Gardens Illustrated and The Garden – a comparative review by David Wong

October 26, 2012

in Media Reviews, Reviews

You wait for years for one to come along… then you get two reviews of  The Garden in one year! Well, I don’t look gift horses in the mouth (I don’t look any kind of horses in the mouth) so here is a look at Gardens Illustrated and The Garden from David Wong.

Anne Wareham, editor

Gardens Illustrated-cover, thinkingardens


David Wong:

What does a gardener look like these days? Much like what most people in the past who gardened, I imagine. This is no bad thing. There are enduring archetypes in literature and art, like the Clown or the Star-Crossed Lovers, and in gardening it’s the Geoff Hamilton and the Vita Sackville-West. One is the kindly Everyman – perhaps comfortably moth-eaten – and likely to offer you a Werther’s Original, whilst the other is the Grande Dame presiding over her garden with a keen sense of style, form and colour.

You could perhaps have a passable parlour game on a wet afternoon playing “Geoff or Vita?”

Alan Titchmarsh? A Geoff.

Beth Chatto? Definitely a Vita.

Carol Klein, Monty Don and Christine Walkden? Geoff, Geoff, Geoff.

Christopher Lloyd, Piet Oudolf and Penelope Hobhouse? All Vitas.

And what about magazines? The Garden and Gardens Illustrated are the Geoff and Vita of this piece. They’re both big hitters in the gardening section of the news stands – except that in the case of The Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society (by and large) distributes the magazine to RHS members through the post rather than selling it on the shelves alongside Gardens Illustrated and other magazines. You would think that this makes The Garden less beholden to the need for a loud ‘read me!’ cover and layout, but in any case it underwent a redesign a year ago with the promise that the “Refreshed layout makes practical information more accessible, and helps bring gardens and plants to life on the page.” I worry that they may have confused being busy for being fresh.

The old design was more elegant, more readable and more focused. The actual substance of the content hasn’t really changed, but in the new design it has to compete with a restless approach to the typography and the pictures. There is a tendency to use too many variations in the text than is comfortable for one page, and to use italics unaccountably. Also, pictures often overlap with one another rather than being given their own space, and word and picture can intrude on each other so it can lead to the pages feeling crowded and fussy. The previous grid layout – along with the content being structured in clearly defined sections – made the magazine easier to navigate. Now, it has been given a personality.

The Garden-cover, thinkingardens

Still, The Garden has the largest circulation of any gardening magazine and its content has a wide, well-earned appeal. In the September issue, there are articles looking at a National Collection of gunneras; at the diverse crops being grown by expat allotment holders in the Midlands (Lablab beans anybody?); and there’s an article attempting to rehabilitate the poor buddleia’s reputation as a weedy shrub that’s most at home on waste ground. There is also a lot of practical advice on things like which plants provide good autumn nectar for bees and butterflies and which winter crops to sow in September.

The Comment section of The Garden often carries opinion pieces that make a welcome change from the gardening mantras that get repeated in lazy garden writing. In her article this month, Mary Keen challenges how focal points are sometimes used, “Traditional urns and statues are misfits now, unless you happen to live in a stately home. If you check Google Images for inspiration for focal points in garden design you get the plonkiest thing I ever saw. A straight path leading to a statement conifer, via a circle enclosing a birdbath. […] I want to be led on. Not stopped dead in my tracks by some horticultural equivalent of a policeman holding up his hand.”

As Mary Keen’s article shows, it would be wrong to say that The Garden doesn’t do design, but there is a definite difference in its approach when you compare it with Gardens Illustrated. If you look at the cover of the September issue of Gardens Illustrated, the lead is a garden by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf. He shares the cover with Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson, Sarah Price, Arne Maynard and Cleve West – essentially, a garden designer’s version of Top Trumps. Where The Garden includes design as one of its topics, Gardens Illustrated has design baked into its pages.

It’s a stretch to say that Gardens Illustrated is the Vogue of gardening magazines – gardening is not fashion – but nevertheless, it’s a useful caricature. Gardens Illustrated has a little more glamour and a little more cosmopolitan chic than The Garden.

