Can a garden be perfect?

By Jill Severn

A friend recommended a British (BBC) gardening TV show called Your Garden Made Perfect. I’m skeptical but curious about the possibility of garden perfection, so I tuned in.

This pseudo-reality show mimics the slow paced and friendly competitive elements of the Great British Baking Show, but also includes an occasional pinch of Real Housewives wickedness.

Two garden designers politely compete in each episode to win a paying customer. But the Real Housewives’ stinginess creeps in, for example, in a scene involving a retired couple, the wife turns to her husband and barks, “Sit up straight; You see They see short.“He obeys; she says, “this is better.”

However, since it’s a British show, that’s about as testy as conflicts between couples can arise. We must imagine what anger may be lurking beneath the surface.

The two garden designers begin by asking clients to set a budget, which appears to range from £25,000 to £60,000. (One British pound is now around $0.85.)

The competing designers will show their proposals to the couples and the audience on virtual reality headsets. The show makes the most of this technology, vividly depicting all the flowers in full bloom and all the trees and shrubs in their full mature glory.

The retired couple had a large, deep backyard that had served as a children’s playground. It had a large expanse of unkempt lawn, a badminton or volleyball net, and not much else. When the children were grown and gone, the husband said it was the wife’s turn to design the garden as she wished. His only request was to keep his two sheds at the very back of the yard where he liked to work on bikes. His wife thought the scales were an eyesore.

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By the end of the show, the yard was actually remodeled, and the sheds remained, but were mostly invisible.

This was a typical plot of the first two-thirds of each episode.

However, a shorter, secondary portion of the show will cater to lower budget clients and smaller shipyards. There is no competition; The low-budget folks don’t have a choice of designers. Thankfully, however, the designer for this feature is an older, more humble, and endearing dude, free from the outlandish ambitions of his younger peers.

There’s a lot we can learn from this show, although it’s not necessarily what it’s supposed to teach us. For example, I learned that the English call every backyard a “garden” even if nothing grows there.

A house whose owners had quoted a budget of £30,000 had a ‘garden’ consisting of a cobbled courtyard with a deep, derelict and empty swimming pool. They could have removed the pool and had the hole filled for their entire budget. Then they would have had an empty sheet of earth and could have planted what we would call a normal garden: they could have grown tomatoes, trees, shrubs and flowers. Instead, they settled on a sunken garden with steps down into the empty pool, which is now filled with giant rocks, potted palms, and ferns. This has been billed as a Mediterranean trait. The lesson here is. . . Some designers are crazy, and so are their clients.

Another lesson – and this strikes me as odd – is the meaning of “hardscape” – landscape architect’s jargon for hard surfaces such as paved paths and terraces, retaining walls, rocks and pergolas.

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One of the designers suggests that a garden should be 40 percent soft (ie real plants) and 60 percent hard. In the six episodes I watched, most of the money and design work was focused on hardscape.

This focus seemed to be shared by all designers, although they promote biodiversity in the garden, including water features to attract newts and frogs, and plants that attract birds, bees and other insects.

But the focus on hardscape leaves just as little time to talk about plants as it does about housewives on Real Housewives.

There is also little discussion of what maintenance these designs will require or how they will change over time. Perhaps this discussion is taking place off-camera. I hope so, because the show opens with the host’s cheerful remark that while we all know how to manage our homes, “we don’t know” when it comes to our gardens. whoops

I envision this frail husband—the one who was instructed to sit up—will spend his retirement repairing decks, trimming trees, and managing a complex water feature consisting of a creek, pools, and lots of plumbing consists. As he gets older, I worry that he’ll have to climb from rock to rock to cross that creek to get to his bike repair shed.

I hope that a future season of this show will revisit the redesigned gardens in about five years. This could teach us many more important lessons about perfect gardens.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversations among gardeners. Start one by sending them an email at [email protected]

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Caption: Garden paths don’t have to be paved; A bark-filled shallow trench is softer, less expensive, and easier to move or expand.