‘Martha Knows Best’ Is Not Great. It’s Not Even a Good Thing.

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So, it’s come to this.

As a nation, we are so starved for American garden programming that we are willing to accept that a woman worth over $620 million dollars, stuck for 82 days on her 153-acre estate in Bedford, NY; with her gardener, one of her housekeepers, and one of her drivers; and joined as needed by groundskeepers and their foreman, is going to fill that need and leave us hungry for another season of down-to-earth gardening advice.

canna and banana

So starved, that we are willing to accept HGTV promos that tell us that this immaculately dressed and fully made-up celebrity, sans sweat, sans grimy hands, and sans, apparently, a production assistant to create some small illusion of same, is relatable; and “puts the G back in HGTV.”

So starved, that we are willing to overlook her frequent – and historical – transposition of the pronouns “I” and “they” when discussing the nitty-gritty of projects undertaken on that 153-acre estate.

So. Starved.

Six episodes worth of gilded crumbs. And I’m afraid this gardener has lost her appetite.

It’s not about the money…

Perhaps the best way to launch into my review [and accompanying visual aids] of the first season of HGTV’s Martha Knows Best, (which I watched in its entirety after Susan’s recent review here) is to make it perfectly clear that I have no problem with the [legal] accumulation of wealth.

tiller and gardener
What wrestling a tiller really looks like.

I have no problem, as it were, with the wealthy.

You earned it. You spend it.  Martha Stewart is not just an extraordinary business woman, but a talented creative with an expert eye sharpened over many years.

She also has the genius to recognize, nurture, and promote that spark in other creatives.

If she insists that the 1000+ containers on her property be of the same color family (stone, concrete or marble), and never wishes to see an artistic vegetable in a flower arrangement, and lines utilitarian pathways to peacock enclosures with cut blocks of granite, who am I to criticize her from enjoying the whims that whacking great wads of cash can indulge?

flower and vegetable arrangement
I’ll have to tell my insanely talented friend Louisa Zimmermann-Roberts at Thanksgiving Farms in Frederick, MD, that her summer arrangement of Swiss chard, sweet pea, red raspberries, grapes eggplant, okra, chives, black-eyed peas and banana leaves is not officially sanctioned. She’s going to take it really well.

If I lived across the street as one of her “very many fancy neighbors” I would raise a glass to her abilities at the neighborhood block party, and conscientiously ask her advice when it came to pairing champagne and stemware for a well-lubricated celebrity crowd of twenty on a Saturday night.

I might even ask which echeveria to use in the tablescape.

Wickedly, I’d also try to tempt her hardworking gardener, Ryan McCallister, to cross the street and become my personal gardener.  My current gardener, Cutout Andy (though versatile and well-traveled), doesn’t have the same twinkle in his eye.

Cutout Andy and Marianne Willburn
Cutout Andy and I discussing plans for the garden.

All this to say, I respect what she has achieved and have no desire to set up a mini-guillotine in the exquisitely designed cobblestone courtyard of her horse stables. I won’t even debate aspects of her gardening advice.  Susan did that already.

I also respect the fact that she is a 79-year-old woman who is a damn sight more active than your average 79-year-old American.

Let Them Eat Cake

What I don’t respect however, is this laughable attempt to appear ‘relatable’ as someone who is just like me, or like 99% of the gardening public.

I don’t respect the producers of this show having so little awareness of the current suffering going on throughout the country that they felt that a conspicuous display of fabulous wealth could feed the public’s very real (and in many cases, economic) need for gardening advice.

At a certain point it goes from being laughable, to being downright offensive. From the intro:

“I’ve lived on this farm for about 17 years. And like you I’m spending more time at home than ever before.  So I’m going to take you behind the scenes as I do my gardening projects. I’m going to help my celebrity friends. And surprise new gardeners.”

Weeding the garden
Here’s one of my gardening projects – Endlessly Weeding. On my knees. On my own. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

It must be horrific to spend 82 days on 153 acres. With a modified staff.

What about 82 days on a tenth of an acre (like my last house)?  What about 82 days in an apartment with a philodendron?

Uhhh….there’s a pandemic going on?

We have been six months at this pandemic.  After years in cramped quarters, I now live on ten beautiful acres in a four-bedroom house. And I’m ready to bury my husband’s work-from-home body in a remote corner of the property at this point.  It might even be classified as a COVID death.

