Garden Blog Photography – A Gardener’s Perspective

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Frog for blog

In a previous post, Fran invited us to share our thoughts on garden photography. At the most basic level, my feelings here are the same as hers regarding advertising on blogs: If you don’t like the kind of pictures someone uses, then don’t look at their site. I can’t see how there could be any obligation for someone to post wide-angle shots as opposed to close-up shots. Sure, it’s neat when they do, if they have a reason: to show the setting where they garden, for instance, or to illustrate a particular design principle. But my goodness, isn’t it natural to want to show one’s best, whether it’s a stunning single flower, a great combination, or a beautiful border?

Now, if we set aside the idea that bloggers have an obligation to show less-than-perfect photos, I heartily agree that they do all of us a great service when they choose to show plants, combinations, or borders that aren’t quite perfect. So often, all we gardeners see are the color-enhanced, tight closeups used to market new plant introductions—the same photos used over and over on pot tags, in promotional literature, and in magazine articles. Those drool-inducing images not infrequently entice us into buying plants that turn out to be big disappointments in our gardens. When other bloggers post pictures of these plants in a real-life setting, they provide invaluable insight for the rest of us. I’ve often been disappointed seeing these unflattering portraits (eeew—is that really what it looks like?), but I’d sure rather be disappointed before buying than afterward.

Syneilesis aconitifolia early May 07Syneilesis aconitifolia early October 07
Early and late. In early May, shredded umbrellas (Syneilesis aconitifolia) is an eye-catching foliage accent; by early October, after nearly seven weeks with no rain, it’s not so great. Does that make it a bad plant? No way! You just need to keep in mind that it may not stay perfect-looking through the whole growing season.

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The issue of combination shots—whether in a blog, a magazine, or a book—is a little different, I think. I believe they can all have merit, if you don’t accept them at face value. It’s easy to see an amazing combination and want to reproduce it exactly, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes, the most memorable combinations happen by accident: something tall sprawls onto a low-growing bedmate, or a plant that normally blooms in early summer sends up an unexpected burst of bloom in fall, producing a pairing that’s almost impossible to replicate. Or, a photo may feature a grouping that normally wouldn’t grow together (something that demands dry soil growing next to a moisture-lover, for instance), but for whatever reason, the growing conditions in that specific garden allow it to happen. Weather, lighting, pruning and fertilizing practices, watering regimes, grooming, and so very many other factors can influence how plants look growing together, and how they appear in a photograph, that it takes a fair bit of experience to judge whether it’s worth trying to reproduce the combination.

What any great combination shot can do, though, is provide design inspiration. Instead of slavishly replicating the specific plants shown in the photo, try to figure out what specifically you like about the combo, then see if you can work out how you can reproduce it with plants you can easily find and grow, or even those you already have. If you can’t figure it out yourself, then why not ask your fellow bloggers for their suggestions? Chances are, you’d get some great ideas that you’d have never come up with on your own.

Front garden corner view August 16 07Front garden corner closeup August 16 07 

Wide or tight? The more plants you see in a combination shot, the more you learn. You get a better idea of the setting and growing conditions, and you can more easily see how the plants appear in proportion to one another. But tight combination shots can be inspiring, too. Capturing vignettes like this is one of my favorite parts of gardening!

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Wide-angle shots? Well, that’s yet another issue. If someone’s writing about a whole garden/property in a blog post, magazine article, or a book but they only show flower or leaf close-ups that could have come from anywhere, then yes, that’s basically useless: I say, show me the bigger view! Here again, though, a single photo—which captures just one instant in an on-going piece of performance art—can’t tell the whole story. What did that border look like last week, before the gardener got in there to weed and groom it? What will it look like three months later, when all the early bloomers have finished and weeks of heat and drought have taken their toll? Does it really matter? Yes, it does, if you’ve decided you want to reproduce that exact planting in your own space. No, it doesn’t, if you can simply enjoy the artistry of that moment for what it is, and possibly use it to inspire your own garden-making.

Side garden August 16 07Side garden September 27 07

As time goes by. A new project I started this summer is taking shots at different times from the same point. I don’t always get it quite right, but when I do, I enjoy seeing how the plants change as the season progresses.

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Ok, enough of my ramblings. I’ll finish up with a few specific things I’d love to see more of in garden-blog photography. In fact, I think I’ll start working on some of these myself. If any of you have other suggestions, feel free to add them!

