Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Garden TV: Wilting Before Our Very Eyes?

I’ll admit it.  As much as I love working in the yard and being generally outdoorsy, I’m still a TV junkie.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a couch potato, but good TV is like art to me.  Because TV can combine music, poetry, story-telling, dance, cinematography, and drama it can achieve what I like to call "high art" although I readily admit the vast majority of TV shows do not.

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you would agree that gardening itself can be an art.  It seems logical to conclude then that adding an artistic subject like gardening to an artistic medium like TV could propel the end product into High Art, but for some reason garden programming has never really achieved that.  In fact, much of it is downright bad and boring.

In spite of that, I do have the word “garden” programmed into my DVR so any show with "garden" in the title gets recorded. Sometimes that means I have to go through my library and erase movies like “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, "Garden State" (great soundtrack, by the way) and "Grey Gardens" as well as a surprising amount of QVC's gardening sale-a-thons or whatever they’re called.  But it also means I have hours and hours of sometimes inspirational and entertaining garden programming.

From time to time on this blog I am going to review some of those shows.  This time I will start with one of the better known gardening shows, “Gardening by the Yard”.

When I first bought a house and had to tackle the daunting task of doing something with the yard, "GbtY" was the first gardening show I discovered on HGTV.  In that way, it served as my introduction to some of the basic and finer points of gardening and it became the standard by which I would measure all other garden shows.  Like an adult child, I would wake up on Saturday mornings and tune into "GbtY" as if it were my favorite cartoon.  I devoured episodes as quickly as they aired and after I got my fix I would be stoked about gardening and I would rush out into the yard or drive off to the nursery armed with some new knowledge or inspiration. 

The show is hosted by Paul James who goes by the alias “The Gardener Guy.”  It's not a super creative nickname, but that’s just me being unnecessarily persnickety.  Paul James is the perfect host for a gardening program.  With equal amounts levity and botanical nerdiness, James walked the fine line between entertainment and education.  The result was probably the most accessible program for new gardeners with enough meat and variety to the programming to keep the interest of more seasoned veterans.  Most of the segments were filmed either in James’ own yard in Oklahoma or at the gardens and nurseries of show guests across the US. That gave the show a practical, real-world-applicable feel to it.  As much as we can all marvel at the world’s famous gardens and conservatories, most of us have little gardens attached to humble abodes and no staff to attend those gardens so it helps to see the way a pro tackles routine functions like edging beds, storing tools, composting, thinning vegetables, and cleaning up after storms - all of which are representative of the topics covered by "GbtY".

"GbtY" taught me several things that have become standard operating procedure in my life as a gardener. For one, I stole his term for justifying not waging an all-out war against weeds in my lawn: “biodiversity.” Also lawn related, James was the person to convince me to give up the putting green look.  He convinced me that the best thing I could do for my lawn was to set my mower at its highest setting, use a mulching mower and let the clippings fall where they may, mow regularly so that I wouldn't cut off too much at once, and to fertilize less often than the fertilizer companies say we should.  

The show was also my first encounter with people sharing both creative and functional ideas for the garden.  Suggestions like using wine corks as mulch for a container or using a half wine barrel as a base for a patio table opened my eyes to a creative aspect I hadn't considered before.  That really helped me make the leap from being a guy that did yard work to a guy that loved to tend his garden. 

But like so many things (such as Seattle’s old Kingdome), one of the most captivating aspects of this show was its demise.  In 2008, HGTV decided that they didn't want any more newly-produced episodes of "GbtY".  Over the years, the show had compiled an impressive catalogue of episodes and it appears that the network concluded it would be more profitable to air reruns which it still does today (usually at the crack of dawn on weekends). 

As one of the most successful garden shows, I see HGTV’s decision not to purchase new episodes of the show as the canary in the coal mine. Clearly, if GbtY isn’t going to generate enough advertising dollars, no gardening show will.  Paul James wrote on his blog that the decision didn’t surprise him in the least.  He also made a fascinating observation: even though gardening interest is stronger than ever and we spend billions on it collectively every year, the networks simply can’t get enough ad revenue from garden shows to continue running them.  I don’t know if you blame that on gardeners not watching garden programs or the garden industry companies that either choose not to, or can’t afford to purchase, television ads.  Either way, it's apparent that as viewers begging for more garden programs we can't be choosers anymore. 

