This post originally appeared on GardenRant.
So, it’s come to this.
As a nation, we are so starved for American garden programming that we are willing to accept that a woman worth over $620 million dollars, stuck for 82 days on her 153-acre estate in Bedford, NY; with her gardener, one of her housekeepers, and one of her drivers; and joined as needed by groundskeepers and their foreman, is going to fill that need and leave us hungry for another season of down-to-earth gardening advice.
So starved, that we are willing to accept HGTV promos that tell us that this immaculately dressed and fully made-up celebrity, sans sweat, sans grimy hands, and sans, apparently, a production assistant to create some small illusion of same, is relatable; and “puts the G back in HGTV.”
So starved, that we are willing to overlook her frequent – and historical – transposition of the pronouns “I” and “they” when discussing the nitty-gritty of projects undertaken on that 153-acre estate.
Six episodes worth of gilded crumbs. And I’m afraid this gardener has lost her appetite.
It’s not about the money…
Perhaps the best way to launch into my review [and accompanying visual aids] of the first season of HGTV’s Martha Knows Best, (which I watched in its entirety after Susan Harris’ recent review on GardenRant) is to make it perfectly clear that I have no problem with the [legal] accumulation of wealth.
I have no problem, as it were, with the wealthy.
You earned it. You spend it. Martha Stewart is not just an extraordinary business woman, but a talented creative with an expert eye sharpened over many years.
She also has the genius to recognize, nurture, and promote that spark in other creatives.
If she insists that the 1000+ containers on her property be of the same color family (stone, concrete or marble), and never wishes to see an artistic vegetable in a flower arrangement, and lines utilitarian pathways to peacock enclosures with cut blocks of granite, who am I to criticize her from enjoying the whims that whacking great wads of cash can indulge?
If I lived across the street as one of her “very many fancy neighbors” I would raise a glass to her abilities at the neighborhood block party, and conscientiously ask her advice when it came to pairing champagne and stemware for a well-lubricated celebrity crowd of twenty on a Saturday night.
I might even ask which echeveria to use in the tablescape.
Wickedly, I’d also try to tempt her hardworking gardener, Ryan McCallister, to cross the street and become my personal gardener. My current gardener, Cutout Andy (though versatile and well-traveled), doesn’t have the same twinkle in his eye.
All this to say, I respect what she has achieved and have no desire to set up a mini-guillotine in the exquisitely designed cobblestone courtyard of her horse stables. I won’t even debate aspects of her gardening advice. Susan Harris did that already.
I also respect the fact that she is a 79-year-old woman who is a damn sight more active than your average 79-year-old American.
Let Them Eat Cake
What I don’t respect however, is this laughable attempt to appear ‘relatable’ as someone who is just like me, or like 99% of the gardening public.
I don’t respect the producers of this show having so little awareness of the current suffering going on throughout the country that they felt that a conspicuous display of fabulous wealth could feed the public’s very real (and in many cases, economic) need for gardening advice.
At a certain point it goes from being laughable, to being downright offensive. From the intro:
“I’ve lived on this farm for about 17 years. And like you I’m spending more time at home than ever before. So I’m going to take you behind the scenes as I do my gardening projects. I’m going to help my celebrity friends. And surprise new gardeners.”
It must be horrific to spend 82 days on 153 acres. With a modified staff.
What about 82 days on a tenth of an acre (like my last house)? What about 82 days in an apartment with a philodendron?
Uhhh….there’s a pandemic going on?
We have been six months at this pandemic. After years in cramped quarters, I now live on ten beautiful acres in a four- bedroom house. And I’m ready to bury my husband’s work-from-home body in a remote corner of the property at this point. It might even be classified as a COVID death.
And no doubt my husband feels the same way.
And yet, every evening of this mess, when I watch the news and see cities in such turmoil, I think of my 10×12′ apartment in New York, when I was 100% dependent on food service jobs and student loans to make my bills.
Each and every morning when I walk through the garden I think of our little upstairs flat in Southeast London when my son was a toddler, and how desperate I was for more than a window box and a few pots by the door.
And each morning I am deeply grateful for the space around me, and painfully aware that others are struggling in this pandemic under terrible conditions with no end in sight.
No awareness from Hollywood apparently. Or from Bedford.
“When the pandemic started and quarantine became de rigueur,” says Stewart, “I invited Ryan, my gardener, I invited Carlos, one of my drivers, and one of my housekeepers Elvira, to stay with me during this time.”