And no doubt my husband feels the same way.

And yet, every evening of this mess, when I watch the news and see cities in such turmoil, I think of my 10×12′ apartment in New York, when I was 100% dependent on food service jobs and student loans to make my bills.

Each and every morning when I walk through the garden I think of our little upstairs flat in Southeast London when my son was a toddler, and how desperate I was for more than a window box and a few pots by the door.

first garden
My very first vegetable garden – a 2x17ft unpaved strip in the parking lot outside our tiny apartment in Southern California. (Photo from Big Dreams, Small Garden, 2017)

And each morning I am deeply grateful for the space around me, and painfully aware that others are struggling in this pandemic under terrible conditions with no end in sight.

No awareness from Hollywood apparently.  Or from Bedford.

“When the pandemic started and quarantine became de rigueur,” says Stewart, “I invited Ryan, my gardener, I invited Carlos, one of my drivers, and one of my housekeepers Elvira, to stay with me during this time.”

Quarantine.  De rigueur.  Alrighty then. So is a floor length gown at a debutante ball Martha. But okay, we’ll just go with it.

Lost in Translation

And if you didn’t study French in high school and are currently running to Google Translate – keep the tab open. To Martha, soil that is ready for planting does not resemble a palm full of pastry dough, but pâte brisée.

It’s actually an excellent analogy that falls short in its delivery. As does dropping mise en place to describe setting gardening tools in place for a project.

While you’re at it, you might want to check out  Île de la Cité, where Martha gets “all her seeds.”

No Chanel or Dior for this everyday gardener when she arrives in Paris, she tells us, but straight to those lovely little seed markets.

I didn’t want to bring Marie and her cake into this, but damn.

formal dress
My husband and I on our way to the seed markets. Regrettably he had to drive us due to some staffing issues.

I remark upon these Gallicisms as someone with five years of French under her belt, a fair amount of experience in the kitchen and garden, and an unfortunate history of dropping sans into conversation, but a young, beginning American gardener doesn’t know her pâte brisée from her pot of ease-ay.

99.9% of low or middle-income gardeners are not jetting to Paris for their seeds and will probably see what’s available at local garden centers before they consider even splurging on shipping fees for online sources, no matter how wonderful they are.

I know I did.

And here. Here is the issue.  Pretending that this is a gardening show instead of a celebrity reality show.

Cutout Andy in the suitcase
The wonderful thing about Cutout Andy is that he is so incredibly portable.  Here he is on his way to help my mother in her garden in California.

Just Ask Martha

A few moments of FaceTiming Mitch in Lemoore, California about soil preparation for his carrots; or telling Maggie in Mississippi that she needs “ferns” for the north side of her shady house; or letting Karlin from Florida in on the not-so-little secret that she needs a coop for her ducks to keep them safe from predators; does not constitute ‘hanging with the little people.’

Especially after each performs the requisite sycophantic prelude before speaking to “the Gardening Queen Herself”

Maggie:  “I almost started crying but I did keep it together.”

And then there are the celebrity cameos.  Hailey Bieber needing dog grooming tips. Jay Leno showing us the kitchen in his garage and asking what a pomegranate is. Zac Posen telling Martha he’s been gardening since March in Bridgehampton.

“Well. It’s SOOO easy to garden in the Hamptons” she laughs.

I’ll just leave that right where it fell.

Cutout Andy taking a few moments away from digging out a new pathway to enjoy a warm tomato from my mother’s garden.

I made my life-long gardening mother watch two episodes with me.  When Martha begged Snoop Dogg to join her in Maine on her 63-acre estate, Skylands, for her next party post-COVID, Mom turned to me with a puzzled look on her face. “It’s like digging your heel into somebody’s face.” She said quietly.  “I’d be embarrassed to say that.”

Even if I gave millions of dollars to charities each year – as no doubt Martha does – I would too.

To his credit, a tee-shirted Richard Gere sat cross-legged and underneath a tree in his father’s average suburban garden where he grew up – even if they spent the entire time discussing the shade beds at his exclusive Relais & Châteaux establishment, The Bedford Post Inn.  He almost seemed a little embarrassed.

Perhaps we have his friendship with the Dalai Lama to thank for that.

She knows her stuff. But she’s forgotten her audience.

