This morning I was cutting back Lamb’s Ears – a love-it-or-hate-it perennial – while thinking about how people see gardens differently. Many times I have suggested Lamb’s Ears to a customer whose design could use a strong silver line across the front of a bed, and who has a limited budget and might appreciate a plant that spreads easily.

But sometimes the response has been, “Oh, I can’t stand Lamb’s Ears!” And I have shown Aruncus dioicus (Goat’s Beard) for a shady back-of-bed spot, or an Agastache for a sunny, butterfly garden, only to hear, “No, no ... that looks weedy to me.” I am listening and trying to see what they see.

Even veteran, sophisticated gardeners prefer different kinds of plants and put them together in different ways – part of why visiting gardens is infinitely interesting. How does the gardener look at plants when he’s out shopping? What is the process and vision when she faces her garden and decides that this could go there and that should be moved?

Types of gardeners

Once I took part in a Cornell University Department of Horticulture course for undergraduates in training to become Extension agents, analyzing the topic: “Know your gardening consumer; match your message to their needs and interests.” The professor divided the gardening public into categories ranging from Passionate Collectors and Species Specialists to Home Decorators (those who place hanging baskets and fill containers once a year and want it done).

In between those categories are all kinds of gardeners, all over the learning spectrum, with different tastes and visions. The Neatniks want extremely tidy plantings, high on the uniformity scale, with generous spacing and evenly spread mulch between plants. In my experience more men than women fit this category.

In contrast, people with visions of English borders or country cottages want to see lush, abundant beds with riotous color, exuberant flowers overflowing the paths and no bare soil or – heaven forbid – mulch in sight. Often it’s women who have such preferences, but sometimes it’s just zealous plant people with the drive to fill every garden nook and cranny.

Then there are stylistically bold people, trendsetters, with large doses of creativity, humor or art sense. Their opposites remain conservative, perhaps wanting the best looking landscape in the neighborhood, without straying from the neighbors’ style and familiar plant selections.

Each of these types will choose different plants and place them differently. There is no judgment here, nor in that Cornell class or at your garden center. Still it’s helpful if you – gardener or homeowner – do some self-analysis concerning your own taste. If you don’t, the garden and landscape you get won’t make you happy.

How much commitment

Upon planning a garden or landscape, everyone should make a realistic decision about how much he or she likes to garden. Can you and do you want to commit two hours a week – or six or 20 or more?

For some people, going out to the garden every day, before or after work, and working there until dark, is the norm; it’s a lifestyle. Those people don’t golf or go boating, and some abstain from housework and entertaining all summer! Many of my gardening friends agree with me that cooking and vacuuming are highly overrated and more appropriate during winter months.

One landscaper friend talks with his customers about their landscape visions and tells them how many hours per week a particular landscape plan will require for maintenance and how much watering. Then they can choose a simpler design with lower maintenance plants, or set up a professional maintenance schedule, ranging from semi-annual brush-ups to biweekly weeding, deadheading and watering.

How much time does a garden really need? Well, which garden and what are your standards? It’s really hard to figure, and you can’t do it by size alone. For example, let’s imagine a suburban landscape with 50 feet of planting beds in front, one 10-by-20-foot island (200 square feet), and 200 additional square feet of backyard beds. That’s 700 square feet of beds that could be packed with layers of trees, vines, shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs and ground covers, all planned for an ongoing sequence of bloom and four seasons of interest. It could be on a magazine cover. That gardener would have to commit to a serious spring blitz lasting many days and many hours per week throughout the season. Or hire professionals.

The simpler alternative: The same 700 square feet of landscape beds could be planted with correctly sited evergreens, small trees and flowering shrubs that, when mature, will have shapes and heights that look great without pruning. And carefully chosen perennials such as hostas, spaced widely, that rarely need much effort.

Once the whole thing is mulched and edged, maintenance is minimal – weeding and watering properly (rarely necessary, once the plants are well established.) Such a landscape could be kept up with just an hour or two of attention per week, not even every week. Every yard needs some maintenance though – plants are living, changing things.

Which do you want? Full flower gardens and mixed borders or a minimal-maintenance landscape? Or something in between?

Study other gardens

Gardeners in our region have the rare opportunity to see and analyze hundreds of well above-average gardens, during Buffalo’s National Garden Festival (, already in progress. I have had such fun and been amazed at the vast differences in the gardeners’ visions and what they create. From estate-sized expanses with massive, groomed beds containing rare specimen trees, to intimate woodland paths offering artful surprises at every turn (Holland), to unbelievable hosta and daylily collections covering entire hillsides (Boston and Eden), to fabulous perennial borders (Snyder and Amherst), to gardens with koi ponds, fountains, beautifully presented vegetables, sculpture and art (Buffalo, Lancaster, Tonawanda, Hamburg), the variety of garden styles is amazing.

Every garden walk or tour (weekends) and every cluster of open gardens (Thursdays and Fridays) is a course in gardening. You can learn what others do and plant, you can ask them how much work – or play – it takes them, and you’re likely to learn as much about yourself: What do you really like?

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.