 7:03 am

Sarah- Thanks for your comment. You’re singing to the choir on how you hope to inspire visitors. I agree that you want visitors to walk away with the feeling of ‘YES! If she can do it, so can I.’ Good for you for following your instincts. Fran

Fran Sorin March 16, 2015, 7:06 am

Pam- You raise an excellent point about having gardening pals over to visit your garden and feeling comfortable letting them see a project in progress. Plus, if they can also offer some insight and ideas that you might have not thought about. I have always relied on gardening friends to support AND offer me ideas on how to improve what I’m doing. Congratulations on having your garden on a tour and thanks for your comment. Fran

Marilyn Cornwell March 16, 2015, 9:31 am

Fran – this is such wonderful, authentic writing and it has gathered back many thoughtful comments from fellow garden tour participants. I too am a garden tour participant. my first experience was being on a garden tour was 2008 when i lived in toronto, and i did huge amounts of work to prepare. i used that tour as the motivation to make my garden the most beautiful it could be. it has an antique conservatory greenhouse as its centrepiece, and it was my goal to make that structure magical in a magical garden. i found the responses to be overwhelmingly positive and complimentary. i have become a regular participant in garden tours and always experience appreciation and warmth from the people who visit.

since then, i’ve moved this wonderful conservatory with me to the niagara peninsula and as i progress on creating this garden i am willing to have it on garden tours. my motivation for being on tours is to give me access to the conversation about gardens – i want to engage with gardeners about gardens – both the plants and composition/design. this is a delightful way of doing it.

I do think there is a distinction between us – professionals in the garden industry might have more at stake when their gardens are open. they are ‘authorities’ and ‘experts’ and people generally have expectations about the gardens being the best of the best. there are reviews and coverage in articles and blogs along with the opinions of your colleagues. there’s a fair amount of pressure in all this. it takes courage to allow yourself freedom from these pressures and it sounds like you’ve gotten back the genuine experience of ‘being’ in the garden with gardeners. Wonderful!

Lisa - Ontario March 16, 2015, 9:35 am


Amy Murphy March 16, 2015, 10:25 am

My garden was first on tour a few years ago. It’s on tour again this June. The first time I did as you did, worked, and paid others to work in the garden to get it to “perfection”. I am less inclined to do that this year. Afterall, as you say, a garden is a constant state of change, so why not show it as I look at it every day, not as how it looks after a team of workers clean it up.

Fran Sorin March 16, 2015, 12:26 pm

Bravo to you for letting go of needing to create a perfectly manicured and planted garden. I’ll be curious to hear how the tour goes. Please let us know! Fran

Fran Sorin March 16, 2015, 12:34 pm

Lisa- Thanks for sharing your story. It is important to note how much true pleasure you can get from creating that ‘dream-perfection’ garden. It can be immensely enjoyable. So sorry to hear about your torrential rain storm but it sounds like you were able to use it as a tool to teach your daughter a very important lesson. Kudos to you! Fran

Fran Sorin March 16, 2015, 12:39 pm

What a delightful and unique response you’ve brought to the conversation. Participating in gardening tours is a marvelous way of engaging with other keen gardeners- as well as sharing/teaching what you have done with other gardeners. I got on your website to see if you had pictures of what sounds like a magical conservatory. Lo and behold- you are also a fine artist. Why am I not surprised? For you to have moved the conservatory with you to the Niagra peninsula says a lot about your attachment/affection for this structure. Any place where we can get a glimpse of your Toronto and now Niagra peninsula gardens? Fran

Cathy Taughinbaugh March 16, 2015, 2:50 pm

How wonderful to have your personal garden on a tour. You are such an inspiration because of your creative spirit. i’m sure people touring your garden would love the idea of releasing some of the “rules” and being more free with their planting. It is always a challenge to try something new, but this is the perfect fit for you Fran.
I have a garden tour that I’m involved in in May as well, not my garden, but touring others and it is so fun to see what people are doing.

Fran Sorin March 16, 2015, 5:37 pm

Cathy- Thanks for your lovely comment. It is always a challenge to ‘let go’ of how we do things and what we think the expectations are. But I have found over time that it’s well worth the risk!

