Reviews of the The Garden by Graham Rice, Deborah Bird,and Bridget Rosewell.

February 6, 2012

in Media Reviews, Reviews

A few months ago the RHS magazine The Garden had a major revamp and it seemed right to review the results. A little time has gone past, but the evaluation is of several copies.

I wanted to get a spread of reaction and am grateful that I was able to do that. We have Graham Rice, plantsman, writer, photographer and contributor to The Garden; Deborah Bird, garden designer and subscriber to The Garden, and Bridget Rosewell, Consultant Chief Economic Advisor to Boris Johnson, (among others,) and subscriber to  The Garden. A big thank you to all three.

Anne Wareham, editor

The Garden 1 copyright Anne Wareham

The Garden. With a snowdrop piece.. (ed.)

 Graham Rice

The Royal Horticultural Society has revamped its flagship magazine, The Garden. Recently installed editor Chris Young has completed and launched the re-design project begun by his predecessor Ian Hodgson and now that’s settled down in its new guise it’s fair to make an assessment.

The content is not dramatically different. One excellent change is the move to a new type face which allows slightly more words on a page than before with no loss of readability. But some of the changes I noticed seem to take The Gardener a step towards the style of other gardening magazines on the newsstand – and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

First of all, the cover has been redesigned. The single image has been retained but with the addition of cover lines or tasters printed across the image rather than gathered in panel at the base.

The Garden only sells a very tiny proportion of its copies at the newsagent, almost all are posted to RHS members, so there seems little need to tempt potential buyers with hints of what’s inside. It’s different when three or four magazines sit on the shelf side by side, the cover lines tempt potential buyers to pick one rather than another. The problem is that the white type detracts from the quality of the image, and an image appeals at a different, more basic level than a few tasters. Also, there’s a danger that the necessity to choose images with areas against which type will stand out sharply will limit choice.

My final point is that a substantial section of the magazine is now given over to Out & About, highlighting RHS Recommended Gardens to visit around the country. Until now, this was gathered into a separate small format section but, Chris tells me, the money saved by not printing this as an extra supplement has paid for additional pages in the magazine itself to take this material. It’s also immediately apparent that the advertising in the magazine, until now always gathered at the front and back, is spread throughout; again this is more in the style of a newsstand magazine. Advertisers always pay more for space opposite and amongst editorial content so perhaps this is a revenue enhancing change. But this too brings The Garden closer to the newsstand magazines.

The Garden Out and About page Copyright Anne Wareham

This publicity is what a garden gets in exchange for free entry for RHS members. (ed.)

The problem is that if I live in Surrey or Devon, my interest in events in Lancashire or Scotland is, shall we say, limited. This is where the RHS website can do a better job. Enter your postcode, or the postcode of your holiday hotel or cottage, and the website could instantly provide information on events in that area. Then all that space in the magazine could be given over to more material on plants and gardens.

I’m not going to discuss the writers and content, partly because I have an interest – I write for The Garden myself. I would just say that many people complain that The Garden has “dumbed down” over the years. My take is that over the last ten or twenty years, when so many new and less experienced members have joined the Society, The Garden has done a splendid job catering to members at all levels of experience.

This has been facilitated by the recent success of The Plantsman, where much of the more serious material about plants is now to be found – material that is too intense for many relative newcomers to gardening who’ve joined the Society in recent years. If The Plantsman was priced more attractively, there would be fewer grumbles about The Garden.

So I wonder if it’s wise to bring the The Garden a step closer to other gardening magazines? It’s still much less frantic in its look than most of the others, but I wonder if one of the reasons The Garden has been so popular is because it’s not like other magazines.

Graham Rice website

Graham Rice portrait copyright Graham Rice

Deborah Bird.

There are some items of mail that will sit unopened on my kitchen table until I have nothing to distract me from tending to them.  But the days I arrive home from work and spot the A4, film-wrapped parcel on my door mat are days of great excitement.

Subscribing to possibly too many garden and design magazines, when each of them arrives you’ll find me – coat on, handbag still flung over my shoulder – ripping the plastic away like an eight-year-old at Christmas.

