I had to see for myself: HGTV gardening shows, part one (plus hydrangea discussion)



All this talk about HGTV got me—well, maybe not intrigued—but at least mildly curious in an irritated way. I had to know what the deal was, so I taped a whole bunch, steeled myself, and watched—two of them. (So far.) This is really not my kind of thing; I like cooking shows much better, especially Iron Chef America, Hell’s Kitchen, and Top Chef. Note that these shows have a competitive edge (ranging from friendly to downright vicious in tone) that all the gardening shows lack.

I am deliberately publishing this on a Sunday morning, so if you want you can watch them right now! Or not.

Ground Breakers: stupid show; interesting projects

I can see why Susan doesn’t like this and I agree with her reasons, but I did rather enjoy watching the episode I saw because of the sheer magnitude of the project. The homeowner basically had a lightly forested ravine behind her house. Her plans: to install a pool, deck, outdoor kitchen, and koi pond that would include the nearest trees and as much of the existing rocky landscape as possible. The truly asinine boy-toy host was mainly interested in whether dynamite would be necessary to blast out the hole for the pool (it wasn’t, and he was mightily disappointed). I did enjoy all the use of existing and imported boulders (I love a big rock), and they did use stilts so that the deck would reach out into the sloping area and include the trees. Otherwise, it was mainly the installation of acres of hardscaping—and unfortunately the koi pond was delayed. I must say the pool was gorgeous. Easily a 250k job.

Gardening by the Yard: good information; too bad most experienced gardeners don’t need it

I watched two episodes of this. In the first, host Paul James gave a thorough and thoughtful explanation of why even organic pest controls—much less toxic chemicals—can have bad effects in the garden. Then he talked about desert plants. Then, he answered questions from viewers. Do ferns need fertilizer? No. Is mint easy to grow? Yes. All this is excellent, fascinating, useful, and informative—but not so much for the seasoned gardener or true plant geek. At the end of the second episode, he brought up the Endless Summer hydrangea, which has been the subject of some controversy over at Cold Climate Gardening, but which he extolled (without giving the zone information). I understand that gardeners in colder zones have been having problems with this; it would have been helpful to note that issue.
Finally, the cutesy special effects and folksy tone of this show aren’t my thing, but that doesn’t bother me unduly. James clearly knows his stuff and he gives up-to-date information. It’s a good show but it’s not for me.

What I’m looking for is the Iron Chef of gardening shows—something to either aspire to or watch in admiration, knowing full well you’d never be able to duplicate what’s being created. Something that is fast-moving, with a decent amount of entertainment value, and geared toward the geek as well as the novice. Of these two HGTV shows, oddly, the bad landscaping show—and it is bad—came closest; it was kind of fun to watch the professionals throwing boulders around. Neither, however, will make me an HGTV regular. My gardening mentee Ron tells me that DIY has some interesting candidates. I’ll check them out. Some day.


In the meantime—here’s some advice from me. If you’re thinking of Endless Summer, consider another new-wood-bloomer Limelight (shown above) instead. I hear it’s hardier and it has—to my eye—more interesting blooms.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. In defense of Paul James, the shows that you saw was done were both repeats from a couple of years ago, before the problems with Endless summer in Northern gardens became apparent. You can easily tell the 2007 shows because they have new “edgy” graphics showing Paul puttering around in his garden and the folksy theme music has been replaced by someone’s idea of punk rock. Looks like a parody of the late 90’s youth marketing (remember when everything was EXTREEEME?). You are right that the show is geared more toward relative newbies (like me) rather than master gardeners. He is all about sharing his enthusiasm and love for gardening and getting others excited about it. It’s my favorite gardening show goofiness and all.

  2. I know that ‘Endless Summer’ has gotten some bad press but here in zone 5b where Nikko Blue and the other macrophyllas do NOT reliably bloom, Endless Summer does bloom and does it well. Perhaps breeders will keep working on cultivars with even more cold hardiness for those of you north of zone 5. I do love ‘Limelight’ which is a paniculata species but, it is not the blue that many of us crave. I’ll keep hoping for a blue we can all grow well!

  3. Layanee, actually I have great luck with the macrophyllas, and I am sure I could grow Endless Summer. I just don’t want to–dislike the wishy-washy color. My personal issue is not the hardiness but the look of it.

    (Here by Lake Erie we are also 5b–or I am anyway. Or maybe I just I think I am.)

  4. Eliz. Have you tried a little aluminum sulphate to enhance the blue? There must be aluminum in the soil for the blue color to be exhibited in addition, of course, to the pH factor.

  5. Actually, Layanee, I like a true clear pink. So I buy cultivars that give me that with no need for adding anything to the soil. There are plenty of named cultivars that will.

    I agree the blue might be harder to come by–

  6. Eliz: Okay, I have blue and now I need pink. Which ones are you growing that you would recommend? Thanks! We all need a few more hydrangeas don’t you think?

