How TV gardening shows get it so wrong


After our lively discussion of the DIY Network's decision not to renew Joe Lamp'l's wonderful "Fresh from the Garden", with 65 commenters chiming in with their own complaints about TV gardening shows, I can't resist relating a recent incident I had with a home and garden show that I won't name (notice the restraint).

The show's producer calls to say they're doing an episode about "edible and stepable gardens" – because they're all the rage these days – and wants to know if I have a client whose "edible and stepable garden" they can film.  So I explain that my clients don't have edible gardens and that "STEPABLE" is a brand name, not a type of garden that's a hot new trend.  I suggest that one type of garden that IS suddenly a hot topic is the lawnless type.  I then e-mailed him lots of examples, some of them even using the creeping perennials now heavily marketed as STEPABLESTM (always with the all-caps).

Next thing I know he's e-mailing me back, asking for the names of my clients with "edible and stepable gardens" that he could film, as though our 20-minute phone call had never happened!  Back to square one, with me explaining again that creeping perennials are one type of lawn replacement, that that's just one brand, etc, etc.  And he writes back to clarify FOR ME that "stepable" is a commonly understood generic name for a type of garden, "like Kleenex". Uh, no it isn't.  But by this point I'm tired of trying to help someone who's clearly not interested in what I have to say.

Later I related the story to the landscape designer who'd given this guy my name.  The producer had likewise asked HER for clients with stepable gardens and she told him she'd never heard the term! (Anyway, if it were really a generic term, isn't the ultimate "stepable" plant good old turfgrass?) So his insistence on using this term as though it really were a commonly understood word for a gardening craze sweeping the nation made us wonder:  Hey, are they sponsoring this thing?  And is the episode really an infomercial, with edibles thrown in for good measure?  That's the only imaginable explanation for the producer's obtuseness.

But wait.  The most entertaining moment with the TV producer came when I asked when they wanted to do the filming.  Get ready for it – mid-March!  Yes, we all know how telegenic our veg gardens are in mid-March, just after we've planted our lettuce seeds and the ground is utterly bare.  Heck, not even creeping perennials look like much in mid-March around here, no matter what expensive brand name they may carry.


  1. Mr. Producer should be very cautious of using brand names as generics. His example of Kleenex as a generic would have Kimberly Clark’s legal department all over him. Kleenex is NOT a generic — it’s a brand name, and if the company is lenient with writers who use it as a generic, they can lose it as a brand name. Companies take out ads in Writer’s Digest just to make this point about Kleenex, Wite-out (NOT “White-out”), Roller Blades, and similar products. Mr. Producer really needs to understand this.

  2. So true, and here’s another example: I once referred on my blog to the local gardening “listserv” and got a complaint email from their legal department. So I quickly changed that to “email group” coz it was actually using Yahoo, not the brand named Listserv program. Who’d have thunk?

  3. I had to contain my guffawing when the producer wanted to film mid-March! Here in Minnesota (especially with the snwo strom expected within hours) he would be filming snow. I think that’s stepable, if one wishes to go outside.

  4. I live in the very mild-seasoned Central Valley of California where green is the color of winter. Even here, Mid-March is iffy. No snow, sure, but our gardens are pretty lackluster still. How can one produce a show about gardens & know nothing about gardening ?

  5. Well, after we make some headway into getting gardening coverage back on T.V, maybe we can add “producer that actually knows something about gardening” to our wish list. After all, I can wish for anything I want, right?

    By the way, as an update to my show, Fresh from the Garden on DIY not airing this year, I have a good news / bad news update. It will air weekly starting March 30th. That’s the good news. The bad news; I hope you have Tivo or you’re a REALLY early riser cause it comes on at 4:AM. Yikes! Also, if you look at the show lineup, we did 52 episodes and I have no idea why they picked the few episodes they plan to show. Everything you need to know to grow Winter Squash kicks things off March 30. I guess they think winter squash actually grows in winter.

