Why British Garden Magazines Are So Vastly Superior to Our Own

At first, I didn’t think the answer would be so simple. I thought I’d page through a few UK garden magazines and be left with a vague sense that their photographs were better, plants more unusual, writing more clever, and that they were just–well, hipper and smarter than us in the way that all things European tend to be. But in fact, when I picked up the May issue of the BBC Gardens Illustrated (not necessarily even the best UK garden magazine if you ask the locals, just the one I happened to be able to find at my bookstore), the answer was immediately obvious:

British garden magazines focus on people. American garden magazines focus on plants.

There you have it. Editors, I provide you this information free of charge. I can die happily now, having uttered one useful piece of information during my short and frantic time on this green planet.

Let’s run through the contents of this month’s issue, and you’ll see what I mean:

  • A column by the late Christopher Lloyd–why don’t America’s great garden writers have steady gigs writing for American garden magazines? Pay their rent! Come on!
  • An announcement for a Gardens Illustrated “conversation” with the great designer Beth Chatto, quoted here as saying, “Plants are like people, you can’t force them into a job.” Really? Plants and people have something to do with each other? Are you sure?
  • Designer Dan Pearson on a plant I’ve never heard of, Paris polyphylla, in which he warns that it is late to emerge and “will often give you a worrying fortnight when the worst is, without fail, imagined.”
  • Profiles of various people you might meet at the Chelsea Flower Show, including Cleve West, who is tired of the “garden room” trend. “I want to feel like I’m in a garden, not an extension of the house,” he says. Cleve, you’re one of us.
  • PLACES! As in, places created by people! Inhabited by people! This includes Marion Knight, owner of Goose Cottage, who is “refreshingly casual about plant names” (note to self: make future post about the many plants in my garden whose names I don’t know) and a story about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl’s garden, in which we learn that Dahl “would leave piles of prunings about the place” and competed with a local farmer to see who could grow the largest onions, except that Dahl cheated by buying seedings rather than starting from seed.
  • A story about a Begian nursery called Silene, which seems to be the Annie’s Annuals of Europe
  • An interview with one of my favorite plant designers, Piet Oudolf, who dares to say, “I’m not a colour gardener. Colour can look after itself.” IT CAN? and: “A plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it’s dead.” Yes, let’s have a look at its corpse! I challenge American garden magazines to show us the dark side!
  • One serious plant profile, this one an 8 page spread on lilacs, in which the author, a plant collector for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, tells you more than you might ever want to know and then apologizes, writing, “I have named but a few species…[he named about half of all known species, plus cultivars] and I feel that I have cheated you of so many…”
  • And while there is much more I could cover in this oversized 124-page volume with surprisingly few ads, I end with the back page essay by novelist Frank Ronan (you mean someone other than a Garden Writer has something to say about gardens? Really?) about tulip blight. (he’s probably talking about botrytis, for those of you taking notes) The virus was introduced to his garden when he–can you believe it–sent out invitations to a May party in November in the form of tulip bulbs (with different varieties timed to coincide with blooming times in different parts of the country), and the guests were instructed to bring their tulip, in bloom, to the party. Fabulous, and OMG, I am so stealing that idea as soon as I (a) make some friends and (b) get my house clean enough to invite them over–but anyway, the point is that the virus hitched a ride. Frank leaves us with this wild paragraph that would be entirely unprintable in an American garden magazine due to its vulgarity, erudition, and passion–and I, too, leave you with:

“The virus is a sneaky bitch, letting the whole plant rise and bud and fill you with expectation before sucking the life out of it. By the time this magazine is published I’ll either be swaying giddily over T. ‘Generaal de Wet’ or retrieving his remains for immolation. Even if the early tulips come clean there will be tension still, because there is no certainty of being all-clear until the last parrot has uncurled its teeth. You wouldn’t put up with it for anything but love.”