Where is the Julia Child of Gardening?


Guestjuliachild by Guest Ranter Steph Britz of Swamp Gardener

I just went to see Julie & Julia with my mom and sisters.  Not only am I
obsessed with gardening, I also love food, cooking it, eating it, and talking
about it.  As we were walking out the door, a thought occurred to me and I posed
it to my Mom, also an avid gardener, “Where’s the Julia Child for the gardening
world?”  You see, Julia Child basically created the Food Network, Martha
Stewart, and the Kitchen Stadium.  She made cooking a spectator sport, a
national pastime (though not something we actually do, according to Michael Pollan).

My thoughtful mom
pointed out, “Gardening takes too long – months for things to happen.”  “Years,”
I piped in.  We walked our separate ways that afternoon, but I wasn’t entirely
satisfied with the answer.  You could film during peak season,  you could
travel. There were ways around it, but then I realized I missed her point.  I
think what she meant was people want instant gratification, the feeling they
could head into the kitchen and whip up that weekend what they had just seen
demonstrated.  This is not exactly possible when you garden.

But I’m
not giving up on my search for the transformative gardening guru, because as any
gardener will tell you, it’s the best thing ever!  Julia Child faced a similar
problem; people thought cooking was drudgery, hard work, but she connected to
her audience and got people to appreciate the process, launching a thousand
cooking shows and an entire TV network.  So I’ve decided we need to find someone
who can reach people and share that special feeling that happens when you tend a
garden.  Any nominations?


  1. I would modestly suggest – the first Victory Garden host- Jim Crockett. He was a contempory of Julia’s and I think that he did for gardening at the time what she did for cooking. Sadly no one has come to adequately fill his shoes and the Victory Garden has sufferred for that. As I watch the supposed garden programs on television I find myself wishing that they would pull the old tapes out of the vault and air them again for a new generation.

  2. I nominate Paul James. He is contemporary and has a fun time. It is also a how-to show, or at least the early ones were before he started going on location and having guest presenters.

  3. One problem is price. Julia promoted the best of French cooking. But most gardening shows have more of an affordable, do it yourself aesthetic. I think P. Allen Smith and Martha Stewart do fairly well promoting “fine” gardening, but Julia’s equivalent hasn’t appeared yet.

  4. Again with the question: “who/where is our Julia of the Garden?”

    I continue to feel/agree with what was said before here on this blog, on this subject:
    There cannot be a “Gardening Julia Child.” While cooking is universal (one can take almost any recipe and cook it wherever you live) gardening is not.

    But even if you believe that someone could fill that role, a person either captures the nation’s imagination or they don’t. You can’t nominate someone to become the person who changes the way Americans garden the way Julia changed the way Americans cooked. They do or they don’t. And, so far, no one garden guru has changed the way all Americans garden or inspired the entire country with one book.

  5. There was a Julia Child of gardening, and she was a contemporary of a Julia Child and lived near her outside of Boston – her name was Thalassa Cruso. I remember as a child in the late 60’s and early 70’s watching Thalassa on popular talk and variety TV shows of the time, like the Merv Griffin show, where she would show up on stage with a freshly dug hosta and show Merv how easy it is to “divide” it with a sharp spade. Like Julia, she had a TV program on PBS in the late 60’s called “Making Things Grow”, and her books were wildly popular at the time – I still have them and refer to them upon occasion. My mother, an accomlished gardener herself, took me to meet Thalassa at book signing, and I remember a long line of admirers at the bookshop. On TV, just like Julia, she was witty and funny and eccentric and made gardening look like a fun activity that could be accessible to everyone. She was a role model for me and surely contributed greatly to my lifelong appreciation of gardening. When she died about ten years ago, the New York Times in their obituary referred to her as the “Julia Child of Gardening”.

  6. I too wish there was more of a gardening icon to inspire and turn to. I come to gardening by way of eating, and started a veggie garden for the first time this year to eat better.

    When it comes to food and cooking there are some great resources for beginners, from how to chop an onion to your first hollandaise. Unfortunately gardening is a much vaster topic and there’s no book called “So, You’ve Inherited Flower Beds, Now What?” I had to stumble ask and research my way through dozens of sources to learn how to even maintain my yard. My questions were basic and plentiful, like what is a weed and what isn’t? How to prune stuff and why? Should I do anything to these dead flowers in the fall? and the answers were not easy to find.

    I guess the main problem with an all-around gardening guru is that each part of the country has it’s own species, challenges and must-do’s than any other, unlike cooking where an egg is an egg and supermarkets homogenized away real regional differences.

  7. Oh gosh, I remember Thalassa Cruso! Even though I was just a kid I remember enjoying all the shows on PBS.

    Keep in mind that information is communicated much differently today. Back in Julia’s day, PBS was educational tv. It was the only channel with that sort of information on it and there were only a few other channels on mainstream tv. Now we have many more choices and the overall effect is diluted, it is very difficult for one person to the biggest and brightest of all media.