Quarantine. De rigueur. Alrighty then. So is a floor length gown at a debutante ball Martha. But okay, we’ll just go with it.
Lost in Translation
And if you didn’t study French in high school and are currently running to Google Translate – keep the tab open. To Martha, soil that is ready for planting does not resemble a palm full of pastry dough, but pâte brisée.
It’s actually an excellent analogy that falls short in its delivery. As does dropping mise en place to describe setting gardening tools in place for a project.
While you’re at it, you might want to check out Île de la Cité, where Martha gets “all her seeds.”
No Chanel or Dior for this everyday gardener when she arrives in Paris, she tells us, but straight to those lovely little seed markets.
I didn’t want to bring Marie and her cake into this, but damn.
I remark upon these Gallicisms as someone with five years of French under her belt, a fair amount of experience in the kitchen and garden, and an unfortunate history of dropping sans into conversation, but a young, beginning American gardener doesn’t know her pâte brisée from her pot of ease-ay.
99.9% of low or middle-income gardeners are not jetting to Paris for their seeds and will probably see what’s available at local garden centers before they consider even splurging on shipping fees for online sources, no matter how wonderful they are.
I know I did.
And here. Here is the issue. Pretending that this is a gardening show instead of a celebrity reality show.
Just Ask Martha
A few moments of FaceTiming Mitch in Lemoore, California about soil preparation for his carrots; or telling Maggie in Mississippi that she needs “ferns” for the north side of her shady house; or letting Karlin from Florida in on the not-so-little secret that she needs a coop for her ducks to keep them safe from predators; does not constitute ‘hanging with the little people.’
Especially after each performs the requisite sycophantic prelude before speaking to “the Gardening Queen Herself”
Maggie: “I almost started crying but I did keep it together.”
And then there are the celebrity cameos. Hailey Bieber needing dog grooming tips. Jay Leno showing us the kitchen in his garage and asking what a pomegranate is. Zac Posen telling Martha he’s been gardening since March in Bridgehampton.
“Well. It’s SOOO easy to garden in the Hamptons” she laughs.
I’ll just leave that right where it fell.
I made my life-long gardening mother watch two episodes with me. When Martha begged Snoop Dogg to join her in Maine on her 63-acre estate, Skylands, for her next party post-COVID, Mom turned to me with a puzzled look on her face. “It’s like digging your heel into somebody’s face.” She said quietly. “I’d be embarrassed to say that.”
Even if I gave millions of dollars to charities each year – as no doubt Martha does – I would too.
To his credit, a tee-shirted Richard Gere sat cross-legged and underneath a tree in his father’s average suburban garden where he grew up – even if they spent the entire time discussing the shade beds at his exclusive Relais & Châteaux establishment, The Bedford Post Inn. He almost seemed a little embarrassed.
Perhaps we have his friendship with the Dalai Lama to thank for that.
She knows her stuff. But she’s forgotten her audience.
Martha’s smart. She’s exceptionally talented. She built an empire.
But she is not the person to put the G back in HGTV.
Those are people like Joe Lamp’l on Growing a Greener World, or Nan Sterman in A Growing Passion, or or down-to-earth influencers like Erin Schanen (www.theimpatientgardener.com) or Doug Oster (www.dougoster.com), or Ron Finley (www.ronfinley.com) who show you the trials, tribulations and glorious successes without the catchy music and celebrity friends.
For advanced gardeners who have yet to watch ‘Martha Knows Best,’ do. I’d like to know what you think.
But if you’re a brand-new gardener – look to the shows, feeds and podcasts of those who garden with the resources and in the region that you do. I guarantee you there are hundreds on YouTube.
Or, depart these shores altogether and take advantage of UK programming that still respects its population enough to provide polished and professional gardening programs to inspire everyday gardeners, such as Charlie Dimmock’s new endeavor, Garden Rescue, classic episodes of Ground Force, or Monty Don and others truly getting their hands dirty in BBC Gardener’s World. (Please leave your suggestions in the comments for excellent gardening programming in other parts of the world.)
Martha Knows Best is not a gardening show. It’s a celebrity reality show that takes place outside. And in the middle of a pandemic, when millions are out of work, businesses are shuttered, and large segments of the population are watching their future dreams for even a modest home and garden sabotaged by something completely out of their control, we deserve better.
Let’s hope HGTV digs a little deeper and finds it.