Martha’s smart. She’s exceptionally talented. She built an empire.

But she is not the person to put the G back in HGTV.

Those are people like Joe Lamp’l on Growing a Greener World, or Nan Sterman in A Growing Passion, or or down-to-earth influencers like Erin Schanen (www.theimpatientgardener.com) or Doug Oster (www.dougoster.com), or Ron Finley (www.ronfinley.com) who show you the trials, tribulations and glorious successes without the catchy music and celebrity friends.

Ron Finley
Ron Finley of South Central L.A., an activist gardener who has changed thousands of lives by inspiring people living in the food deserts of inner cities to garden (Source: www.RonFinley.com)

For advanced gardeners who have yet to watch ‘Martha Knows Best,’ do. I’d like to know what you think.

But if you’re a brand-new gardener – look to the shows, feeds and podcasts of those who garden with the resources and in the region that you do. I guarantee you there are hundreds on YouTube.

Or, depart these shores altogether and take advantage of UK programming that still respects its population enough to provide polished and professional gardening programs to inspire everyday gardeners, such as Charlie Dimmock’s new endeavor, Garden Rescue, classic episodes of Ground Force, or Monty Don and others truly getting their hands dirty in BBC Gardener’s World. (Please leave your suggestions in the comments for excellent gardening programming in other parts of the world.)

Martha Knows Best is not a gardening show. It’s a celebrity reality show that takes place outside. And in the middle of a pandemic, when millions are out of work, businesses are shuttered, and large segments of the population are watching their future dreams for even a modest home and garden sabotaged by something completely out of their control, we deserve better.

Let’s hope HGTV digs a little deeper and finds it.

Cutout Andy and James

 

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Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]

36 COMMENTS

  1. Marianne, this “rant” is not only funny (a good thing) and makes observations I agree with (we always like to read things we agree with), but also includes constructive suggestions on how this attempt to put the G back in HGTV could have been done so much better. There’s a difference between presenting a show that’s aspirational escapism and this shockingly tone-deaf show that lords something over the viewer. I enjoyed your essay immensely, even though it made me sad to have more evidence that a new gardening show “has come to this.”

  2. I haven’t seen Martha’s show, but I do have an observation about American vs. British taste in TV and differing attitudes toward the rich. I lived in Britain for awhile, and it’s interesting to compare (for example) the gritty, rather depressing British soap operas with our glamorous and absurd American soaps. Other sorts of shows reflect this same dichotomy. For example, British real estate-type shows are far more realistic than American ones, showing many more of the pitfalls of relocating.

    I also noticed when I was living there that British folks seem far more cynical and bitter about the wealthy. I don’t think that Americans have that same level of cynicism (not yet anyway) perhaps because we feel more optimistic that someday we can be rich, too. So maybe this influences the kind of TV we like, and explains why most Americans aren’t offended watching Martha Stewart prance around on her opulent estate pretending to be average.

    • Cynical and bitter? Were you living in the Northeast of the UK?
      I can assure you that most of us are not cynical or bitter even though we may be green with envy

      • I lived in Leith and worked in Livingston, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Didn’t mean to sound overly critical of my British friends 🙂 I love the Brits and felt very at home there.

  3. I watched a few minutes of Martha and had to turn it off. I’ve been hanging out with Monty and watching the movie, “The gardener”, three times so far. In Martha’s defense she did teach me how to fold a fitted sheet years ago when she was teaching us newbies the basics.

  4. The descriptions of Martha’s show reminded me of that old show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. Way way over the top, but clearly somebody’s cup of tea. Wishful thinking, and there’s a lot of that going on right now. But at least that show owned their message.

  5. You nailed me with “so starved!” Thus my initial praise – so fearful that a bad review would lower the chances of any better or real gardening show EVER appearing on the channel again.
    And all the criticisms voiced here and in comments to my own post? I couldn’t agree more.
    Nevertheless I enjoyed it – coz I’m that starved!

  6. I am afraid “Martha” never really grabbed me and hearing comments about her current show has left me even less inclined to watch. As you pointed out there are a lot of “guerilla gardeners” out there seeking to make a difference. Would rather watch what they are up to any day.

    • I heartily agree! Martha never did anything for me, except get me annoyed with her superior attitudes about EVERYTHING. I’d rather actually garden than watch shows. That might be because we get only one channel since tv went digital…that’s okay, it’s more healthful for me to be working than sitting on a couch. I hope new gardeners don’t get discouraged by this show.

