“Martha Knows Best” is Great, But Does She Really?

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I had so completely tuned out HGTV as a source of gardening instruction or inspiration that I totally missed the July 31 premier of their Martha Stewart show “Martha Knows Best.” My friend Kathy Jentz asked if I was reviewing it, saying:

I really enjoy it – it shows a lot more of personality and is looser than her in-studio shows.
I remember her saying at the Baltimore IGC-East talk that we NEED a new garden TV show. glad she followed thru and made it happen.

Well, damn straight I’ll review it NOW. All 6 of the episodes are streaming here and they managed to transport me away from the horrors of my news feed. So thank you, Martha! May the show’s ratings prompt them to add a few MORE real gardening shows to the line-up of outdoor decorators and house-flippers at HGTV. With the surge in new gardeners this year, the timing seems perfect.

Quarantining with Martha

First, gotta say this show was filmed during the pandemic, from Martha’s quarantine location – a 153-acre farm in Bedford, NY. The farm, in Westchester County, is called Cantitoe Corners. Lots of images here.

(She also has major homes in Maine and the Hamptons – if not more. Curious about all this abundance I looked up “How Much is Martha Stewart Worth” and found it to be estimated “in the vicinity of $628 million as of 2019. Martha Stewart first became a billionaire when her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, went public in 1999.” Okay!)

But back to Martha’s quarantine location, she’s there with her quarantine family (her fellow “detainees”) of at least three essential staffers – a housekeeper, a driver, and gardener Ryan McCallister.

Shown above, Martha and staff enjoy her famous “Martha-Ritas.”

One headliner writer got it right: “Martha Stewart is in quarantine with her gardener and it sounds like they’re having a blast.”

I let myself soak all this in and feel really envious. Not JUST of her wealth and stunning homes and gardens but of her staff, especially gardener Ryan, who has a big role in the show. (If I had to choose, I’d drive myself and hire a cook instead – help that presumably Martha doesn’t need.)

And I hate to objectify anyone, but Ryan isn’t just personable and a good gardener; he’s also easy on the eye. You can follow Ryan on Instagram.

The Episodes

The 6 episodes cover these topics, roughly: vegetable garden, container gardens, trees, pets, paths, and perennial garden. I enjoyed all of them BUT have some questions about some of of Martha’s advice.

Her container-planting technique is, shall we say traditional, the same technique that I learned decades ago – use bubble wrap, a shard over the hole, then landscape cloth liner. Her potting medium is peat, soil (not described further) and vermiculite.

Here’s my question – hasn’t that technique been debunked by science? Or at least by the Garden Professors and the garden communicators who follow them?

Martha has 100+ containers in this courtyard alone.

One tip I will try to emulate is putting little wooden spacers under the pots to keep them from sitting directly on the patio, which would impede drainage. I wonder where to buy them.

The episode about trees is also rule-breaking, even after Martha’s declaration that she’s read lots of books on the subject. To wit: she says to dig a hole TWICE AS WIDE and TWICE AS DEEP as the pot, then to AMEND the backfill with compost. Pretty much everything the Professors Blog says not to do, which is also what most garden communicators (like Joe Lamp’l) are saying these days.

Linda Chalker-Scott has already weighed in on this episode.

Should these contradictions matter to us? I have no doubt that Martha’s traditional techniques have worked fine for her over her decades of gardening. But I’m a big fan of science, so I’ll concede that the results might have been a bit better if she followed the advice of researchers.

Just like my daffodils bloom like crazy (certainly adequately) despite my ignoring everyone’s advice and tying up their foliage when they start to flop onto my perennials. Maybe they’d bloom a BIT MORE if I did everything I’m told, but I don’t care. I want my perennials not smothered, thanks.

The episode about paths was fascinating to me – especially the humongous job entailed in correctly installing a really good one that doesn’t get weeds. And we’re briefly shown some less formal ones that I can actually relate to.

For help with home landscapes, the episode about perennials gardens is probably the best.

No word yet (that I can find) about whether the show has been renewed for a second season but it has my vote, rule-breaking and all. I just love watching Martha, at 79 and as glamorous as ever, driving a tractor and wielding power tools. Hers may not be Extension Service-level advice but at least we see real gardening and real gardeners, with no instant make-overs in sight.

18 COMMENTS

  1. I almost don’t care if the gardening technique is dated! I haven’t watched HTV since they removed the ‘G’ so just to see people interacting with green, leafy surroundings would be an improvement.
    Thanks for letting us know to turn it back on.

  2. for pot spacers, you can get treated 1″ x 2″ 8 feet long “boards” in the treated lumber section of Home Despot or Lowe’s and cut them down to fit the bottom of the pot. Try not to cover the drainage hole. 😉

  3. I have to confess I’ve never followed Martha Stewart all that closely…but now to read that’s she doing all these things, with vigor and panache – at 79 years of age?! Respect and admiration! I’ll definitely be checking out this gardening series! Whether she is scientifically accurate to the T or not, filming a series like this is sincerely inspirational. Hopefully people don’t get too snarky and try and bring it down.

  4. Way back in 2000, somebody gave me a copy of Stewart’s Gardening 101. Given her everything-shiny-and-posh reputation, I was skeptical. And I was wrong: it was and remains a very useful basic guide for everyday dirt gardeners. No doubt there were people helping, but Ms. Stewart clearly knew her stuff, and knew how to teach what she knew.

  5. I am thrilled to know of this program. I will look it up and I certainly hope they renew it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and many others I would imagine.

