Unsurprising, but still sad


A few years ago, I was offered about ten years worth of Garden Design magazines if I paid for the postage to get them to me. The two boxes came and I put them in a closet, intending at some point to unpack and shelve them somewhere I could easily refer to them. They’re still in the boxes.

The fact that I never found it necessary to open the boxes or read the magazines that occasionally come across my desk at work is not why Garden Design will be folding after the April issue. According to Adweek, the title (owned by Bonnier Publishing) only sold 189 ad pages in all of 2012. I know that’s not good. The city/regional publication I work for (distributed mainly in Western New York) sold at least four times that many last year, and such national publications as Cosmopolitan and Architectural Digest sell well into the thousands. It’s that simple. I’ve heard people talk about how Garden Design ought to have covered this or that, but the problem isn’t the content. It’s the fact that the businesses who should be buying ads in garden magazines aren’t.  Apparently, the magazine’s readers will be offered a substitute from the other titles Bonnier offers—I guess I would take Saveur. (A healthier choice would be Outdoor Life, but who am I kidding.)

It’s expected that Bonnier will be shutting down more titles in the years to come.

Even though I have not read it recently, I paged through Garden Design more frequently in the years I first began gardening. It seemed hipper than most of the garden titles on the newsstand, and there were often essays by writers I admired. The gardens usually seemed well beyond my abilities, but that was OK. They were interesting, sometimes beautiful, and often fun. I think Garden Design must have been one of the few publications for American landscape designers to showcase their best work. As friend and co-publisher of the digital title Leaf, Susan Cohan, says, “We need American publications that reflect our diverse economy, interests and regions and we need to embrace those that show us the best of design outside at every level.”

That was apparently not much of a priority for Bonnier. Not surprising when the news is handed down from someone whose title is “chief content officer.”

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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. Garden Design was always a source of inspiration for me, not only for the gardens being showcased, but for the hardscape, structures, and especially furniture. There was always such a great collection of furniture in every issue — including the ads — but it was always really high-end stuff. Unobtainable for all but the very few gardens where budget was not a concern.

    Were their sights set too high? Sad to see it go.

  2. Frankly, I stopped being impressed by GD a long time ago. When I first started subscribing about 20 years ago, it really was a diverse, well-written, extremely interesting publication. I particularly loved the quotations at the bottom of the pages. Then their design articles became all California, all the time, they discontinued the quotes, the really good essayists seemed to disappear – and I decided to save my money. A decision I’ve never regretted.

  3. I agree with Susan; while I loved the magazine in the mid-90s, they’ve drifted away from their efforts to be more diverse in an attempt to be cutting-edge, forgetting both that much of their readership couldn’t afford to emulate the designs they presented, and that the gardening world extends beyond California. While I liked the modernist styles they often presented, I always knew when the new issue landed in my mailbox that it would be more of the same, and I never felt the excitement or urgency to read it that I used to feel. I hope that I can find an alternative publication that will provide me with design inspiration. Any suggestions?

  4. I’m really bummed out about this. Whether it was the design, or the photography, or a combo of both, GD did an amazing job of showing spaces and how people lived in them. I hate photos of sterile, empty spaces that you see in other shelter mags. If I could convince my clients to pose, they’d be in my portfolio shots.

    Yes, there was a definite GD “look” that favored the West Coast, but the foundation ideas behind every project carry through to wherever you are. I’m going to miss it.

    • I’m all for picturing people in their gardens. But GD’s ‘garden party’ photo essays were some of the most inauthentic images I’ve ever seen. They made me laugh out loud. I always wanted to shoot a parody in my own garden featuring real gardeners with chipped fingernails, muddy-kneed jeans, T-shirts with the arms cut off and beverages served with beer-can cozies. (Instead of GD’s designer duds and fine wines.)

      What I enjoyed most about GD was spotting some of the weird plants I collect (and haul inside and back out with the season) thriving in the ground in those California gardens. The only thing I’ll miss is being able to enjoy that fine gardening climate vicariously during winter.

