More on our glossy friends at Garden Design


“We are … bored with perfect magazine gardens.”

That quote should look very familiar—it’s repeated to the left of this post as part of the Garden Rant manifesto. We were reminded of it when I posted that Garden Design had chosen us as one of their six favorite blogs. Rick of Whispering Crane thought it was just a wee bit hypocritical for us to rejoice over the endorsement of a magazine that, perhaps more than any of the others, strives for the—if not perfect—meticulously designed garden. I think both our rejoicing and his comment are perfectly understandable.

But it did get me thinking about magazines and their gardens. Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with the gardening press. I look at the trendy, geometric wonders in Garden Design—some of them are very beautiful—and, as a former art curator and fan of minimalism, I long for their precision. (How did I end up with a messy courtyard that only needs an overlay of kudzu to look utterly wild?)

If the gardens in many glossies are presented for inspiration, they often overshoot their mark to the point where depression, frustration, or exasperation result. This is why I often prefer the more prosaic befores and afters shown in such books as The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. I look at some of her photographs, and think, “That looks good. Yeah. I could probably do that.” Unlike a mag like Gourmet, where if I buy the ingredients and follow the directions, I’ll probably be successful, most of the innovative gardens in GD aren’t easily emulated.

Yet, why not aspire? Like the crazy couture trotted down the runway during Fashion Week, can we look at these gardens as extremes that, in a scaled-back form, we’ll be ready to wear some day?

In the Jan/Feb issue of Garden Design, in which “English gardens still rule,” there are checkerboards of phlox (mat-forming type) interspersed with flagstones. Other issues in recent years have featured the European New Wave movement, where garden paths are often completely dispensed with—one simply wades through the plants. There have been a lot of pictures of brightly-colored plastic furniture that actually look kind of cool (in their pristine magazine setting).

The current issue features their annual hot 100. This is a common magazine come-on, one that, as an editor, I’ve certainly used. Readers seem to like having things enumerated. Top ten? Worst five? Lists of 100 are especially seductive; they seem to promise so much.

In the end I’m happy to get three good ideas a year out of all my garden periodical reading. What about you?

(Posted by Elizabeth.)


  1. Garden Design magazine has some wonderful gardens and ideas for those of us who own our gardens and actually work in them without a fleet of employees helping us! I cannot imagine any of the owners of the gardens pictured in Garden Design actually gardening. Rather, these gardens seem to be objects of art for them. That they surround themselves with a beautiful garden is to their credit. I’m sure most of them don’t have time to garden which is their loss.

  2. I have two general rules about this kind of thing:

    1. I am steadfastly against “top 10 lists” and so forth.
    2. If was ever to be selected to any kind of top 10 list, I would be steadfastly against rule number 1.

  3. I’m with ya – why not aspire? And GD inspires me with its don’t-try-this-at-home art pieces. I look elsewhere for the prosaic and there’s plenty of it around.

  4. I have to admit I think of this magazine as one which Mrs. Gotrocks shows her landscape designer and says, “give me this.” Some good ideas that one can adapt for one’s own use, but not my favorite “do it yourself” garden magazine.

  5. OH… thanks Ellis.

    WOW. I am clueless. It is amazing that I make it through the day.

    And I’m not afraid to say that it actually makes me feel good!

    Well… The Rant is one my fave’s too.

    And I just took at look at your gorgeous blog! I’m putting it on my list.


  6. I have no problem with those glossies because they lie, they sell an illusion; the perfect garden.

    Sometimes I get inspired by a certain plant combination or materials that were used. On the whole the glossies leave me cold: oh look beautiful! And then I get on with my life.

    I get far more inspiration from _real_ gardens, made by real people. Gardens that have a _soul_. They may not be perfect (and thank Valen for that) or trendy (why one would want that I’ll never know) or to my taste (everybody is different), but they are enjoyable, uplifting, inspiring and fun.

  7. CC: Per your Rule #2, am delighted to join the Lake County Top 24.

    Interesting that I just commented over at Yolanda’s site (and added a posting at my own) about her images from her visit to Piet Oudolf’s nursery. What made them compelling to me is that — unlike those photos I’d seen in magazines and coffee-table books — they made the Oudolfs’ place look like a working garden/nursery by including what professionals had cropped out.

    Maybe the amateur, ‘non-glossy’ photography is part of the appeal of gardening blogs.

  8. I love my glossies, especially Garden Design. I can get practical information anywhere – I subscribe to magazines for the (sometimes impractical) inspiration.

  9. GD is a wonderful place to steal ideas. Just pick a couple of things; rebar makes great sculpture, and you can make it portable by not using concrete for a base. Don’t remember which issue that idea came from, but they look very striking.

    Probably the same one from few years ago that featured black gardens.

    I can find at least one idea per issue that has to be in my garden; that’s why I don’t buy it very often.

  10. A good garden photographer can make even the most weed infested garden look good and a good garden magazine editor knows how to pick a good photograph to inspire the readers.

    Those who say “they can’t imagine any of the owners of the gardens pictured in Garden Design actually gardening.”, has probably never been in the presence of a good garden photographer and the garden they are shooting.

    I’ve had a few gardens published in the glossies and I can attest, the garden photographer made those gardens look like they belong in between the glossy pages.

    But if you saw them in person, you would see a soiled gardener, the overflowing compost pile, and more times than not a bed that is in desparate need of some weeding.

    Glossies know how to ‘selectively edit’.

  11. I receive a few magazines. Garden Design one of them. I dont care for the high dollar art peices. I like Horticulture, and Fine Gardening the best. andy

  12. I have to admit I’m now obsessed by the idea of removing single flagstones and planting the resulting space with a monochromatic scheme. (From the Jan/Feb)

    And god help anyone who walks on those monochromatic schemes.

  13. As a professional garden photographer, I’ll just chime in a little bit on this. Yes, there is selection going on by the photographer and then the editor, as in most kinds of photography. Something important has been unsaid so far – when a garden is about to be photographed for punlication, you can bet your last red cent that the owner or gardener (if they are not the same person) is going to be very sure that when I arrive, their garden looks its very best. And that happens even when we ask them to not do anything special for us. Think about it – wouldn’t you spruce, prune, deadhead, rake, & do everything you could think of to make sure your garden looks its best if it’s going to appear in a national magazine?

  14. I subscriped to Garden Design sight unseen, because they sent me an offer I couldn’t refuse ($12/year). The current issue was my first. I was disappointed–no ideas that appealled to me. I was about to put it on the bring-it-to-work-to-put-in-the-waiting-room pile, when I thought “Wait–there was one thing in there that I wanted to save-what was it?” Oh, yes, it was the blurb about garden blogs. And that’s how I wound up here.

    Nice blog you’ve got here, btw!

  15. I use to get GD. It depressed me. It made me feel bad about my garden, my house, my property, & my gardening efforts. Were there any articles about camofloging power lines? Did any of those gardens have even a single boxelder tree? I garden in the real world, where bugs chomp up my Clematis blossoms, the lawn gets big cracks in it by mid-Summer, and the kids break branches off ornamental shrubs while they are playing baseball. (The kids, not the shrubs.) I’m not glossy (I’ve never had a professional manicure), why should my garden be? More importantly, why should I be made to feel bad about it? I cancelled my subscription, got a metaphorical pair of rose-colored glasses, & get my garden ideas from websites, & visits to local gardens & arboreta.

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