Anne Wareham March 16, 2015, 6:03 pm

I’ll be out of line again, as ever, but I have always felt disappointed with the ‘lovely garden’ response. I wrote about how I experience it here:

We still open but I have had more criticism and the garden and take coach parties – and I am grateful that we continue to recieve and benefit from criticism. Xxx Anne

Fran Sorin March 17, 2015, 5:10 am

Your strategy of asking visitors to critique your garden is a smart and gutsy one. As you said, it can be uncomfortable dealing with the suggestions, especially when you can’t see what they’re telling you, but it sounds like you have benefited tremendously. Your phrase ‘focus and edit’ is the rule when undertaking any creative endeavor-whether it be writing, composing music, or as importantly- living a meaningful life. Clutter is the enemy. I agree that it can be difficult to get ‘rid of’ when attached to something you have put your heart into. Thanks for your comment: it is thoughtful and you speak with a tremendous amount of experience under your belt. Fran

Erika March 18, 2015, 12:48 am

great article! i think it’s so important to be a true role model and to show others how they should accept and love the imperfection in their gardens instead of always trying to maintain the image of “perfect”. really enjoyed the read!

Fran Sorin March 18, 2015, 7:59 am

Dear Erika- Thanks so much. Since you are the queen of ‘wabi sabi’, I thought you might appreciate this article! xo- Mom

Nancy Stedman March 21, 2015, 3:13 pm

Fran: This is such a lovely article! Though I have to admit i never thought of your former garden as anything other than perfect.
In an odd coincidence, I rearranged my garden books a couple of weeks ago and I placed the two editions of your book on my ‘literary’ shelf next to Beverley Nichols’ book “Garden Open Today.’
Hope to see you in NYC.

Marilyn Cornwell March 23, 2015, 10:13 am

Hi Fran,
It is kind of you to ask about my gardens. Images of the Toronto garden are viewable at my redbubble site in the Blossom Garden portfolio-

Fran Sorin March 31, 2015, 5:24 am

Nancy- Just got online for the first time in a while. thanks so much for your kind words about my garden. Can’t wait to see what you’ll be doing with yours this year. Fran

Jane May 9, 2015, 2:30 pm

I agree with you that there are possibility that other people may damage your lovely landscape, but it only happen if they are not well informed with the rules. As for your landscape I really really see the time and effort you spent here. Your garden is super amazing and I love the flowers! 😉

Lynda Bolton May 31, 2015, 6:13 pm

I have a small front & back yard that is chock full of trees, vines, shrubs, perennials & annuals. I hosted a garden tour & worried, would those touring have enough to look at & find interesting in a small lot? I needed have feared. Even though I didn’t have the roomy luxury of ‘garden rooms’ people mulled over color & plant combinations, commented on how well my layering techniques were, & raved over my variety of container plantings. Years earlier, my husband had built for me a much needed potting bench that fit my requirements: Multi shelves, a covered container to hold potting soil, an attached shepherds hook for hands free availability for potting hangers. I used it as a self serve station that held drinks & desserts for my visitors. Folks loved it. Even men, who made many lovely comments on our garden. It seemed people appreciated a small space being on the garden tour, as a departure from the vast, sweeping acres of most on the tour. I also made a photo montage of how our garden had evolved from the lone lilac bush that existed when we first moved in, to what we had accomplished in the 15 years since then, I would do it agian in a heartbeat!

Fran Sorin June 1, 2015, 5:52 am

Lynda- What a lovely story! It is so beautiful how when we follow our hearts (and stop letting our self doubt interfere) that magic and joy take center stage. Your comment brought a huge smile to my face! FYI- check out my post for today on ‘gardening in the micro’! Fran

Anne Wareham June 20, 2015, 1:47 pm

Doesn’t it depend on what ‘perfection’ is in your garden? UK gardens are increasingly embracing a so say ‘naturalistic’ style (sounds silly but best way to describe it, maybe) so that perfection is – pretty much how it is. I’d still mow, clean the water and have hedges cut, but that’s what matters here. What matters in your garden? (maybe what you attend to for your own pleasure?)

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