    Which leads me to my next wish…would it be too much to ask that the program execs know a thing or two about gardening as well? Yeah, I thought so…

  6. This is why we have folks showing up at the farmers market demanding apples in May; newspaper articles talking about using elephant ear leaves as platters for your luau buffet table, or lily-of-the-valley as a dinner table centerpiece (both are poisonous); magazines photo spreads showing pampas grass or tree ferns as pool-side decor (one being as itchy as poison ivy and the other having knife blades for leaves, great for exposed skin!). A clueless person as made a bad decision and chooses to run with it rather than listen to anyone else’s idea. They are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

    You know how you take your dog to obedience class to learn how to say ‘good girl’ instead of always saying ‘bad girl’. We all need to give praise on the few people that are getting things right and point out those that get it wrong or just don’t get it at all.

  7. The first thing that occurred to me as I read this was how familiar it sounded. First of all—art directors and tv producers generally don’t know anything about gardening. They get creative and drive the rest of us crazy because they typically don’t know the first thing about their subject. They become convinced that they’ve hit upon a ‘new’ idea or an actual trend, and fly with it. Drives me nuts.

  8. There is a blogger I follow who wasasked to come on the Tyra Banks Show. No matter the wonderful and informative facts she wanted to impart, the show producers had an adgenda and edited out any relevant answersand painted her as a clueless bad guy, which she is not. Those producers have an adgenda. Having once worked in Hollywoodin a former life, always be highly suspicious when they keep asking the same question in hopes you’ll change your answer to meet their needs.

  9. I see this as an opportunity for an educated horticulturist to obtain a job as a consultant to the cable channel networks that run gardening shows.
    When Mr. or Ms. Cable Show Exec gets a brilliant idea to shoot specific type of garden at a specific time all he has to do is run his/her idea across the horticultural consultant and she can educate them if it is a viable idea.

    This consultant should also have their fingers on the pulse of the general gardening scene at large so to further add value and benefit to the cable channel network.

    A good consultant would enhance the value and the revenue to the cable channel as well provide excellent educational and entertainment value to the viewers.

    A win win situation for everyone involved.

    Unfortunately, from my experience with HGTV they are short sighted on this end of their business and it sounds like many of the other cable channels are too.
    Perhaps it is time to look at their business plans / modesl again so that they can compete and stay above water in this new economy.
    Time to RETOOL, ADAPT and TRANSITION if you want to make it in these turbulent times.

  10. Ok this is a bit of a tangent- sorry – but its on my mind and slightly related. I got a garden catalogue yesterday with a photoshop picture of a garden on the cover. Each individual plant was photoshopped in to make it look as if they all bloomed perfectly at the same time, which they DON”T. ASters and delphinium, for example. Then after ranting a bit I flipped through and this catalogue was advertising “HARDY PALM TREES” pictured with snow on them. NO zone listed.
    It is completely unethical and targeting clueless consumers who watch this ridiculousness on HGTV. UGH.

  11. Can’t decide whether to guffaw or shake my head in disgust. Now I just have a headache. They will never learn…can’t imagine the tv execs getting a clue: I don’t imagine you get into tv production if your passion is growing things. I guess my vote is with Spidra’s comment: support garden vlogs and podcasts, etc.

    “Hardy Palm Trees” indeed. LOL! Sounds as though we’re back where we started: let the buyer beware!

  12. “I live in the very mild-seasoned Central Valley of California where green is the color of winter. Even here, Mid-March is iffy. No snow, sure, but our gardens are pretty lackluster still. How can one produce a show about gardens & know nothing about gardening ?”

    Heck, even in Southern California most people’s vegetable gardens would look very young and immature. Is it really that exciting to see small seedlings?

  13. What the heck is a STEPABLE? Am I so out of the loop that I’ve no clue what this is?

    I’ve given up on HGTV. I am kind of tired of seeing the same swimming pool/TV screen/outdoor kitchen setup installed in the “garden,” week after boring week.

    I don’t want to see shows about people who have oodles of money to burn and no real interest in gardening.

