Public Gardens and Signaling Welcome

Public Gardens and Signaling Welcome
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Guest Rant by Linda Larson, “A Traveling Gardener, wandering, wondering, noticing. . . .”

Public gardens in North America welcome visitors from all over the world. While they generally announce themselves with a name sign and offer a map, some ditch the map and post directions in a casual way that leaves visitors hoping for deliverance out of the swamp garden.

Signs reflect the mission and attitudes of each garden and are the voice speaking directly to visitors. I was delighted to find the comforting voice of Benny Simpson “For crying out loud it all doesn’t have to be natives” in the Ft. Worth Botanic Gardens.

In Tacoma, Washington’s Ft. Defiance Park a sign tells the story of Ebenezer Roberts. As the newly appointed Superintendent of Parks in 1890, one of his first acts was to pull up all the “Keep off the grass” signs and instruct his crew to burn them. He wanted visitors to fully enjoy the grounds. His attitude is repeated in gardens who say to visitors “Please walk among the roses”or “Picnics Welcome Here.”

Some gardens fall short of welcome by greeting visitors with a long list of things you must not do. I found the Will Rogers Gardens (photo above) empty of visitors on a perfect summer day. I wonder why?

As a passionate plant lover I naively assume everyone will walk with gentle respect. I recognize that gardens and parks differ in purpose and care required and it’s reasonable for gardens to gently remind visitors of the best behaviors for the protection of the plants.

This can be done in a positive manner, like the sign in the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney Australia (“The Domain”).

Lively games and large parties are best accommodated in open spaces of a park field.

In some cases the reminder requires a much stronger wording to get the point across. I found a wire cage and this emphatic signage in a garden near a university in British Columbia. Seriously who goes out to kick and punch trees?


A gentle “Please don’t fly kites. They get stuck in the trees.” helps provide a guideline with reason. This is the way we have always liked to be cautioned ever since the first parent in our lives  said “No. . . because I said so.”

It may be true, as some say, that signs in gardens take away from the landscape and spoil the beauty of their photo, but much of the signage in public gardens helps visitors appreciate and understand what they are seeing. And the signage is frequently bilingual –  if you speak Latin and English. Certainly this is an area where gardens could make efforts to provide additional translations for visitors. Reliably around the world, plant name signs provide a common name, a location of origin and the Latin classification. Today, with our digital cameras at the ready, when we see a plant we love with the name attached we simply snap a photo and return home to our local nursery to secure that plant for our garden.

Some gardens, like the Dallas Botanical, provide garden tips such as directions for when to prune Azaleas, the history of medicinal plants or the cultural significance of a tree planting. One of my favorite signs distinguishing the differences between a damsel fly and a dragon fly appeared just at the moment I wondered aloud of the distinction as I was wandering in the Chicago Botanical Garden. I particularly like “Ground Under Repair” as an explanation for why a section of garden is without plants. I‘d like one of those signs in my garden!

Gardens seem to me to be a wonderfully protected space and yet danger seems to lurk around every curve. While gardens are rightfully concerned about visitor safety, some cautions seem amusing, like the “Caution Hose Crossing Path Way” or “Caution Lake Edge” and my favorite – “Beware of Cactus.”

I was baffled the first time I saw a sign warning of “Tree Failure,” but over the years I’ve seen many warnings about things falling from trees. Trees do drop limbs and pine cones, which can weigh as much as 30 pounds, as well as cannonballs and coconuts.

I’ve seen many signs in my garden travels and all of them point me to more garden visits, despite the risks.

For me, gardens hold a promise of great delight and their signs speak to me during my visit. I’m on my way now, as I’m sure there will be frogs, right down this pathway!

Posted by

Linda Larson

on September 12, 2016 at 8:41 am, in the category Guest Rants.


    • Elisabeth Holder
    • 19th March 2016

    I liked this rant very much because I am always wishing I knew more about what I’m seeing. I enjoy seeing both the Latin name (for precision) and the common name of plants (for us botanical commoners). I also enjoy creative signage and helpful indications. Three that I have recently enjoyed:

    • Linda Larson
    • 20th July 2016

    Your examples are some great signs, thanks for sharing.

    • skr
    • 21st August 2016

    Who goes out to punch and kick trees?

    • Linda Larson
    • 18th October 2016

    Or perhaps some older boys as it was near the university!

    • Perry Mathewes
    • 7th November 2016

    I enjoyed this rant very much. As someone who has worked in public gardens for almost 30 years, I am not surprised by many of the signs I encounter in gardens. And you are very right – they are the voice of the garden and their tone often does reflect the leadership’s personalities. Often they are created in response to problems that have presented themselves in that garden. As the “sign guy” at one garden, I was often asked to make a sign in response to an event such as someone falling into a pond (it happens more often than you think). I always had to find the balance of informative and positive guidance vs. overkill of signage and “don’t do this.” It can be challenging especially when everyone on staff (gardeners, educators, development and guest services staff) thinks that a sign will solve their problem, no matter how big or small.

    • Linda Larson
    • 14th November 2016

    Thanks for your response, it is truly a balancing act!

    • Ruth Rogers Clausen
    • 15th November 2016

    Wonderful signs. my favorite was at Wave Hill—don’t know if it is still there.

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