    Another point is that people may be charmed for a period of time, but many people get tired of a format or a personality. Some viewers may stick with a program throughout its entire life but most don’t. Its seems that people are more fickle today, they also go from lovin’ it to hatin’ it pretty fast. It’s convenient to look back at Julia Child and think that she was an enormous hit throughout her career and that everyone loved her from beginning to end but that isn’t the truth. I found her entertaining while my mother never like the show.

  8. If there was going to be anyone, it would be Jim Crockett for certain. I still practice his words in my garden and yard — and I learned his wisdom second hand.

    BUT… There really can be no gardening icon. Just as there really could be no cooking icon today. Both cooking and gardening, like everything else, have become segmented. The “mulch-only people” vs. the “dig it all up people” are just like the “fine French cuisine people” fighting it out with the “local food only tending towards vegetarian people.”

    You know what? I’m so OK with that. Americans (and I can only speak as one of them) tend to like choices. We like to pick our presidents, we like to “shop” for cars (can you imagine actually shopping for a car anywhere else?), and we like to choose our standard bearers. Today, some follow Anthony Bourdain, some Mark Bittman, some Alice Waters. Some, God help them, even follow Rachael Ray.

    In a gardening world today, a Julia Child would be but one voice giving the “true word.” In my garden, I like a chorus of wisdom.

  9. I think Liisa’s right, we have too many choices today for one voice to rule. And it’s not just how many experts are out there, it’s how many ways they have of reaching us. We can watch, read, listen or download. We don’t learn the craft any more, we problem solve.

    To your mother’s point about instant gratification, I suspect that’s why garden shows have evolved into outdoor decorating shows. It’s much faster to swap out pillows than to get new plants to bloom.

  10. I nominate Alan Titchmarsh.I used to drop everything to watch him on BBC America.I have learned more about gardening from him than I have from some of my teachers and his sense of humor is not distracting.(sorry Paul James,sometimes you make me roll my eyes so much,I miss the message)Alan is entertaining,informative,just great to watch.I was very sad when BBC America did a different line-up and did not include his show.

  11. I believe if you’re looking for a Julia Child for the Gardening World then it will have to be someone specific to your region.

    This will greatly cut into the national / international recognition appeal that Child enjoyed.

    The same recipe for a successful plantscape will differ greatly from one region to another.
    Even the hardscaping within the landscape is ‘site specific’ and may not translate well from one climate/ region to another.

    I think if you look to your local talent ( and there is plenty to choose from ) you’ll find your Julia Child.
    Just don’t expect him or her to span across the nation.
    Think of it in terms of sustainable horticulture. Cultivate your Local Talent.

  12. I think gardening is so emotional and personal that a universal guru is probably impossible. Every gardener has her/his inspirations, whether they be an eccentric neighbor, a grandpa, a famous gardener from the past, or the voice of a beloved garden writer [for me, that’s Henry Mitchell].
    But all that aside, yeah, Alan T! I went over to England a few years ago, at the height of Titchmarsh’s fame and exposure, and there he was on the front of a corn flakes box–yes, a corn flakes box. Can you imagine one of our gardening heroes on a box of Wheaties?

  13. I agree with commenters. It’s too much to expect a Julia Child today, given the fragmentation of the media.

    Still, I wonder why we don’t have an Anthony Bourdain. Or a Jon Stewart.

    I loved Mrs. Greenthumbs’ books, though I never saw her on that hateful Regis and Kathie Lee show. Maybe she would have united us into a nation of gardeners, if she hadn’t died much too young.

  14. I don’t know. I think part of Julia’s legacy was being able to make the average person sitting at home think: “Hey! I can do that too!” She made mistakes on air and laughed at herself for doing it. She taught you the rules and then let you know when you could break them.

    Certainly, gardening is regional. I’ve lived in 2 very different parts of the US and can state, for a fact, that what works for my mom in Florida is not always going to work for me in the DC area.
    However, there are universal themes that are nationwide, such as seed starting, basic site analysis, basic plant growing requirements (how to find them out, what “part-sun” means, etc.), basic landscape design principles, etc. Or even discussing more about the different regions and WHY, scientifically, some plants will grow there & others won’t. There are basic building blocks of gardening, call it gardening theology if you will, that I believe are important to learn and that people, like myself, are insanely curious about but have a hard time either finding the information or synthesizing into something meaningful. If one source was able to present this kind of information as well as more advanced themes with the kind of wit, humility, humor, and the can-do attitude Julia did, I really think there could be a national garden guru.

    For my money, Paul is pretty close but I think the wackiness can turn some people off. And I don’t get the same “Hey! I can do that too!”-feeling about everything I see on his show.

  15. For me, it’s Adrian Higgins, of The Washington Post. Through the magic of the internet, he’s made available a series of short videos on how to plant a basic vegetable garden.

    And we have years of his gardening columns giving loads of advise. He now writes as part of the WaPo food blog, “All We Can Eat.”