Gardens Illustrated thinkingardens

As well as featuring gardens in Essex and Wiltshire, September’s Gardens Illustrated also takes in Germany, the Netherlands and California. It might well be argued that these exquisite gardens are perpetuating some sort of ideal that is unattainable for you and me, but I think that misses the point. The well-trodden arguments about haute couture also apply here. The gardens are, on the whole, expensive and most of us aren’t about to go and spend five figures on our own patch. As with the elite in any field, there can be a bubble of ridiculous, rarefied smugness that deserves to be popped.

“The only problem with having a garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith is that so many people want to see it… I feel terribly guilty if I don’t keep on top of the weeds.”  Oh, the bother!

The humanitarian considerations of the plight of those with gardens designed by top designers notwithstanding, it’s a good thing that Gardens Illustrated showcases these gardens. They will influence which plants we choose for our own gardens and the way that we put those plants together. The zeitgeist for naturalistic prairie-style planting, ornamental meadows and giving proper thought to combining plants that enjoy similar conditions has all filtered through from the likes of Piet Oudolf and Beth Chatto. This summer we have seen the triumph of Nigel Dunnett’s meadows at the Olympic Park. No doubt it will be re-interpreted in other large-scale plantings in public spaces.

Piet Oudolf’s style of using grasses has certainly fed through to every aspect of gardening. In the past week, I drove past a public bedding display of grasses organised in serried ranks, with the grasses taking the regimented place of the more traditional marigolds and begonias. It ran completely counter to the relaxed prairie style, but I found it an endearing abomination and it was surely the truest sign that the ideas have been entirely assimilated.

The Garden, thinkingardens

There is a related question flowing from this about the role of the magazine. Whilst it is appropriate that Gardens Illustrated leads the design agenda by featuring these gardens, does it perhaps have a responsibility to do so with more of a critical eye? I don’t feel that it ever spills over into being fawning; the pieces are considered, but it is rare to find any criticism. The danger is that by flinching from pointing out mistakes and explaining why something doesn’t work, we let bad ideas take root and spread. Whether this matters or not depends on how you see gardening. First, there are those who garden as a pure hobby, who pay little regard to aesthetics. Second are those who keep an eye on the trends and enjoy playing about with the prevailing design ideas in their own gardens.  And then there are those gardeners who want to evoke a particular experience in visitors, beyond being just pleasant. The further along this range that you are, from hobby to fashion to art (and none is preferable over any other), the more it matters that bad ideas are weeded out. Magazines have to tread a fine line in catering to these different readers and I suspect that there are few readers of either The Garden or Gardens Illustrated who fall into the last camp so the editors probably don’t feel any particular pressure to provide effective criticism. Perhaps there is a niche for a more intellectual magazine that holds designers and their gardens under a more critical eye.

Both The Garden and Gardens Illustrated are good publications and both are magazines that I personally have a subscription for. There is a difference in temperament and style, for sure. You can settle down with The Garden as you can with any of Mary Berry’s recipe books, knowing it is going to be all right. Gardens Illustrated on the other hand is a source of inspiration. It sells ideals and aspirations. Above all though, both magazines unite in celebrating plants and gardens and the people behind them, whether you’re a Geoff or a Vita.

David Wong  

David Wong’s website

David Wong portrait on thinkingardens






See also: The Garden reviewed by Graham Rice, Deborah Bird and Bridget Rosewell and A comment on the Gardens Illustrated Award

And Rummaging in the Archive ; Tim Richardson on real gardeners and garden design

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Jack Holloway December 28, 2012 at 9:55 am

Been browsing around thinkinGardens… and liking it more and more. A very interesting discussion, this. As I live in South Africa and have only visited the UK for about 3 weeks in total over the last 16 years, I gave up my RHS membership after 17 years. The Garden was simply not worth the expense anymore, especially when considering the rate of exchange.

Tristan Gregory October 29, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I take both of these magazines though not for much longer as The Garden is so dull and fussily produced that it falls far short of being value for money and it no longer leaves the wrapper. For information I have always found the RHS’ books to be excellent and for opinion there are fine sites like this one and nearly 300 years of other garden writing to choose from. Gardens Illustrated may not offer the critique but it does provide design and plant ideas that we may take or leave depending on our budget or credulity. One other thing it gives us is an opportunity to laugh a little at some of the pretentious rubbish that sneaks into the limelight and horticultural vernacular every now and again.