  7. (I ought to have started a new hydrangea thread.)

    I have had great luck with Forever Pink, and I believe this is different from another “Forever” series which blooms on new wood, because mine is a macrophylla and blooms on old wood only.

    I also like Alpenglow, which starts out pink and matures to russet. This is, I think, a macrophylla as well. I have another great pink one–called maybe Hortense? Beatrice? I bought it so long ago–another macrophylla (it needs to be moved–too much shade). I also have a climber, new-wood-bloomer Annabelle, and, I just bought Limelight.

    I need lacecaps and oak leaf but don’t know where I’d put them.

    Sorry for not using latin, but I think these can be accurately identified by the names I have given.

  8. Paul James has a cooking show on DIY: “Homegrown Cooking with Paul James”. It’s kind of the same approach as his gardening show – if you have ever cooked before (or eaten food before…), you may not need to watch it. However, it does connect the ingredients back to the garden in a nice way.

    I like Paul James, and I wish they’d put out a few more new episodes of GBTY. It seems that the new episodes of shows I like are becoming more and more scarce. I also don’t appreciate the new extreme treatment of the show. The reason the show doesn’t have an audience is because there are very few new episodes and HGTV (er HTV rather) keeps moving the time slot around.

    On DIY, “Fresh from the Garden” is pretty good, except they seem to keep rerunning the same 8 episodes. That show gets deeply into how to cultivate specific food plants.

  9. Ron the Mentee here. The DIY show I like the most and obtain the most useful info from is “The Dirt on Gardening.” Each episode is structured around 4 or 5 basic questions from viewers, which prompt fairly short but detailed replies. The pace is brisk but not at that “EXTREEEEME” level which bugs me about the Paul James show. There are (at least) 2 different hosts, one man and one woman, both with the requisite TV perkiness but still bearable. (Eliz, this is the show that our own Sally Cunningham was on, in a segment taped in California about companion plants. She seemed to have a fairly positive experience, though she never saw the end result.)

    Another DIY show, “Garden Sense,” focuses (like several of the HGTV shows Ranters have reviewed) on a single problematic house/garden and its miraculous half-hour makeover. (Now that I am into Week 2 or 3 of one of making over part of my front yard, I wish I possessed the magic time-compression powers, large crews, and inexhaustible budgets of one of these 30-minute fantasies).) I find this one a little more tedious and less directly useful, although there is plenty of zone info and a segment where the price of the cheapest and most expensive plant in the project is explained–a refreshing blast of Reality. To be honest, one of the main reasons I watch this is that host Walter Reeves has an accent and mannerisms that remind me of one of my oldest and dearest friends, which is probably not the case for most viewers.

    Switching from DIY to PBS, call me old-fashioned, but I kind of enjoy the totally UN-extreeeeme “Garden Smart” and its affably dorky host Charlie Nardozzi, as well as the old standby “Victory Garden.” (The latter is more like “Victory Garden: The Next Generation” at this point.) I’ve learned things from both, and I appreciate the absence of faux-MTV gimmicry.

    But my favorite source of newbie info–aside from that delivered by Coach Eliz, of course–is the Minneapolis Star Tribune-sponsored podcast confusingly also titled “The Dirt on Gardening,” available through StarTribune.com and via iTunes. Host Connie Nelson (easily the most agreeable of all such characters I’ve encountered) packs an awful lot of helpful tips, including weekly “homework assignments” and NPR-like interview segments, into 11 or 12 minutes.

  10. I agree with Daria, if Paul James’ show would not be relegated to such bad times and keep shifting, I’d watch it more.

    I too like the PBS garden shows over the DIY/HGTV ones – more actual info, expert interviews and garden visits – but wish they’d can the cooking segments. The garden makeover shows just leave me cold – most all do not apply to the zone 7 MidAtlantic climate and once I see them suggesting bourganvilla (sp?) and palms for the backyard, I know to tune out.

  11. For entertainment, droll British humour, and competition…at least against the clock in an attempt to get a garden done in two days…you can’t beat “Ground Force” which USED to air on BBC America. I know there have been rants against the quality of the two day gardens done by various makeover shows, but I loved every minute of every episode of Ground Force and was terribly sorry it was cancelled. I have no idea if BBC America still plays old episodes, as I taped the whole series (and its spin-off, “Charlie’s Garden Army”, when it was on.

  12. starting to get into another PBS show I just discovered- I think it is new.
    “Garden Paths”
    a simple, but real nice looking show (must be HD as it is wide screen).
    host, Jodi(?), is pleasant and moves the pieces along just fine.
    it’s not a real in-depth sort of production, but it does offer good ideas without cramming it all down your throat.

  13. Can’t STAND Paul James! His “cutsie” mugging for the camera is so irritating that I can barely concentrate on what he’s trying to show.

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