But I have to confess that when I was asked to write a review about the newly restyled The Garden, I did glance with a pang of guilt at the small pile of unopened RHS magazines on my bookshelf.  I wasn’t sure why they were there, why I hadn’t devoured them.  And so I was placed in a position where I was nudged to think about it.  Why did these, of all my monthly literary treats, lie neglected?  Well, honestly it never seemed quite as enticing as some of my other film-wrapped, excitement-inducing mail.  It felt a little bit Old Fashioned, it didn’t quite salve my magpie-like need for some sparkle.  It was the thing that arrived just because I was a member of the RHS (I rarely open the NT magazine either).  Secondly: In Your Face Advertising.  I don’t want to be bombarded from the off with commercials (15 of the first 19 pages in July 2011).  As an RHS subscriber I – rightly or wrongly – perceive that I’m already paying for the existence of the magazine, thus precluding the need for copious sales pitches.  For me, a huge turn off.

So, to the new format.

The Garden 3 copyright Anne Wareham


I was asked to write this review from the perspective of A Designer.  When I’m in designer-mode, I have to consider such things as scale, rhythm, unity, tone and colour.  Even when I’m not in designer-mode, I can’t turn off the aesthetic bit of my brain – constantly taking in how things are put together, how they’re placed against one another and sometimes the most innocuous of everyday things will unsettle me.  But not so The Garden.  Maybe it was because I’d not been there for a while, but it felt fresh and well placed.  Reading it was a journey which I genuinely enjoyed.

I confess entirely without a pang of guilt that the first thing I do is flick through the pictures.  Good photography will always draw me in.  Shallow?  Maybe.  But it’s what I do.  But of course, magazine design is no more All About The Pictures than garden design is Just About The Plants.  It needs structure, it needs to give you space to think, to ponder what you’re seeing.  It needs to draw you in further and make you want to carry on exploring.

My visit to The Garden provided me with regular, well spaced stopping off points where I could rest a while and engage with the news and reader comments.  They felt like they had some substance to them not just an obligatory single page of letters to the editor.  The practical advice felt relevant and un-patronising.  These were social places for dialogue and interaction, places where I could stop, exchange experiences and learn a little.

The signposts were clearer and no longer drowned in lawnmower adverts.  And underneath the Editor’s Comment, like a small, eye-level window cut into a yew hedge, ‘From This Issue’ provides the briefest of brief glimpses of what lies beyond.  I’m a sucker for those little peeks, and it totally does the trick, pinging me forward into the heart of the read.

Some of my favourite places though, were those I could take solo.  A wander through a garden I’d never seen before.  Given that my passport expired a long time ago, the chances are I’ll not be visitingLuxembourgor the south ofFranceanytime soon, but I can drift there on a small air balloon of picture and dialogue.  The debate has been done on how realistically a garden can be represented through images taken for a magazine.  Sometimes, though, a girl just wants to lose herself in the imagined scents and sounds and emotions of being somewhere beautiful without the interruption of the overhead flight path or aroma of the farm next door.  I’ll probably only ever go there in my head and that was facilitated beautifully here.

The Garden copyright Anne Wareham

Likewise, it’s great to read about places that are familiar, to see them through someone else’s eyes.  Lia’s piece about Heligan took me straight back to my first visit there, when it wasn’t as popular and over stuffed with people as it can be now.  I re-lived the flip in my stomach when I spotted the gardeners names etched on the wall of the outdoor loo.  It made me want to go back.

Whilst magazine design is not All About The Pictures, some of the photography was drool inducing.  I love compositions such as the article on ornamental berberis; just simple, stunning colour on white.  So reminiscent of the botanical encyclopaedia my mother bought me when I first started out as a designer which I would curl up and thumb through for hours on end.

The Garden copyright Anne Wareham

What might I look for, as a designer, from a garden magazine which I didn’t find?  Maybe new trends in design; I didn’t really uncover anything like that here, but then this isn’t the magazine I would necessarily turn to for that.  I would be reading a design specific publication, or subscribing to the myriad websites who’ll gladly send me free, daily feeds of the alleged Next Big Thing.

Would I be sad if The Garden stopped appearing through my letter box every month?  Yes, I think I would.  So I thank you, Ms Wareham, for reacquainting me with an old friend.  I definitely won’t leave it so long next time.