    • It’s not just the print side of garden magazines that is dying… it’s magazines in general. We are a generation that wants information immediately and that means iPads and laptops, rather than magazines. As brilliant as the colors may appear on an iPad, I still prefer to hold a magazine in my hands.

      • I do not agree that all Magazines will disappear. Garden Design changed so thoroughly that it took itself out. I was a subscriber for a few years but it the ideals portrayed towards the end were for a privileged few.
        Nothing that was informative or helpful in my climate, no more Articles that inspired, no reason to subscribe.

  5. As a Contributing Editor to Garden Design for several years, I blame this shuttering on mismanagement and ego. The former editorial team led by Sarah Kinbar, Jenny Andrews, Megan Padilla and their art directors was based in Winter Park Florida and they produced a relevant, beautiful and interesting magazine. But then everything got messed up when the diva editor of Saveur convinced the powers-that-be at Bonnier that he knew how to luxe -up Garden Design.
    So what happened in 2010? The talent in Winter Park was fired, tons of money was spent to move the operations and hire new staff at Saveur’s NYC headquarters and soon, the heart and soul of Garden Design disappeared. NONE of that had to happen. It was change for change sake. And the lives of so many gifted editors, writers, photographers and designers of gardens were shaken up. It’s tragic. But don’t blame this only on the economy. Blame it on power and greed.

    • I just love a detailed and historical analysis–thanks.

      In my 25 years of writing for newspapers and now magazines and in my research on the various components of the publishing industry it’s pretty clear many, tho not all, of the damage in the print business has been self-inflicted. So here’s a wish for good luck and better judgment among the survivors.

  6. Ironic, I make my living, 3 decades, designing gardens. Mostly residential.

    Since 2008 have had my 5 best years.

    Horticulture, and House & Garden of the 80’s were the BEST !! My gardens are those gardens, and I’m proud of it.

    My clients are not sought from the type of audience or advertisers in Garden Design magazine. That would be crazy. I must support myself. And I do.

    Go where the customers are.

    Ironically, a new international magazine start-up contacted me this month to write for them. They like the ‘voice’ on my blog.

    Great comments above, some quite brave.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  7. I’ve been subscribing to GD for over 25 years and always noticed the changes in the magazine when a new team or editor took charge.
    Sarah Kinbar and Bill Marken were wonderful editors that searched high and low for off the beaten track unique gardens that had broad appeal.
    The recent move to NYC, the new editorial team and the sacking of Ms. Kinbar was a poor judgement call that had me wondering what the hell are they were thinking.
    I guess they weren’t thinking, and it is sad to see a magazine of their stature to go into the compost pile of print.

  8. I never liked Garden Design as much as Fine Gardening. I did not renew because they used advertisers that had scented pages. I couldn’t stand the smell.

  9. High priced landscape architects showcasing virtually the same type of garden over and over. Sometimes an interesting variation but overall — yawn. Pretty pictures, but what was the thought behind them? How could the average homeowner even hop to be able to recreate them?

    Gardening . Designing. Why wasn’t it about that?

  10. Missing Henry Mitchell, I’d like to recommend Gardens Illustrated from the UK. I absolutely love that magazine! Yes, a subscription is spendy, but to my mind, eminently worth it. It’s got everything: design, hands-on gardening, and they showcase good gardens and gardeners from all over the world – and that includes all over the US! And not just California. And best of all, while it’s not aimed at the lowest common gardening denominator, it’s completely accessible to all levels of experience. I’ve been a subscriber for probably about 10 years now, and if finances forced me to choose between giving up GI or giving up several other American publications, GI would win hands down.

    • I agree. I love Gardens Illustrated too, though it’s frustrating reading about all the great calendar events that are happening across the ‘pond’. I dropped Garden Design 2 or 3 years ago when they went to the all modern all California look and dropped the neat quotes at the bottom of the pages. I did resubscribe recently because they seemed to be trying to change all that. A shame they ran out of time. I’m not surprised to hear that the advertising isn’t available for supporting it. I’ve wondered if that’s why HGTV is now really RETV (Real Estate TV); they’ve abandoned any pretense of covering Gardening, so they should really drop that from their name.

