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 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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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