Bob Barfield October 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I concur with the majority of what Sharon has written above. I personally read the Garden, Garden Illustrated and The Plantsman. Garden Illustrated mainly gives me inspiration for my clients gardens (I am not a designer) but do like to ring the changes in the 4 most important gardens I have responsibility for. I fear I do not enjoy the new Garden as much but still tend to read it from cover to cover – eventually.
The Plantsmen just expands my knowledge – it needs expanding.
However, I use the web a great deal now and social media (I’m learning) to both learn, question and answer love it. But, I still love the feel of actually handling a book/magazine.

Stephen Hackett October 26, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Well, I didn’t like to say, but…

annewareham October 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm


Susan in the Pink Hat October 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm

My one hope in life is that I look as good as Beth Chatto does when I’m in my eighties.

The topic of GI being selective about how it represents gardens in photographs has been well examined here in earlier posts. And people seem to get nervous about being critical about others’ gardens. Well, everyone except the brave few, like Anne. Maybe a solution lies in GI featuring more of the established gardens and the iconic elements within them. It could provide people with a syntax to recognize good work and maybe even reevaluate what was considered good. In the case of many formerly great gardens sliding into decline, showing them in a dilapidated state could be a wonderful way to prompt garden admirers to help preserve them.

annewareham October 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Apologies for the repetition, Susan – but these are different writers, writing their own material, independently.

I’m not sure we can advise anyone to be honest, can we, when we get this = I get so fed up. But I love your idea about established gardens being revisited and critiqued. Excellent.

Sharon Moncur October 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Hi, Anne, thank you David

Read this with interest as I have subscriptions to both (as well as Gardener’s World, The English Garden, Kitchen Garden, and Hortus). I love the different styles of these publications, gleaning information and inspiration from all in different amounts at different times. There are so many varying personal approaches to plants, gardening, horticulture that I’m convinced that there is a place for all. Sometimes they pile up a bit and I skim rather than read. Other times I devour every word. They are an integral part of my intake! I would hate a sense that one is better than another.

Incidentally, I too dislike the redesigned layout of The Garden, finding it cleaner, more accessible and, well, perhaps classier in its earlier guise. For me it is a valuable benefit of RHS membership, but I do feel that there are other benefits too. I am located in Surrey so London events and Wisley are within easy reach if I make the time. But I also like the sense that, in some way, I am contributing to the inspiration and education of people who haven’t yet learnt to enjoy what for me is more than just a hobby but is an integral part of what makes me who I am.

Long may all you good people prosper and continue, who stand up to be counted by putting your words in print for the rest of us!

David Wong October 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Thanks Sharon.

I’m in Scotland so I don’t get the chance to go to a lot of the RHS events and gardens. The RHS looks like it’s doing more stuff in Scotland in the next few years though, so that’s a welcome change. In the meantime, The Garden is the main benefit of my RHS membership.

Stephen Hackett October 26, 2012 at 10:58 am

Enjoyed this, James. I’d say receiving ‘The Garden’ is the only real benefit I get from my RHS membership (see thinkingardens past). Mind you,it is on sale in my local WH Smiths, alongside all the others… wonder how many they reckon to sell? and whether it recruits members to the RHS?
No fewer than 4 garden mags dropped through my letterbox on Wednesday this week – The Garden, Gardens Illustrated, Gardening Which, and Gardeners World. Even though some of the same content cropped up, each does have a different personality, and they provide ideas (some very down-to-earth, some quite fanciful) to a working gardener like myself. But finding the time to read them properly – even when they don’t appear like proverbial buses – is difficult, especially at busy times of the year, or when (as now) weather restricts the time available for working.
I do agree that a ‘more intellectual..critical’ magazine could find a place on the crowded magazine shelves – publishers take note? Or is this the role of blogs and online discussion?

annewareham October 26, 2012 at 11:01 am

The ‘more intellectual critical’ magazine is here: thinkingardens.

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