      • It’s worth knowing that Gardens Illustrated has recently become available as a digital version, which may be easier and more expedient than trying to track it down in the shops. You can find it on the APP store, zinio.com and GooglePlay. The March issue (which was printed this week) should go live next week. I’d be interested to know what you think of it.
        Juliet Roberts
        Editor, Gardens Illustrated

  11. I also loved (loved, loved) Garden Design in the 90’s. Stunning plant photography, great essays in the early days, but over time it became increasingly only about gardens that were high style and big money. It’s no surprise that the garden “as backdrop for the 1%er lifestyle” was a huge turn-off. The magazine became irrelevant. It didn’t listen to its readers and lost them.

    As a very small publisher (as in working out of my home, which is relevant to these times) I’m struggling with the digital question. What I am hearing from many is that they love print, they want print – yet I’m also hearing middle-aged women are the ones who are buying Kindle and downloads (and, yes, we’re the gardening-fanatic demographic). I’d love to read a post on that and see what people think.

  12. I agree with all comments — I loved Garden Design in the 90s. And I still miss Gourmet — no other food-related magazine has ever come close to it, period.

    And of course House & Garden of the ’80s (NOT the renamed “HG”) was always an inspiration. I knew it was changing/going downhill as soon as PEOPLE were included in the cover photos…! LOL

  13. I wasn’t the person who offered to send you the stash of back issues, but I had one of those, too. When I moved from Houston to the small town of Brenham, Tx last year, I finally parted with most of them because we wanted to seriously downsize and SOMETHING had to go.
    But not before I tore out and saved most of the back essay pages that were printed on brownish paper. They were gems of gardening literature, and I’ve hoarded them to read again someday like my mother hoarded all the pretty soaps I ever gave her, never using them.
    The books they led me to, however, are still by my nightstand. There are limits to what a gardener can give up. These are some of the best gardening books ever – especially Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts – A Writer In the Garden.”

  14. Wow, have I stumbled across some kindred spirits on this site, or what? My aunt sent me a link to a vinegar article, and then I noticed this scandalous news about Garden Design.

    I first got my subscription in the 90s, when I was in college and just starting to garden–I still have most of my old issues, with the excerpts from the best gardening books of the day, the advice column, the gorgeous yet attainable gardens, such as my all-time favorite, a medieval potager that combined roses and vegetable and wattle fences. Remember when REAL people won the Golden Trowel awards?

    And then it became all California, all the time, with the expensive modernist houses and nasty, spiky plants, which are fun to look at SOMETIMES, but my god, do I really have to see yet another freakin’ firepit-agave combo??? Further, I remember snarky comments in the magazine, informing the readership that English style gardens were as passe’ as Laura Ashley knickers or some such, but as the owner of an 1890 Eastlake style farmhouse, I can really never get enough Lutyens & Jeckyll.

    Well, I have had a subscription all these years, but frankly, I’ve been lamenting the death of Garden Design for quite a while. Very sad. Saveur is a magazine that still has it, however–it reads like the National Geographic of the food-porn world.

  15. I agree with all that’s been said (yes, I both loved and eventually gave up on GD). But honestly, can’t we blame just about everything bad on power and greed?! Thanks for sharing your insider’s info, Debra. I’m hoping Organic Gardening doesn’t give up the printed ghost, too.

  16. The end of Garden Design doesn’t surprise me, either. It was exciting and interesting in its first few years, then it seemed to want to do interior design outside too much, and I lost interest. I got hold of a French magazine called “Mon Jardin et Mon Maison” that was terrific. Fine Gardening was a big help when I was first learning. Now I read Gardens Illustrated, and pick up The English Garden now and again because I really like their editor. I don’t know if it’s me getting older or not, but most of the American magazines don’t have any zip. I beg friends going to Britain to bring me garden mags from there, and they are infinitely better. (One downside on the British magazines: one gets mighty sick of Alan Titchmarsh.) Go to the British newspapers’ websites and troll for garden articles–that’s a lot of fun, too.

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