Deborah Bird. Twitter page

Deborah Bird portrait copyright Anne Wareham




Bridget Rosewell

Form and Content –the Revamped Garden

Sometimes you have to run quite hard to stay in the same place and publishing is often like this.  Tastes change in layout and typeface and the publishing creatives love something new to do. So revamps, new looks, new styles come along every now and again.

Some love them and some hate them, but it generates, hopefully, a new look at the content.  I like the new layouts, and I can see it helps with finances to have advertisement scattered across the magazine rather than at the beginning and end in the traditional style.

But I am left wanting more.  New styles and layouts could have been an opportunity to play with the mix of content and to titillate and challenge the audience more too.

I analysed the latest month.  There are 56 pages of content; 19 are about plants; 9 about wildlife, 6 on ‘how to’, 10 on events and books, 8 about gardens, and 4 are news and letters.  So this is definitely a journal about gardening rather than gardens – there are more pages on gardens to visit than on gardens themselves.

The Garden,a contents page copyright Anne Wareham

All of this is useful stuff and maybe a magazine for plant growers, sustainability believers, and garden visitors (should you plant something on your return to offset the carbon?) is a good enough purpose.  What I am missing is titillation – has someone called it garden porn?  I want the photographs and writing which inspire me to get out there and address that patch in the corner that doesn’t really work, or give me ideas about whether I grow a hedge to disguise my new deer fence or not.

Of course, I also like advice on when to plant potatoes, or hints on earthing up, or news on plants.  But I don’t replant anew every season and add plants slowly and rarely.

The Garden is good and worthy and informative and nicely laid out.  That is all fine.  But I want exciting, challenging, inspiring.  I don’t get enough of that, either before or after.

Bridget Rosewell website

Bridget Rosewell portrait copyright Bridget Rosewell

The Garden copyright Anne Wareham (on the right!)





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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack Holloway January 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I was an overseas member of the RHS for 17 years; during the last 16 years I spent no more than a month in the UK, so my membership, not renewed in May 2012, was mainly about The Garden. The non-renewal had more to do with cash flow and exchange rates than anything else, but I had found parts of the magazine less exciting over the last years – there was I think an element of dumbing down and of celebrating the ordinary. But perhaps I’m spending more time on the internet, and more in my maturing garden, and probably also more time in my maturing head… somehow the NEED for The Garden has waned, along with a few other joys…


Paul Steer February 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

Like patient gardener, I hardly ever read gardening mags because they usually portray out of reach gardens like the glossy fashion mags with out of reach clothes or car mags etc etc. Out of reach for me that is. When I need a bit of fantasy to lift me from the reality of my scruffy ‘garden’ maybe then I would pick one up. I would like to see a mag for little scruffy gardens…but they wouldn’t sell would they ?


Petra Hoyer Millar February 8, 2012 at 11:02 am

This may sound controversial from reading the above comments, but I really enjoy reading The Garden for its comprehensive content. We’ve kept all our copies and when needed bring them out for referencing. I have yet to see real evidence of the ‘dumbing down’, the subject matter does seem to have broadened, where perhaps the editorial team are trying to appeal to a larger audience. Failings on this part would be down to ‘loosening’ of the magazine’s identity, rather than the dumbing down of content. There is no denying in the new look trying to emulate the other garden glossies, particularly BBC Garden Illustrated. Design wise, I think the cover is very weak. Hate the large ye-oldie font, which in my mind does not fit in with the ‘cleaner’ more modern look they seem to be trying to emulate. What was wrong with the old cover anyway? Rice’s point regarding the newly added cover lines or tasters is interesting and valid. Though admittedly, I didn’t even notice them. The new formatting inside the magazine is clear, no complaints there. The photography has improved, but somehow I never really looked to The Garden for the photography, but more for the content. So in terms of adding more ‘garden porn’, no. Wrong move, that is for the ‘true commercial’ channels, not The Garden. Personally speaking, content is key for this magazine. I agree with Helen, in that spreading the advertising through the magazine is a better option than all crammed in the back. To be honest, I find the advertising debate always rather archaic. Without it, none of these magazines could function, not even The Garden despite RHS funding. Agreed, it has to be kept to a limit, but for the commercial partners keen to ‘fund’ the project, I can see that being more ‘in’ the magazine is of more appeal, than simply crammed in the back. It will be up to the editorial team to ensure advertising revenues are well spent, and in my view should be spent on the commissioning and writing of good content.