    I’d rather be out in my garden, with my teeny little budget and good old fashioned plants and dirt.

  14. Lousy reporters (and producers) who aren’t interested in getting to know the community they cover suck. Hacks make it that much harder for the rest of us to get to know the community because you almost have to repair the damage they’ve done.

    So while this producer totally blew it, I think it’s important not to lump all of us media folk together. We’re not ALL clueless. 🙁

  15. Hi Joe, are episodes of Fresh from the Garden available online somewhere? I just sowed 10 vegetable varieties last weekend and could use all the help I can get. Thanks!

  16. I grew up in Southern California. The climate is quite different from Central and Northern California. It changes pretty drastically just north of LA because of the mountains. So it’s a little weird to expect people in Hollywood to have some sort of gut affinity for Northern seasons. If they’re planning their filming season based on what they see when they look out their window, they’d be nuts to try to film something on groundcovers after march. November through March are really the only times of year there’s a chance of finding naturally green groundcover. Gardeners with a clue plant their annuals in January or February and just overwinter perennials like tomatoes and peppers instead of ripping them out and planting new ones every year. March is also a little on the late side to be thinking about planting winter squash. Even after a few years in New York, I’m still surprised every time it rains between March and November.

    Sure, producers are stuck with filming deadlines. The moronic thing they did was contact someone from the North if they had to film in March. They should have saved you in their rolodex for sometime when they wanted to catch something green in the summer.

    It’s not enough to have producers who are regional experts in plants. What they really need is someone who can figure out what region of the country is growing the right thing at the right time to mesh with their filming schedule, which is not as easy as it sounds.

  17. I’m with you, Spidra. Conventional media is over, and for good reason.

    Clueless producers, clueless programmers, all leading to the perpetuation of clueless misinformation to gardeners who deserve better.

    Times are changing, and we can lead the way with new media and coaching.

  18. I wish Nikki! DIY made ONE episode available through Amazon but no more. You’d think they’d want to cash in on this gold mine. I wish I had a better answer.

  19. It’s not just hollywood. The first week of October, 2007 I got a call from a photo editor at an upscale regional magazine giving me an assignment to shoot a local garden – this is here in northwestern CT, zone 5/6. Foliage was turning, some was falling, & when I asked what the story was, she told me it was for their spring issue coming out in April ’08. I explained the obvious, that the garden was not going to look anything like spring, no way, no how, then arranged to get to the garden asap & shot it the following week, yellow falling leaves notwithstanding. To their credit they changed the story focus & ran it in the fall ’08 issue, but mostly because they HAD to. I think John was right – people are uneducated. The same mentality of advertisers who entice us into the supermarkets to buy out of season fruits shipped from South America is responsible for editors and producers who have no problem coming up with some cockamamie garden story idea that has no basis in reality.

  20. Well its been said before, and again in this lineup of responses – now is the time to change things. People with real talent will move away from the dead media and stake their own claim in the new media. Its a whole new world and the door is wide open.

    I’m dying to see what happens.

  21. I don’t do garden TV anymore. For one thing we don’t have cable or a dish, so that leaves PBS, which used to have some okay shows, but isn’t it more fun to be out in the garden than sitting in front of the TV.

    I don’t really have any steppables other than my naturally maintained lawn, but oh my veggies are looking great right now as the cabbages are heading up and the snow peas are producing like crazy. I could pull some carrots and turnips for the producer. Northern Florida winters are a great climate for vegetable gardeners.

  22. You’ve never United States Postal Serviced your mail? Or Jimmied a lock? Or Xeroxed a copy? I hate it when people tell me it’s all about the Benjamins.

  23. Didn’t someone on this blog once say that the “G” should be taken out of HGTV? Anytime I turn it on, it’s almost always all about the home with most of them pertaining to buying or selling homes. Yawn.

    I did, however, happen upon a home decor show this week that turned tables and went outside. And I gotta say that what they ended up with was actually quite nice and doable. I was pleasantly surprised. At least that was my impression until I saw the every-garden-must-have-one addition of a wood-burning firepit on a WOODEN DECK mere inches away from the WOODEN RAILING! How stupid is that?