  6. Glad of the head’s-up, didn’t know about Martha Stewart’s new garden show.

    Have enjoyed Martha so much more after her jail time. Have always appreciated the knowledge she shares.

    Have taught Master Gardeners for decades, Georgia. Not all Extension Service advice is trustworthy. Easily discovered putting together any lecture for a Master Gardeners class. Using Extension Service educational materials, finding contradictory statements on same topics.

    Most important advice Extension Service should change, yes discussed with my agent (who agrees), is soil preparation. Granite Grit or River Sand far more important to improving soil than tilling in compost.

    Why?

    Till in compost, your soil is back to chunky clay in a year. Till in Granite Grit or River Sand, you’ve amended your soil for life. Of course, add an inch of compost yearly, sprinkled around plantings…..aaah, life is good !

    In addition, it’s not uncommon the Extension Service has information about plants, outdated, now known to be invasives.

    Extension Service is lagging on plant advice specifically for pollinators in myriad zones. Going beyond existing ‘Natives’ pamphlet, and including non-natives good for local zones too.

    With Martha’s advice it’s a Good Thing knowing we’re getting her mom & dad’s gardening wisdom too.

    Again, so glad you’ve advertised Martha’s new garden show.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  7. Thanks ever so much for the review of Martha’s show. I am also a fan of science based information and hope she ups her game in the next episodes. I will put her show on my ‘Must Watch’ list especially now when politics and quarantine can drag one under.

  8. I doubt Martha ever drives a tractor or even wields power tools more than for a photo shoot. What I dislike about Martha – and I subscribe to her magazine- is that she has gardeners doing most of the work and she does not give them much credit or admit she’s using them. She makes people think they must be lazy or dumb because they can’t keep up with all the gardens and projects like she does. It one thing when your gardening consists of making a list of what you want and paying someone to do it, and actually doing the work. ( Much of her cooking and craft stuff is done the same way.)

    I know many of us would love to garden with the money and help Martha has. I do enjoy seeing her gardens. But I wish she would be more honest about her actual input into those gardens. Why not show us her gardeners, give them some credit, and make people feel better about why their gardens don’t match hers? Maybe in her TV show she does, but in her magazine it is made to appear as if she does all the work. And even if her gardener is mentioned and even seen in the show I bet it is still mostly him working ( and probably other hired help) and Martha posing for the camera shots. She doesn’t know the latest garden information because she is reading a script prepared by other people who don’t care to look too deeply for the correct information.

    While Martha Stewart stuff is pretty and inspirational and the information much better than some other sources, it’s still basically a show- with an actress playing a role. People need to remember these “reality” shows don’t really portray reality.

    • I love Martha since the days she was not famous. She was doing Thanksgiving.it was may be 1980.I hated when she has to go to jail. If she was a man she would not have gone to jail. America’s backward thinking.Black brown and women they don’t believe In EQUALITY. If she had people working for her.Do you expect her to do it alone? I live with my family in a small house. My flower garden is beautiful . I have a vegetable garden. I don’t buy cucumbers ,Green pepper, tomatoes eggplants, basil , dill , okra , black eyed beans, Italian squash from July to Sep. all organic. I bring flower inside give bouquet to friends and neighbors. You don’t have to be rich to do what Martha does. I will always love Martha. God bless her so people can live with creating things in life.I wish I could see her . When my kids were little they knew who Martha was.

  9. Pot spacers. You probably already have stones, approximately 2-3” in diameter. They are perfect as pot spacers. Look better. Last longer. Use three or four. Fiddle with them a little to get them level and steady and they look great.

  10. Thanks for the heads up, I didn’t know she had a new gardening show. Will definitely set it to record. I’m with you on the daffodil and resurrection lily foliage, I just can’t stand the mess flopping around my garden. It must go, damn the rules!

  11. I’ll take any actual gardening HGTV will show us. I do watch their home makeover shows, but can’t bother with anything they’ve called “gardening” for a decade or more – it just wasn’t.

    For pot spacers, I’ve used “pot feet” – little terracotta supports for larger pots that you (hopefully) can find in garden centers.

  12. I did not know about this show either. I’m so used to that channel being all about mostly rebuilding houses from scratch with scheduled “we have a problem” or people buying houses and then remodeling it while trashing the budget. (what ever happened to “living with ugly” for a while?)

    I know not putting gravel in bottom of pots for drainage is no longer recommended, but putting things over the hole to keep potting soil in is not either now? When I use pot spacers, I’ve used the plastic caps from milk jugs, mayo & peanut butter jars, etc. I know, not as classy as wood or terra cotta, but free! Or use something a bit taller like bricks or rocks and if you are lucky, a toad will move in under the pot.

    As to Martha herself, IMHO, anyone who thinks she does all the stuff shown on the show all day every day by herself is living in their own (envious?) fantasy world. No way anyone could keep all those properties and business things going on their own. She has gotten better over the years with giving credit to her crew. But remember her entire business is based on keeping the dream alive that “you too can have Good Things”. And sharing too much credit sort of works against that image. Who would buy into it if it were presented as “you too can have Good Things – IF you have an entire staff and millions of dollars.” ?

  13. I agree completely. There are a few little things to pick at but it is very entertaining and fun, which will help it appeal to people who may be new to gardening or at least who aren’t automatically lured in by talking about plants. The suggestions are generally easy to understand and very helpful to novice gardeners. Fun to see her celebrity guests talk about gardening with her. Hoper we’re all that energetic at her age.

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