Whenever I travel for a presentation I try to incorporate some local gardens into the show to better connect with the audience.

Onions at Chicago Botanical Garden

My recent presentation in Chicago to the Garden Club of America’s Show of Summer was titled ‘What is “Good” Garden Photography’ and  The Chicago Botanic Garden was the obvious choice to go find a photo.  It is a great botanic garden and has an especially strong focus on home landscaping, so the day before the show I went looking for something to illustrate a “good” garden photograph.

I put “Good” in quotations because my definition of a good garden photo requires that it have real and authentic information that will help gardeners have success in gardening.  Sure, a good photo should be easy to look at, but I know well that the camera always lies and is oh too easy to mislead.  A “good” garden photo should lead to good garden practice.

So I was a bit nervous with the Chicago audience because my presentation is heavily dependent on California gardens and California gardens are not the best examples to encourage good gardening in Illinois.  I have often railed against lush lawns and English borders to my West Coast audiences so I was all the more eager to find some local examples.

There is an entire section of The Chicago Botanic Garden devoted to using bulbs in the home landscape.  The Alliums were at their peak and I was delighted to find them so well used, satisfying the the first trick of finding a good garden photograph – finding a good garden. The taller alliums such Persian Onion (Allium aflatunense) can be really hard to photograph.  To show them in relation to the rest of a garden, their tall stems often look naked and leave a lot of empty space in a photograph if you try to show them to scale.

One doesn’t always notice this in the garden because the eye sees all the rest of the garden, but the camera crops out all the rest out –  the stems can dominate any photo of tall onions.  But in the borders at CBG, the gardeners have allowed the Alliums to come up within other plantings of just the right scale, with the added bonus of interesting textures and colors.

So where is the good photo?


Think like a camera.  Crop out all that does not contribute to what you are trying to say and fill the frame with your message.


The onions are now the true focus of the photo but there are enough stems to show how these “stars” got  to be where they are.

The horizontal is good, a vertical might be all the mo’ betta’.  It not only accents the vertical nature of the Alliums it will incorporate even more garden information, not just Persian Onions and Purple Smoke Bush used together but also the low Euphorbia at the bottom and the wonderful pinnate foliage of the vine on the garden wall, now illustrating a more complex garden.


The great added bonus for me is that this “good” garden photograph does not simply apply to gardeners in Illinois, we Californians can grow the same plants.  Maybe this is why I appreciated to this garden scene to start with – its all about the garden plants and nothing to do with lawns.