Amen. It is very sad that aside from the few American resources you mentioned such as Growing a Greener World, we are forced to rely on the Brits to provide extensive, practical, quality gardening programming. I should not complain, as my wife and I wait eagerly for Friday night and Gardner’s World with Monty Don to arrive each week.
Is it really more entertaining to watch a couple of inexperienced homeowners bumble their way through a home renovation? Sadly, I suppose there is more money in home remodeling material and tools than in gardening and we gardeners tend to be much more likely to be the frugal penny pinchers that show sponsors are trying to avoid.
Well said! Enjoyed every word and agree 100%.
You’re right! Me too. I enjoyed every word here.
Thank you for saying what has needed saying for ever so long. I gave up on HGTV years ago as their programming seems to cater to folks who demand instant results without the work of actually learning about the realities of soil preparation, climate zones, etc. Worst of all, the shows do not inspire the joy of gardening and love of nature that make watching Monty Don, Adam Frost, Frances Tophill, Arit Anderson and so many other presenters on Gardeners World a balm to my soul in these sad times. Thank you, too, for your blog which is always instructive, beautifully written, and sure to make me smile!
Thanks for helping me laugh through my tears! xo
I adore and admire Martha Stewart. Her website is one of my go-to’s for recipe ideas or recommendations for all things household. I’m a relatively new gardener, who up until Covid only planted a few natives around the landscape. For the first time this year, like many of us, I planted a vegetable garden. And Joe Gardener and his Facebook group was along with me every step of the way. Was so excited to see Martha was touting her new show that when it came out, I forked out money to buy it in Amazon. I was truly disappointed by it and uncomfortable for her and Andy and her guests, while watching it. There was no weight- just fluff. No substance. I can learn more from a look at the Joe Gardener website and one Joe Gardener video.
This was wonderful! Thank you for the fantastic picture of the vegetable bouquet! I plan to share it with my gardening friends. Thank you for the list of garden resources, and the laughs at your turn of phrases.
I now realize the connection when I was a child growing up in the projects I never cared about someone’s big house or fancy cars I cared about the guy I was dating mothers plants that is what impressed me and there’s a back story behind that so I definitely understand the need and desire to grow and the inability to do so because of the space and environment wow I’m glad Betsy sent this to me makes me love you even more
Yes, her gardening show was horrid. And her last “talk” show was horrid, what with it’s third-rate “celebrities” and all. Martha’s talent is teaching, like she did in her early shows and magazine. I feel sorry for her that she’s so addicted to fame, she teams up with a creature like Snoop. Um, no thanks. I gave up on HGTV a long time ago. I now watch the English and Irish gardening shows and Youtube. There’s actually decent garden advice to be had, and often for small gardens.
When Martha first had a TV show wayyyyy back when, I used to get up before my young children (what was I thinking I could have slept in!) on a Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and devoured every minute of it. As time went on she became less connected to the average person and shows like “How to pick the right handbag” didn’t resonate with me. I missed the simplicity of her first cooking and gardening shows. I always got a kick out of the “I” and “they” wordage as well and am glad to hear other people get a chuckle out of it too. Excellent article and spot on!
I completely agree with you. I tried three times to watch the first show, despite the name. I never made it longer than fifteen minutes. It was stupid, condescending, and inaccurate.
I knew the show was lightweight and boastfull but until I read your blog, I didnt realize how inappropriate it is in view of all the suffering going on in our society. Just saw her copper collection in her storage room. Simply over the top and pretentious, to say the very least.
I have tuned in, hoping to learn something helpful. read above. I think I have.
I developed my love for gardening in the ‘70s by watching the great Jim Crockett, a real horticulturalist, on WGBH/PBS Crockett’s Victory Garden as he worked a small plot of land behind their studio in Boston. You can catch the original episodes still on YouTube.
Thanks for posting such an awesome article. I loved the way you perfectly articulated the point of “Martha Knows Best” not being a good thing. It was really insightful and well written! I’m glad to see someone with some insight in this space. It was something that I’ve been thinking about lately too.
Thanks for the article on Martha Knows Best. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve found it frustrating and depressing.
You’re not alone in your frustrations with this show. We all deserve better content during these difficult times and we should be able to enjoy TV without feeling like we’re getting an inferior product.
Thanks for the post on Martha Stewart – I found it really interesting!
I’m a big fan of Martha Stewart and I think her new show is fantastic. It’s great to see her sharing her wisdom with the next generation of home-makers. Thanks for writing the post, I enjoyed reading it. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for the post on Martha. I have to say that I completely agree with you – her show is not great, and it’s not even a good thing.