  24. Susan, STEPABLES is a very successful marketing strategy for low-growing plants that can take foot traffic to some degree. See

    A local STEPABLES dealer, Little Prince of Oregon, has followed their lead by coming out with a line of plants marketing for specific site needs, such as Water Misers (xeric plants) and Ground Control (groundcovers). Yes, these are not new plants, just the same ol’ plants marketed in a new way but I have to give credit to both companies for their efforts to provide information to gardeners, especially inexperienced gardeners, while turning a profit.

  25. Ignorance is not limited to TV producers. The city-wide coordinator of the community garden program once asked gardeners to donate tomatoes to a charitable event. Which, of course, we would have been happy to do. Except the event was the first weekend in June. Um, no, not even in Northern California.

  26. Have you seen Adam Nicholson’s proposal for making Sissinghurst Castle Garden the Lesbian Capital of England? The BBC is devoting a series of 10 TV programmes to the idea!

  27. Years ago, a magazine editor asked me to shoot an all-blue-and-white garden. I had to explain to her that we live in the Northern Hemisphere — since she was suggesting I take the assignment IN JANUARY.
    In my experience, we will never get through to the money people. They want what they want, when they want it. Nature, science, gardening be darned.

  28. That’s a very good point. I was thinking the same thing. A long time ago, I was a legal assistant, and I worked in the legal dept. of a company. I was in charge of protecting those trademarks and servicemarks from just that sort of infringement. It amazes me at the producers’ general lack of knowledge. Photographing gardens in mid-March. Really?

  29. Hi there,
    I’m working for a resturant/music venue in Chicago that is activly growing the first certified organic garden on its rooftop. It’s a spectacular space, we’ve garnered attentions from quite a few press outlets locally.

    Would anyone have any suggestions on how to go about getting contacts at radio shows, televison networks and print media? I’ve worked as a publicist for many years but never in the gardeing world. Anyone willing to lend advise?

  30. …it should also be mentioned that I have press releases on hand for anyone who may be interested in learning more.

    Here is a bit from one of our 2008 press release:

    The Midwest Organic Services Association (M.O.S.A.) designated the farm organic on October 16th, 2008, making it the first certified organic farm in the United States that resides on a rooftop. The organic farm boasts a grocery list of produce, from Nardello Peppers to Black Prince Tomatoes, which fuel the restaurant below. For 17 years Uncommon Ground has upheld a farm to table mentality, building relationships with farmers from the Great Lakes region who follow sustainable and organic methods. In 2007 the owners decided to expand and in finding the second home for their restaurant they were inspired to bring local food even closer to home. Not only do they now grow vegetables on the roof, they also employ 5 solar panels that heat up to 70% of the water for the restaurant, house 2 beehives that this year produced over 40 pounds of honey, and teach urban agriculture classes to the local Waldorf school 3rd graders. The rooftop has been busy since mid-summer of 2008 when the construction finished and the farm opened its planter boxes for planting and eventual harvest. There are many green roofs in Chicago but they are not necessarily geared for full-on production and used as an educational tool. We made an enormous investment with the idea of producing food for the restaurants and using it to teach and create awareness about the possibilities of urban agriculture. That’s the biggest difference between us and other green roofs.

  31. Gee, no wonder HGTV doesn’t even answer my emails anymore when I write to request that they reinstate shows like Gardener’s Diary, Mary Emmerling’s country homes, Homes Across America, Kitty Bartholomew, etc.. They’ve discovered that I’m in my sixties and considered ‘out-of-the-loop’ for their advertisers! Don’t they realize that retirees redecorate, construct additions to their homes, buy lawn equipment and actually purchase new items at Lowes and Home Depot? We’re living longer, enjoying our homes longer, contributing to society, and we comprise a huge market! Do you get the idea that I’m mad?…..and you don’t want to get a ‘grey panther’ irritated!!

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