March 14th, 2009
A Matter of Taste

Personal, not good or bad.

Walking over to Shady Grove for lunch on Tuesday I passed two flower beds.

One I loved…
annual flowers

The other I hated….
annual flowers

The one I loved is a commercial planting, the traffic median at the northwest corner of Lamar and Barton Springs Road. The other is a private home.

As I continued walking, I wondered why this should be so. What’s the difference between these two plantings? They are both exuberant arrangements of colorful winter annuals, planted in a small space, on flat ground. Why did one attract me and the other repel me?

Was it just a form of plant snobbery? I know a lot of people look down their noses at certain plants. These are usually the plants that every suburban non-gardener picks up by the six-pack or flat at the big box store. But I happen to like both snapdragons and pansies (although I prefer their diminuitive cousins the violas). And although there are some flowers that make me instinctively recoil, I learned over the year to avoid absolutes in my garden tastes. If I look with open eyes and an open heart I’m always discovering exceptions to the rule. For example, generally I don’t like orange flowers.

So it must be something that differs about the arrangement of these two plots. I think the commercial planting actually looks more natural and the private garden has that installed look of an office park or strip mall. Maybe that comes from the fact that in the median planting the flowers are not a solid sheet of color (I hate that). There’s a balance of space between the plants which provides a flowing rhythm. The flowers seem more proportional, too; that is, there is a lot of greenery visible. By comparison the arrangement of the snapdragons and pansies seems busy and artificial. For all that it is a “living carpet of color”, it seems stiff and lifeless.

I love flowers. I’m still trying to figure out why one of these works for me and the other doesn’t. What about you?

by M Sinclair Stevens

19 Responses to post “A Matter of Taste”

  1. From Julie:

    Could it in part be your proximity to the one (where I see individual leaves and flowers and even bits of mulch in your photo) and your distance from the other (which looks therefore like a box of crayons, not plants)?

  2. From Michelle:

    Well, I have to agree with you that I also like the planting on top versus the one below. I think the reason is that the top planting has a flow to it. Your eye can follow along and throughout the plantings and it gives you a sense of order and calm. The second planting below has no order to it that I can discern. It seems chaotic and unsettling to me and I get receive no sense of calm. It has that ‘Clown Pants’ appearance. All mass confusion and nowhere for your eye to settle. My eyes don’t have any line to follow and there is not much variation in texture – mainly because I can’t see the foliage, just the mad array of colors that make me feel like I am looking at some awful crocheted afghan throw from the 70’s.

    You did a great job of articulating how this garden affects me, too. — mss

  3. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I prefer the top one, too. The colors are soothing and there aren’t too many colors. The other one is too much wild color all mixed up with no rhyme or reason to it. If they simplified the colors in the bottom one, I think it would be really pretty.

  4. From Barbara - Oakville Ontario:

    To live with I’d vote for the one at the top. But at the moment, I’m so starved for colour, I print off that second photo and roll around on the ground with it – even if it does look like they won the lotto and bought all the snaps and pansies at the big box last week.

  5. From Hanna in Central Texas:

    The first one is more relaxing, and it gives your eye a breather to notice the flowers and colors. The second one is quite gaudy and exuberant and exciting. It’s like comparing a van Gogh to a Klimt. They both have they’re abstracted qualities, but the use of color is very different. Klimt is very gaudy and ornate and colorful, and van Gogh is sparing with the colors he uses. Color mayhem vs. strategic color punctuations.

    Is the first one a plot done by one of the volunteer beautification groups in Austin?

    The first one is a median planting maintained, I assumed, by city workers. It might be done by volunteers but I don’t think it is. — mss

  6. From frank@nycgarden:

    I see a couple of things. What everybody mentioned above is true. The mass of color is too broad in range (yellow, blue, purple, red, green, white) to be calming (if thats what you want). I would reduce the number of colors. From a painter’s perspective, a maximally colored painting always looks amateurish. Good paintings tends to have a color scheme, not just every color. Although this designer seems to like green, but only to frame the color.

    Another point is that the bed of the bottom planting looks “finished” and therefore relieves you of doing anything with it day to day. Gardeners want to play around in the garden, which opens us up to discovery. The “finished” garden is simply meant to “look at” as opposed to interact with.

    The top garden isn’t great but it is open.

    The top planting isn’t really a “garden”; it’s just a median planting separating the street from a left turn lane. You’ve hit upon an explanation that I thought of, too, after writing this. The second planting has an installed and finished look to it. I prefer gardens that develop over time. I like the sense that the garden is being nurtured from seed, to seedling, to bloom, and even fades into death. In the second garden there is no room for anticipation, nothing to look forward to, no sense of becoming. It just is–and that lack of dimension makes it seem flat and boring. — mss

  7. From Sheila:

    I have to agree with the others that is has to do with the color combination that attract many of us to the top photo, it is much more serene. It also has much more texture which adds to its beauty and interest.