I completely understand this notion that Martha has lost her core audience, but as a rather geeking gardener myself, and an author of a few gardening books, I have a slightly different take on her position now. We should all know that Martha Stewart, the brand and name is no longer owned by Martha herself. The 1990’s Martha that we all fell in love with is still within the human Martha, but the brand has moved on long ago. That’s why it feels different to us. Martha just grew big, for good (and maybe bad) reasons. Her old TV show was authentic Martha, as was the first 12 years of her magazine. She hired the most talented in every field, from graphic design to cooking and crafts. Some have stayed with the brand, others have moved on, but trust me – those who know her generally still respect her. Martha Stewart, the name, all ventures and entertainment (as well as Emeril Bagasse are now owned by a mega 2.5 billion dollar intellectual property group, Marquee Brands (just Google it). They basically tell her what to do and where to go. This means that if they want a TV show pitched or a restaurant in Las Vegas, she has to go along with the idea – and honestly, they’re not bad ideas. Sure, we could all say does she need that more money, but that’s honestly her decision – I frankly think that she still loves what she does, but I imagine that it’s exhausting. I’ve only met her a few times, but it’s usually at a rare plant auction in western CT when I know that I have to get there early or her and Ryan will get all of the rare podophyllum. She really knows her plants extraordinarily well. I’ve also bumped into her twice at Logee’s greenhouses in rural CT buying rare begonias. Her collection is amazing, and she truly appreciates them. I know Dan Hinkley and her are close friends (she went to his wedding) and perhaps no one knows more about plants than Dan and his Heronswood Nursery. This is still the old Martha we once knew, and that’s still there if you meet her, I’m certain, but fame and fortune does factor in. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I had a brand, but like so many of these things, sometimes they Jump the Shark and get too big – maybe that’s what we all are feeling, but trust me – the Mass Market probably doesn’t. At least those who can afford to dine at the Bedford in Vegas, or those who watch HGTV. At this phase, the brand is simply just that – a lifestyle brand. And surely, Marquee Brands LLC and their executives are not going to support Martha talking about rhizomatous begonias like she used to be able to do, and they’re right, as probably only 2.5% of their customers would want to see that (that’s us, I know). I will agree that if I had as much money as she did, I probably would just cash out and build more greenhouses and barns for my horses, but I imagine that the excitement and joy as well as the ego-boost she gets from hanging with Snoop and flying around is just as fun – who could blame her? Why give that all up if you enjoy it? In many ways, she is trapped in her role within society, not unlike the late queen – but both of them still have their beloved dogs to come home to.
Matt – Thank you for offering such a nuanced opinion on the reasons behind this series, and Martha’s role in it, which set me thinking about it again. I have always admired Martha’s great talent for creating high art in the garden and in the home, and her savvy as a business woman; and I hope that I at least made that clear in my article.
Your testament to her great plant knowledge and joy in rare wonders was extremely tender and I thank you for reminding me of it. Though I do not know her personally, I have gleaned enough over the years to recognize that her love of horticulture is authentic. And you are right – the larger media forces necessary for promoting a message to greater audiences will most often warp the focus and authenticity of the creator.
I do not know what her motivation was for doing this series – but if it was to remain relevant in the eyes of those who admired her, I believe she miscalculated. I am left with a slightly tarnished image of a woman whose extreme wealth has left her completely unaware. That was very much on display in this series. As I said in the article, I do not have any problem with her acquisition of that wealth, as she has great talent, intelligence, ambition, and grace, and has put that to work to create beauty in the lives of millions of people – not to mention the creatives she has inspired to build upon that message.
What I protest is that unawareness – the grace is thus lost. I also agree that she might have had very little say in what the producers of this show and owners of her brand wanted to create here; but at the end of the day she could have said no. Instead she chose to do it.
Perhaps I might not have had such a strong reaction to the series if there wasn’t such a dearth of excellent gardening programs on television – or if it was billed as a behind-the-scenes look at a celebrity figure, instead of as a gardening program. It is a disgrace that in a county this big, with so many incredibly diverse regions, we should have to import much of our best gardening content from overseas, or scour YouTube for a kindred soul (who’s technically savvy). But that is a topic for another time, eh?
Again Matt, thank you so much for offering your very thoughtful opinion to my readers – I very much appreciate your beautifully measured response, and the fact that you made me revisit the discussion. – MW