  16. I hope I don’t get crucified for saying this but in some ways I feel Martha Stewart is close to Julia Child for the gardening world. The only difference is that she didn’t specialize in just gardening. But in many ways she brought the idea of gardening, and different types of gardens into the mainstream to the normal joe, like Julia did for French Cooking.

    I remember Martha’s old model TV show and I feel that more fit it by providing the time for gardening unlike her current talk show. But non of the other people mentioned here really had any mainstream notoriety like Martha Stewart or Julia Child…

    Now if you are talking about the written word….I feel Elizabeth Lawrence was close in her time to being a Julia Child of the gardening world…

  17. Alice Waters! It has to be Alice. I am thinking of her interview (last year?) with 60 minutes and how enthralling it was to see her teach the love of gardening – and eating the wares – to children. Also, her cooking of an egg in a long handled spoon over an open fire and serving it on fresh vegetables and whole grain bread in her splendid kitchen was an image I cannot forget.

  18. There is one blooming on the East Coast in the Boston area. Her name is Patti Moreno and her moniker is “Garden Girl”. She’s adorable, vivacious, full of high energy and a joy to behold planting in her backyard grow beds, talking to her chickens or harvesting this seasons veggies. All this right in the middle of Boston. Her You Tube Videos are very professionally done, and she’s really making a splash in those ratings. Go check her out at http://www.gardengirlTV. She truly is the Julia Child of gardening.

  19. Paul James, yes.
    Alice Waters. No way! Hey, she is great but when I had spoke with her at a local fundraiser a few months ago, was so not impressed with her non-gun-ho attitude on people growing their own vegetables. She was more into local farmers getting their food into schools (and restaurants) not having kids learn or have school gardens.

  20. I nominate our very own garden ranters! They cover various regions, (although not Florida) they get us stirred up and we don’t have to have cable TV to see them. We can rant along with them at our leisure or when we are not out in our own gardens.

  21. Maureen and Ginny, you’re too kind! IF you’re right, notice it takes 4 people to even begin to equal a Julia.

    And ditto on the Patti Moreno endorsement. Love her.

  22. I would pay a fair amount of money for a TV channel that showed all the old TV gardening shows: Erica Glasener, Penelope Hobhouse, Karen Strobeen, Thalassa Cruso, any BBC garden show, Audrey Hepburn’s series, etc. Some of these are still available as VCR tapes from the public library, but these will soon wear out. It’s just sad that all these shows were recorded and are in existence but are not available to watch!

  23. Steph,
    I loved your post on Julia Child, and the equivalent for gardeners. I think different regions of our country, and the world, have had their progressive fore front visionaries in the garden world.

    Your post really got me thinking. Thank you.

  24. I think we need an Alton Brown of gardening myself–funny but educational, and I always come away thinking “hey,i could do that!”

  25. The question should have been “Where is the Living Julia Child,” now? The powers do not want a Julia, either in cooking or gardening. How can you have a real teacher if the goal is to get the garden “done in no time.” It is amazing that these people do not realize what Julia, and gardening for that matter, are about. It is certainly not about instant, easy, etc. It is about knowledge, self-esteem, improving the quality of life. Can you imagine “Iron Gardener — HA! I did an HGTV show where they had GCA’s top flower arrangers, and then they put them on to see how many arrangements they could make in an hour. What’s the point of that? (By the way, these ladies were so startled, they couldn’t make any.)

  26. There is no doubt we need energetic enthusiastic garden teachers who will speak out while encouraging folks to take up gardening. Shirley Bovshow does it all.

    She’s lovely to look at and knows her stuff. She’s already been on camera and it didn’t break. She’s passionate about vegetable and ornamental gardening.

  27. I do think that we need garden ‘icons’ that we can admire, and hold up as an example of what we want to achieve in the garden. Britain has a long history in this. When I was living in London (4 years ago), some gardeners are celebrities. They are mobbed everywhere they go. Gardeners write books about their own personal garden, and people buy them. Think of Monty Don, Sir Roy Strong, and Mary Keen.
    If find (in Canada at least) that newspapers are cutting their garden columnists, and their garden coverage, television stations are not spending as much on gardening as decorating (ie: HGTV), and gardening magazines are folding (Gardening Life).
    Thankfully, we have the internet, and blogs like these, that inform us.

  28. I go with Jim Crockett, Thallassa Crusoe….. and someone who hasn’t been mentioned yet: Ruth Stout. Oh, how I loved her books. She never had a tv show, but I do have a video about her made many moons ago. What a character. At least within the pages of Organic Gardening magazine, she was an iconic figure exhorting people to go out and garden (hay mulch or not.) My favorite bit from the video is when she admits that in her early years she gardened in the nude (causing cars on the nearby road to stop, apparently). And speaking about OG, what about Robert (and/or J.I.) Rodale? OG mag has had a huge influence on many of us gardeners of today. In its early years it had near-cult status (or voodoo to detractors), though the current incarnation is much milder and less out-there seeming, probably because the rest of the world has caught up to some degree.

  29. I think someone like Steve Aitken, the editor of fine Gardening would be great. I love his editor’s letters and he understands us real gardening folks.

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