why can’t u.s. television produce a real gardening show?

Every time a new gardening or garden/landscape show is going to premiere on US television I watch it. I am a rabid gardener and an avid gardener and I like to learn and be inspired to garden better, garden smarter, garden prettier.

But every single show I see on DIY or HGTV and now Bravo aren’t real gardening shows. These shows don’t give any gardener I know inspiration. And they aren’t really creating garden spaces where the homeowner learns about the plants and how to care for them after all the television crews are gone.

I had high hopes for Bravo’s Backyard Envy. But after watching the premiere episode, I think it’s going to be added to my skip it list and I’ll tell you why. And FYI the photos are screenshots I took from the television screen.

My sister lives in Manhattan. She has both a rooftop garden and a rear yard garden. I have watched closely what the gardening professionals have done with her spaces over the years and it’s nothing short of lovely. They are also for the most part, plants that she can care for, a garden space someone who doesn’t really garden or have time to garden can maintain. My sister has lovely maintainable spaces that are beautiful four seasons of the year.

Backyard Envy made me wince. In my opinion they don’t know what they’re doing and I wouldn’t hire them. Being a garden designer and landscape architect are very specific practices. The people who are the principles on this show aren’t landscape architects or true garden designers. Being a designer for Ralph Lauren stores/events and having space planning background and graphic design background doesn’t make you a landscape architect or a gardener.

And to add insult to injury, they butchered both the common names and Latin names for many plants. I don’t pretend to pronounce everything perfectly but if somebody gave me a garden design television show you bet your life I would learn how to pronounce everything before I was on camera or recorded!

I will admit that I found the roof deck of the house in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn (think that is where they were) clever, but I found some of the choice of plants unrealistic for the homeowners to maintain unless they wanted to pay someone to come in a couple times a week and take care of the space. Part of the trick to urban garden spaces is to also make it sustainable and relatively simple to care for because not everyone can afford staff to keep everything in garden magazine ready form 24/7. I also was uncomfortable watching them “blacken” wood up on the roof, because in my humble opinion something with a live flame should have been done outside and on the ground and then taken up to the roof after everything was cool.

The second property they were dealing with was up in Piermont, New York. Piermont is in Rockland county. It’s on the west bank of the Hudson river apparently. It is very attractive to people who want a more bucolic lifestyle yet still be somewhat close to New York City. It’s a very pretty place. It’s also not too far from the site of the now demolished Tappan Zee bridge. So, essentially it’s a place that is quasi-on the water, which means gardening has to take that into consideration right?

The show goes to the home of a couple with a very modern house on the edge of what seems to be a big pond. The space they want fixed up as usable garden space is literally 2 feet from the water. As soon as the crew starts digging water comes up. Well d’oh what did they think was going to happen? Can you say water table? Aquifer?

Their solution on the show reinforcing a bank with railroad ties and adding a French drain. French drain pipes are something we use in our gardens to direct water and deal with water. But when mother nature is RIGHT there with a body of water and not much space or slope, do we really think that is a long-term solution? Will that garden space even last? What happens if there’s a good storm or something? If those people didn’t have public sewer and it was away from their septic and public water, why didn’t these “experts” suggest things like willow trees? Or other, longer lasting solutions?

Why willows? Willows absorb water as they live for water. We planted one in our front yard when we moved into our house because we are not on public water we are not on public sewer and 1/2 of our front yard was extraordinarily wet because it was the low spot on the street leading to the woods in the rear. We now have a front yard that does much better in the rain and our garage doesn’t get flooded anymore. I have also improved the grade slightly of the flowerbeds next to the house and that helps. In other wet spots in our woods I have done things like plant giant pussy willows.

The garden space in Piermont was an attempt at a layered garden. But as opposed to what David Culp has done in his gardens (see David Culp’s website) or what I have seen British gardening treasure Monty Don do, this fell short. Sure it looked good for cameras, but what real gardeners prepare a riparian buffer and put echinacea / cone flowers in it? If you’re going to do a riparian buffer it has to actually have plants that all tolerate a lot of water and you need the right light and a lot of it. Echinacea/coneflowers also don’t like wet feet. I found out the hard way when I tried to plant them in a certain spot out front in a flower bed on the side of our property near the willow tree we planted. I had the right light, but it was an area that gets wet and the plants had a whole failure to thrive and eventually died.

There were also other plants that definitely don’t like wet feet that they planted on this episode, and/or didn’t seem to be right for the light. Maybe people who like the show are going to find me overly picky, but sorry not sorry for my opinions. I dig in the dirt. I wear gloves but I still get my hands dirty. And I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. One of those guys seemed like he was going to pass out if he actually got his hands dirty. If that’s the case, what’s he doing in a garden or on a show that creates outdoor spaces?

A real riparian buffer is a total work of art, and the other thing I found missing from this design were native plants. If it was my show I would embrace plants that were native to the area as well. And I would point them out because people are interested in that. And they should have spoken more about creating a riparian buffer on the edge of water and not just ” look at these pretty flowers”.

The problem I have with these shows (and not just this one) is I don’t think anything is sustainable long term. I think in a few years if that a lot all of these homeowners who participate in the shows will be looking for help. When you plant things for instant gratification to look good and tart up for the cameras, it’s like the online dating/relationship shows like the Bachelor or Bachelorette — what happens after the cameras stop rolling?

For me, the plants come first and whether or not I have a bar cart next to my pond if I had a pond would come second. As I grow my gardens I plan my seating areas around that. And maybe I am more of a traditionalist and I don’t want an outdoor living room out back. I have a living room already and it’s inside. As someone who has also deliberately planted layered gardens I can tell you it is work and maintenance.

I think the three folks who star in this show are very creative. But I don’t find them to be actual gardeners. And with all these lifestyle shows no matter which network you choose, it would be nice once in a while in the US if we had an actual gardening show. United States television could take a page out of BBC’s book. BBC offers fabulous gardening programs which is why am so happy to have access to them via the streaming services.

Is actual gardening such a boring concept in the US that we can’t get a real gardening show? Is there life beyond mega decks, outdoor man caves, and hardscaping? I think there is, and I know I’m not alone so I hope we get to see more of folks like Monty Don and his colleagues on this side of the pond.

As for me personally? I get to see how winter hardy some of my plants actually are in the next couple of days. Here’s hoping everything survives. Stay warm and thanks for stopping by.

4 thoughts on “why can’t u.s. television produce a real gardening show?

  1. I am always disappointed in US tv gardening shows. Once, Victory Garden was a gem…back when Jim Wilson was on, but even it is now barely worth watching. As for all the “garden” make-over shows..they are much more hardscape focused than plant wise.

  2. Pbs 39 (lehigh valley) advertised a British Garden show debuting, a mother daughter team. Of course i have forgotten the date already, but think it was tuesday or wednesday airing. Have to try to look it up, The promo looked great!

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