Gardens Illustrated is 30 years old this year.

I have a first copy, dated April/May 1993. It came out every two months from then.

Gardens Ill first copy

That was a real, delightful game changer! I wonder who else remembers that first edition? 

American readers may be pleased to note that they are there in this very first edition:

Gardens Ill 1993

The publishers were definitely after the American market. In the August/September edition there is  also a Letter from America. ( by who? I can’t make it out)

Gardens Ill 1993

You may like to read the Gardens Illustrated’s ‘facts and figures of Gardening in The Nineties’.

Gardens Ill 1993

And here are the magazine contents:

Gardens Ill 1993 contents

It all makes fascinating reading, and it is full of gorgeous photographs (five pages of garden tools, posing in casual splendour looking totally unlike the contents of our toolshed.)

You’ll find an article headed “Think twice before you mow” by Stephen Anderton, which may make you think I am accidentally referring to a current ‘no mow’ edition, but in fact it tells us that thirty years ago garden writers were banging the very same drums.

I loved this magazine. It was just what I needed all that time ago, as I struggled to create the Veddw garden. There were features like the ‘Design Brief’ written just for people like me – the first edition has a piece on ‘the design principles involved in creating a path’, which so usefully took us beyond the simple ‘how to’.

What is most striking to me is the relative absence of garden designers.

This is especially interesting because I predicted to myself that the early editions would celebrate and write for amateur garden makers, and indeed my researches appear to bear this out.

Note the cover: four people mentioned there: Penelope Hobhouse, Anna Pavord, Beth Chatto, Anthony Sampson. (Three women!) Penelope Hobhouse is the only professional designer, and she began as an amateur garden maker, transforming to designer by way of garden making and writing, as indeed did Rosemary Verey, who appears on the cover of the June/July edition.

In these last 30 years I have observed the rise and rise of the garden designer in the UK. Once, the garden stars were those struggling alone with their own patches, encouraged by the wonderful examples of gardens also created by their owners and featured in places like Gardens Illustrated. They would appear, in this and other glossy magazines, describing how they had started with a bramble blighted wilderness and made this photo worthy garden out of it. “When I first saw this little derelict house, I more or less dismissed it as too daunting a task to take on at my age…” Mrs Sean Cooper in The New Englishwoman’s Garden. This has almost all gone from the British garden world. Nowhere demonstrates this better than current editions of Gardens Illustrated. Here are the contents of the current edition:

Gardens Ill 2023

Each one of those “Places” involve garden designers. I thought there was a rogue in St. Timothee garden, principally the creation of Sarah Pajwani, I thought. But no – up pops the design company Acres Wild, as in “Sarah briefed Acres Wild to design”

Design is now featured as ‘the latest projects from around the world’ and you can be sure that no amateur garden makers’ efforts will feature there:

 Gardens Illustrated 2023

And amongst the designers, the professional gardeners also appear – head gardeners like Tom Coward of Gravetye Manor, Matthew Pottage, Wisley’s curator, Helen Watt, RHS Bridgewater horticulturalist, Asa Gregers-Warg, head gardener at Beth Chatto’s. Stephen Anderton (garden maker and writer) has been replaced by ‘Head Gardener Benjamin Pope’.

When I began making a garden I loved the books written by those who wrote about their experiences doing the same thing.

Garden makers creating their own gardens with a spade and probably not much cash. Penelope Hobhouse wrote, in her great book The Country Gardener:  “The approach I advocate was partly dictated by the practical situation in which I was then placed, with a neglected seven acre garden to restore and afterwards manage with very little help.” Seven acres is quite a big bit, but the experience was shared and made sense, as did that of Margery Fish: “I can’t think how I avoided turning an ankle as I had to clutch my skirt with one hand and use the other for the watering can while the stones rocked and tipped under my weight.” Who else gave me friendly, helpful company?  Anne Scott-James, Felicity Bryan, Robin Lane Fox (if not terribly friendly, very helpful), Marian Cran, Sara Maitland, Peter Osborne, Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Peter Thompson, Vita Sackville-West,  and many more: all real gardeners.

I was transportless in rural Wales – I didn’t get to meet anyone at that time doing the same thing as me until one close friend came along. But I did have all these people I admired and who made me feel it was good to take garden making seriously, to aim high, and fail in good company. I don’t think garden designers are in the same ball game – their own gardens inevitably often suffer from time short neglect or grow in the hands of other professionals. Professional gardeners, horticulturalists and their staff are usually dedicated more to maintenance than creation, and their employers tend to call the shots. A truly great and interesting garden for me is one created from personal expression.

Are we no longer capable of designing, planting and caring for our own gardens? Do we all need to call in ‘experts’ who will know how to garden our plots better than we do? 

Do you think we have gained by this change?

Or perhaps it has not yet impinged outside the UK? (I think America features a bit less in Gardens Illustrated these days). Do we want to hear more or less exclusively from professionals? And if we do, what does this mean for the British tradition of the great personal garden?