  8. From vbdb in austin:

    Loved this post and am sure I’ll think back on these insightful comments in the future.

  9. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    For me its the color that’s the deal maker/breaker. In the top photo, the colors are harmonious. The second photo features the dreaded “riot of color” that I find so jarring. If there were only 1 or 2 flower colors in the bottom photo, it would be an attractive planting.

  10. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    Ditto the palette of too many colors in the bottom photo…pink and yellow, which dominate the scheme, rarely work in combination for me. Blues, pinks, purples, or oranges, yellows, reds, with some blue works better.

    Another difference between the top and bottom is the opacity of color–on top are translucent pastels and below the “crayon” colors.

  11. From Annie in Austin:

    Pull all the hot pink out of the bottom bed and it would still look vibrant but not quite so garish – that damn magenta fights with everything but lavenders, other pinks and grays.


  12. From Mary Beth - Harlingen:

    I ditto the too much color! and I have a tropical garden with lots of color – but do try to limit areas to some sort of color plan (all hot colors, all cool colors, or combinations of 2 or 3 different colors I like together). But I must say I don’t understand your dislike of orange flowers! They are my current favorite. How dull my garden would be without Ixora, caesalpinea, daylilies, or cosmos. Thanks for giving us something to think about as we plan our annual spring plantings.

  13. From Lori:

    Hmm. I like the proportions and defined edges of the second planting bed, but I HATE the colors and the plant choices are a little too generic. The first bed looks much more appropriately springlike to me, and the plants are a little more unique to Austin.

  14. From Robin at Getting Grounded:

    First, I obviously need to make it to Barton Springs and Lamar and see that median soon. Your picture makes it look like a serene garden, and I’m so impressed those plants hold up so well with all the auto exhaust that sits there waiting to turn. That aside, I think there is also something about the perceived personality traits of the gardens based on their appearance that causes such a strong reaction. The top personality is a calm one, a studied opinion, tasteful without overdoing it, Katherine Hepburn perhaps; boring to some and seductive to others. The bottom garden, with its riot of color all hodge-podge is the carnival, the high-energy teenager that is fun for five minutes then drives you crazy, the 3-year-old-child birthday party with too many kids invited; Jim Carrey in drag. There are those, however, that would find the top picture too sedate while loving the rowdy-ness of the bottom and taste be da-ned. Those folks, though, would rarely be found reading a garden blog; they are too hyper for that type of activity. While I would never plant the bottom garden in my own yard, I can appreciate the fun and zany attitude that created it.

  15. From ESP, Austin:

    Hi MSS.
    The top planting more closely mimicks nature, the bottom one looks “overcooked” and therefore man-mad and unnatural.
    Thought provoking post.

  16. From elizabeth:

    I think that second one needs to be MORE crazy and colorful-it’s a bit over the top but not enough and it needs more height. So yeah the top one is nicer–but that bottom one could work with some tweaks.

  17. From Bonnie:

    Too much color in the snapdragon photo. I think if it had been kept to softer colors, I would be more open to liking it. Although lets face it, anything that looks alive right now I am ga ga over.

  18. From angelina:

    I like the top one best but not because of the color. I like that it looks more like a wild flower garden.

    I don’t much like the bottom one but for me it has nothing to do with the riot of bright colors. I love all flower colors mixed together. I rarely ever plan my plantings based on a specific color scheme. What I dislike is the lawn. I can’t stand the style of gardening where flowers and shrubs are used in tight little islands in a lawn environment, or as tight borders. The real garden (for me) is everything that isn’t lawn.

    The style of gardening most beloved here in my town is lots of emerald green lawn with these puny little strips or kidney shapes splotches of plantings stuck around them and it always strikes me as deeply fearful.

    Fearful lest nature get away with too much. Fearful that weeding might become too much of a chore. fearful of what the neighbors might think if one got too crazy with plantings!

    I have no argument with the color. I argue with it being a smear of a thought to decorate a lawn.

    I’m glad you mentioned the lawn. In our drought, that lawn is an abomination and looks as unnatural as it is. They might have well painted the front bright green. It is flashy, conspicuous consumption–a Hummer mentality which announces to its neighbors; I’m rich enough to be wasteful and thoughtless. — mss

  19. From ryan:

    I agree about the two plantings. As a gardener of the younger generation that supposedly doesn’t garden, I can say that I dislike traditional bedding plants, and just generally don’t have any interest in that form of gardening. They are labor intensive and unsustainable and really far removed from anything I consider beautiful in nature. I find myself liking a lot of the naturalistic commercial plantings now that they incorporate natives and wildflowers and drought tolerant plants.