  • Around-the-year plant portraits: A single species or cultivar shown at regular intervals all through one year, and in different years for perennials and woody plants. For an annual, for instance, show what the seeds and seedlings look like, then the plant as it grows, flowers, and forms seedheads. For perennials, shrubs, and so on, I’d like to see everything from the new shoots through to seed stage (and seeds here, too), as well as fall color and winter form.

  • Around-the-year garden case studies: Similar to above, but showing the evolution of a single bed or border from creation to maturity, as well as through the growing season. Isn’t it great when bloggers show a new garden space they’ve created, then update later to show how it turned out? I’d love to see a lot more of that!

  • Design themes: Multiple photos illustrating a specific design principle the blogger finds interesting, such as a particular color combination, or a single plant used in several different combinations. How about blog posts featuring images of our favorite garden paths, or sheds, or trellises? Maybe we here at GGW could host a monthly Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop as a place to gather thoughts and photos on various design challenges, if there’s any interest. (I could see this working something like the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club started by Carol of May Dreams Gardens, but with a monthly design topic instead of a book.)

Just some ideas to consider next time you’re puzzling over what to post on your blog. Already doing any or all of these? Let us know!

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Colleen October 10, 2007, 7:35 am

Great post—I especially like what you had to say about not trying to replicate a plant combination exactly, but to figure out what it is that you like about the combo and using that as your inspiration.

And I love the idea of a Garden Blogger Design Workshop!

Robin (Bumblebee) October 10, 2007, 9:37 am

Thanks for the excellent treatise on garden blog photography. You have reminded me to round up the overhead shots I have been taking of my Colonial theme garden into a single post. Will soon. Great ideas!

–Robin (Bumblebee)

fsorin October 10, 2007, 12:04 pm

Nan-

I am so glad that you showed a piece of your garden towards the end of your post. Although you compose magnificent plant vignettes, it would be unfair to other bloggers if they were unable to see your larger garden in perspective.

I don’t think that everytime you are discussing plant combinations and showing photos of them that you need to also show a larger perspective of the entire garden bed…BUT I do think that some of the time it adds another dimension for the reader. It helps to place the vignette in context with something greater.
Metaphorically, you could be intensely working on one stanza of a musical composition….but how wonderful to hear that stanza not just by itself but as part of the entire composition.

I also think your idea of taking photos of a specific area of a garden from the same angle throughout all of the seasons is a marvelous ideas. Christopher Lloyd did this successfully
in his book “Succession Planting For Year Round Pleasure”.

Thanks for such an in depth, thought provoking piece!! Fran

Nancy J. Ondra October 10, 2007, 6:43 pm

Wow–thanks to you all for your comments. Ok, Fran, I think we need to kick around some ideas and figure out how this Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop might work. I believe it could bring out some great ideas–and if nothing else, it’ll at least give us something to write about during the winter! I’ll post a follow-up in a few days.

April October 10, 2007, 7:27 pm

Hi Nancy,
I wasn’t sure how to contact you….so I hope it’s okay to email you here. I have a question about the photo on the inside cover of your book “Foliage”. Could you tell me what the plant is that is paired up with the Euphorbia. It’s such a lovely combination.

Thank you in advance for your reply.

Nancy J. Ondra October 10, 2007, 8:42 pm

Hi April! That’s a really good question. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what it is. It looks sort of like a verbena, but if it is, I can’t guess which one. I’ll be seeing the photographer tomorrow and will ask him if he knows. I think you could create a similar effect by pairing Euphorbia myrsinites with parrot’s beak (Lotus berthelotii). The parrot’s beak would provide very feathery, silvery foliage plus some orange-red flowers (mostly in late spring to early summer, in my experience). You can see a picture of it on page 185 of Foliage. If you have other questions, feel free to leave me messages here or directly at ondra at verizon dot net. Thanks!

Pam/Digging October 11, 2007, 12:01 pm

One of my sidebar categories at Digging is called “How I Did It,” where you’ll find several before-and-after posts about various garden projects.

I like your idea for a garden bloggers’ design workshop and look forward to hearing more.

Nancy J. Ondra October 11, 2007, 3:09 pm

I’m so glad you let us know about your “How I Did It” posts, Pam. They are superb: great inspiration as well as solid how-to tips. I especially liked the stock-tank planters. And what an enticing play area. And the stone patio–just lovely. And the bottle tree–that blue is just amazing!

Greg October 19, 2007, 2:52 am

Just love the photos. Thank You.