  7. EXACTLY!!! all she did was order her man gardener around, and pretended to plant something, Oh where’s the Martha Stewart of PBS, when she really did her own work (?) oh yeah that was about 40 years ago. Love the Rant, Awesome

  8. I had the same thoughts watching her show. I hung in there and watched them all. Kind of like a trainwreck. I have dropped another show I liked. It became unrelatable. Thanks for the fun way to start my day.

  9. I could not agree more with you on this. I pay for Brit Box and watch real gardening shows from the UK.
    They are wonderful. I know there are equally knowledgeable, passionate, quirky and attractive gardeners here in the USA ready for a chance to host a gardening show. So, why do networks not get this? Why would they sink so much money into the endlessly inaccessible, and now looking-tired and irrelevant Martha?
    Someone should send them a memo. News flash: Countless real gardeners want to be inspired, taught and entertained by other real gardeners.

  10. Anyone remember Paul James “The Gardener Guy?” Now that was a real gardening show. I also love many of the UK shows, Gardeners World of course, but also the new show with Diarmuid Gavin-catch it on You Tube

    • I recently found Diarmuid Gavin -Gardening Together. Excellent show. I miss Paul James too. There are many wonderful gardeners who give scientific advice rather than Martha’s outdated information. I also watch Gardeners World and the videos by Alexandra at The MIDDLE SIZED GARDEN.

  11. I enjoyed reading your commentary and found it to be hilarious! Thank you for your assessment of Martha’s HGTV .show. I have never been fond of Martha Stewart and you convinced me that I do not need to waste my time looking for her gardening show. When I go out to garden I wear my ugliest old clothing, my hands are dirty because I like the feel of the soil without gloves and I sweat like a pig. The good thing is I have a great time!

  12. I watched a few episodes. I found them entertaining, but I agree they are not at all relatable to real gardening for everyday people. It’s so sad there are so few good gardening shows out there. I also pay for BritBox just so I can watch Gardener’s World. And on YouTube I enjoy Garden Answer as well as Lovely Greens and Charles Dowding, among others.

  13. I couldn’t agree more w/you, Marianne and with all previous comments. I was horrified to see/hear what she was spouting and completely revolted by the conspicuous consumption. The only good thing is that it was a mere 6 (awful!) episodes. Thanks for a very funny and on target rant!

  14. As a palate cleanser, try following one of her episodes with a Li Ziqi video or two. You may never go back. She’ll render you both ravenous and exhausted.

  15. Poor Martha, mocked if she does, damned if she doesn’t. You underestimate her and her marketing staff. You better believe they did loads of audience research before they put this together. We avid gardeners are NOT the target audience. As with all HGTV shows, it is not about “how” to do things, it is about the story of the people doing them. This is because folks who watch these don’t want to actually DO the gardening (or home makeovers, etc.), they want to be entertained. And hey, if they learn how to lay a stone pathway along the way – that is a bonus.
    You think she is flaunting, but I think she is pulling back the curtain on her lifestyle and being quite frank about how much work and investment her garden takes and yes, that means hired help. She is paying their salary, she is not their mother or best friend. I liked seeing her interactions and gently needling some of them. Her priorities and tastes are not mine, but I can appreciate her ambitions. (BTW, I loved when she said trees are the best presents. I have always said to give plant people plants, they can never have too many!)
    I don’t believe she is out of touch. She seems well aware of her good fortune and believes she worked very hard for it. Remember, this is a lady who went to “camp” as she calls it, she knows humility and hard times. She is tough on people who are lazy and makes pointed jabs about those who fritter their days away.
    Advising folks not to watch this show for holding out for better, only sinks all hope of any future garden shows on that family of networks. After all, the cable execs will rightly reason, if Martha with her vast following and publishing empire cannot make it work, nobody can. I hope everyone at least tunes in to an episode or two to give it a try without the “Martha” baggage and an open mind.

    • Kathy, I appreciate your sensible and practical perspectives on this topic…your last paragraph in particular really resonated with me.