Margaret Fiddes February 7, 2012 at 11:15 am

I’m a bit concerned about Graham’s comments on new less experienced RHS Members – I think it’s great if more and more people become interested in gardening and join. As a result if a more general magazine is necessary so be it. You get the magazine as part of your membership and so the magazine should reflect the needs and interests of the members.
The changes themselves were very superficial anyway – I thought!
If I want a specialist magazine then I expect to have to buy it and do already subscribe to 2 other gardening magazines


John Kingdon February 6, 2012 at 3:08 pm

When people work out the proportion of advertising content in The Garden, they ought to include the space taken up by “Partner Garden” listings. Although the name is a bit more honest than “Recommended Gardens” (their former title), it’s still a case that gardens are being advertised (sorry, “listed”) because they pay in kind by offering free entry to “member1”. Let’s not forget that “member1” will usually be accompanied by someone else hence the listing indirectly attracts more paying visitors (and refreshment consumers and plant buyers) so it’s advertising in another guise.

I’d prefer gouping of the adverts as before (indeed preferably at the back) but I guess I’m not alone and that’s precisely why they’re ungrouped now. I still ignore them so no major problem. Any inserts go straight into the recycling bin.

Graham makes a good point about magazine identity. There are lots of gardening mags on the market and they are, and should be, different. I subscribe to Amateur Gardening for its simple and straightforward approach to practical things (and the free seeds that are worth more than the subscription cost over the year!). I used to subscribe to Gardeners’ World but felt it was becoming repetitive and, to crown it all, one month the recycling that dopped out of the wrapper weighed more than the magazine itself. – but that’s a totally different gripe. I look to The Garden for more in-depth articles and informed opinion and tend to skim over the “quickies”. If it becomes like the others then it becomes pointless for me. So I’ll disagree with Bridget.

Has The Garden dumbed down? Indeed has the RHS dumbed down? That’s another debate altogether but I’d tend to the view that they’ve both “modernised” but maybe not in quite the right way.


Patrick Courtown/LordCourtown February 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm

It saddens me that I dont have the anticipation for the arrival of “The Garden” that I have had in the past. I still read it , but no longer is it something that gets ripped open as soon as it arrives and is read from cover to cover. I am not entirely sure why, I think it is for a number of reasons, I am no longer a landscape contractor, but then i still have my garden that i enjoy immensely and put into practise ideas that i learnt as a contractor. I am in London four days a week and am not continually pricing, inspecting and advising on gardens.
Am I being a gardening snob? – possibly, but I think perhaps the RHS have a desire for the mass membership of say the NT which i am not sure is attainable.
Do I love the RHS? Yes. Do I think they do good work? Definitely Yes. Do I love The Garden? Not as much as I did in the past.


Maggie Biss February 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

Maybe its because I am getting older and gardening magazine weary but I find the revamped Garden mostly uninteresting and too full of advertising. I flick through in a way I usually reserve for Hello magazine in the doctors waiting room.
I never used to a few years back, I am sure I used to pore over it.
So I have taken out a subscription to the Plantsman – i did this in early December and I am still waiting for my first copy. Their enthusiasm to have me as a subscriber is overwhelming. I would have expected them to send me the current copy when I joined….mean or what?


Helen/patientgardener February 6, 2012 at 9:47 am


I like the new format of the Garden. I am pleased the advertising is spread through out the magazine and not clumped at the front as it used to annoy me at how many pages I had to turn to find something to read. I know the amount of advertising is probably still the same but it doesnt seem as intrusive.

I like the revised content particularly with more focus on plants and I have enjoyed Roy Lancaster’s articles explaining the origin of names and the history of plantsmen and hunters. I am glad that the magazine hasn’t got too much ‘garden porn’ in it as I can get that whenever I want from the other glossies and to be honest I have come to a point where I am weary of reading about immaculate gardens which bear no reasemblance to the space I have available and where the magazines seem to have no appreciation of what a regular small suburban garden is.

As for the Out and About section I am in two minds about it. I dont think expecting people to look at the website would help as Graham suggests since it isnt particularly good at signposting local events. In fact when I looked a couple of weeks ago it stillhad 2011 events. I do like to see what is happening local to me but it does annoy me that there seems to be very little compared to some other areas.


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