Check out Gardener Guy TV for several more 2-3 minutes clips by clicking here.
You can also see full episodes of GbtY by visiting HGTV's web site here. 


  1. I fully agree, I have not seen a great garden show like, Garden by the yard, and P.Allen and the old victory garden, I grew up on that one, in a long time..... Can't wait to read more of your reviews... I like Martha, but it isn't the same anymore... Maybe Margret Roach should have her own show!!!(you know she used to be an editor for Martha and she has her own great blog!)lol! well lookin forward to the next review of yours...

  2. I agree too. They don't make them like they used too. I remember Victory Garden too.

  3. Virginia - I agree that Margaret Roach seems like a good choice for a garden TV host. I enjoy her blog and she has the media experience already. One of the things that I think would make her a standout though is that she really seems to live a lifestyle that honors plants and gardening. I don't know if that makes any sense, but that's the feeling I get when I read her blogs.

    Gardenwalk - doesn't PBS still make Victory Garden? It still comes up on my DVR pretty frequently but I do know some of the episodes I see are a few years old. Perhaps the show has changed too much since it first began in the mid 1970s though?

  4. I never saw Gardening by the Yard, but my sister got much of her gardening education by watching Paul James. My own HGTV garden show addiction(now also gone) was The Urban Gardener, with British garden designer Matt James. It, too, was done on location in ordinary people's gardens, and Matt James always included a visit to a public garden nearby to get ideas.

  5. Jean! That is my all-time favorite gardening show!!! I'm so glad to hear that someone else loved it too. It used to air on Saturday nights here and I would always make sure that our weekend plans included me being home in time to watch Matt James. I miss that show.

  6. Your response sent me looking for other information about Matt James (on Google, of course! -- and I'm a boomer); it turns out that he has done other TV shows, including one currently airing set in Australia, and he has also written books.

    I also wanted to let you know that I do a "Blog of the Month" feature on my blog, Jean's Garden, where I review and recommend garden blogs I think my readers might enjoy, and your blog is one of three that I am highlighting this month. My post reviewing the blogs just went up, and they will also be featured on my sidebar throughout the month. Cheers. -Jean

  7. Thank you so much, Jean. I actually saw your blog post before I saw this comment. As I said on your blog, I am humbled by the kindness of your gesture and I'm looking forward to checking out the other blogs you featured as well.

    I was thinking about Matt James and it occurred to me that I had actually watched two of his shows in the past. One was Urban Outsiders and the other was The City Gardener. Did you see them both as well? I preferred The City Gardener, I think because it was set in London and it was fascinating to me to see him work with generally smaller spaces.

  8. Hi Chad
    Good to find you on Blotanical... we're sorta in the same region.
    Great blog title, by the way!
    I watched the Victory Garden some years ago, and it's been a few since Adrian Bloom went garden visiting, which I enjoyed. And their cooking segments, too.
    Sounds like you really learned a lot from this HGTV show. I never saw it/ have paid for expanded cable and the channel is not on basic Comcast. Nuff said. When I think of the coverage of gardening in the U.K. compared to the U.S., it boggles my mind. And if any station should be offerening gardening shows, you'd think it would be HGTV.
    I'm curious now about The City Gardener, as I've a soft spot for all things British.
    aka Alice's Garden Travel Buzz /
    Bay Area Tendrils

  9. Hi Alice,

    Thanks for stopping in. I really think HGTV would be more appropriately named HgTV to show the true emphasis of their programming but so far they haven't asked for my input!

    I think you would really enjoy The City Gardener since it sounds like you are an Anglophile too. The hard part will be tracking down the episodes. I found a couple online sites that supposedly have full episodes but I wasn't able to access them for some reason. I even had trouble accessing YouTube clips because the uploader didn't make it available to US viewers.

  10. Gardening by the Yard was my favorite HGTV show back in the day. I check out Paul James' blog from time to time. He cracks me up, but gives great information. I'm sure he appreciates the shout out.

  11. Well, it looks like Paul James' blog is no longer current either. Bummer. Thanks for the link to the website to view episodes of GbtY.

  12. Toni, it's too bad that his blog has been inactive for so long. When I first discovered it, I had high hopes for it especially regarding his GGTV idea. I see his name come up from time to time as a speaker at garden and flower shows so maybe he's just staying too busy with that sort of thing to worry about his blog.