    • Kathy, I’m going to post my reply to John Boggan’s comment on the Garden Rant Facebook page here, as it does to some extent answer both of you (and he mentions appreciating your perspective). I will add this: Being tough on people that are ‘lazy’ and ‘those that fritter their days away’ is a extremely relative judgement, and I say that as a triple A personality. I think that her pronouncements don’t affect the truly lazy, but instead, serve to create anxiety in those who are already trying hard and can’t seem to produce what she can. Worse perhaps, they realize that they’re not enjoying any part of creating it – and Martha seems to be so happy during the process, so what’s wrong with them? I’ve heard this time and time again from many people. Bottom line, this was a squandered opportunity to reach out to those who need inspiration based in an achievable REALITY. Dreams are fragile right now. And she tread all over them.

    • One hundred percent agree with your assessment. It’s easy to mock Martha, but I love her stories, her aspiration outlook and the hard work it took to get where she is. You can’t fault a gal who has taught America how to fold a fitted sheet and make ironing cool again, to say nothing about gardening.

  16. I’ve not watched Martha’s new show and probably won’t. I don’t hate the wealthy, I just want to view down-to-earth gardeners who are resourceful with their means (or lack thereof), in their methods, and in their gardens. Do these gardeners upcycle? If so, how? Are they frugal and if so, what do they do that I can emulate on my budget?

    Leslie who commented above before me said it well: “I know there are equally knowledgeable, passionate, quirky and attractive gardeners here in the USA ready for a chance to host a gardening show.”–Those are the shows I WILL watch if they ever air.

    I already watch Gardeners’ World, Garden Rescue, and some of the older UK garden shows. These shows seem to have gardening suggestions for every level and budget.

  17. I get a kick out of Martha Stewart and her gardening show I view as purely entertainment! I wish they’d bring back Victory Garden. I still have a copy of the book and it is a great resource.

  18. I liked Martha’s original show, where it was about the nuts and bolts of gardening. I stopped liking her shows when they transitioned to being solely about food and celebrities. I so miss the days of “Victory Garden”, “A Gardener’s Journal”, “A Gardener’s Diary” and most of all, “Ground Force”. At least we have “Growing A Greener World” and “Garden Smart”, but I’d love to see more choices. “Martha Knows Best” is NOT one of them.

  19. This is entertainment. Lighten up! Most of HGTV is entertainment, that’s why people watch. If people want gardening facts, they can google.

  20. Martha gives outdated garden advice. There are better gardeners who stay committed to horticulture. The problem is that new gardeners and others continue bad gardening practices instead of ones that nurture the environment. I agree with the author that this is simply reality TV dressed up as a show about gardening.

  21. Martha is a senior citizen, albeit a mighty rich one. She can talk about her stuff if she wants to; it’s harmless.
    For younger and a LOT more relatable, try Garden Answer daily on Youtube. The blogger is young and pregnant and charming…so much so that she just passed one million subscribers. I’ve gardened all of my adult life and she teaches me something just about every day. (Just amplifying on another mention of Garden Answer above.) lf you find that you like it, they have several years’ available of near-daily programs useful for procrastinating about pulling one’s actual weeds

  22. Thank you, Marianne. My husband and I suffered through 2 episodes of ‘The Queen of Gardening’ after which we sat for nearly 3/4 of an hour chastising ourselves for willfully engaging in HGTV and Martha’s pitiful pap. You said it, “there’s a pandemic going on!” and this…this Martha & friends shameless silliness is what HGTV served up as a comforting balm to it’s viewers?! Forty lashings with a wet noodle for Martha and 40 x 40 lashes for the brainless, painfully unaware writers and producers at HGTV for insulting its viewers by offering manure as entertainment! Makes me a bit melancholy thinking about the hours of joy I spent with Roger and Miriam in their Victory Garden.

  23. You are absolutely spot on. I watch Monty Don and Beechgrove Garden through Daily Motion and many of the others you mentioned, just starved for the G in HGTV. I saw two of Martha’s episodes and was disgusted. Yes, she is a good business woman, one of the best, but the show was a bit pitiful. I want serious gardening. Erin on the Impatient Gardener is one. Next Level Garden–California Garden TV is another.

  24. Had to chuckle when Martha was talking about parsley, sage, rosemary, & thyme – and then asked Ryan if he’d ever seen them (Simon & Garfunkel) live on stage.
    Um, Martha, Simon & Garfunkel broke up 50 years ago.
    I’m pretty sure Ryan wasn’t born yet….

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