At some point during the sludge of mid-summer, I was stoned and talking to an old friend from England in an Instagram DM, exchanging pleasantries about the rigors and terrors of the pandemic, as well as what we’d been up to. My update was relatively pedestrian, but his was somewhat more riveting. “I’ve been gardening a lot,” he told me. “I planted some chilis in the garden. Also, I’ve been watching Garden Rescue. It’s good.”
Intrigued by the idea of a home renovation reality show that I had not yet seen, I conducted some research and discovered that my British friend (hello, Farry!) was right: BBC’s Garden Rescue is a delightful, relaxing program along the lines of The Great British Bake Off, but with more landscaping and less panic about genoise sponge. It took a bit of searching, but in the United States it’s available on Amazon Prime in a subscription to the streaming channel Inside Outside, the free trial of which was not nearly enough to feed my insatiable need for Garden Rescue. I have watched every episode that is available on Amazon and after a week’s break have accessed new seasons on YouTube. My only hope is that an American television producer does not try to take this concept and bring it to HGTV, as it is a perfect program in part because it is not American. Instead of shouting men and women crowing in glee as a digger drags garbage out of a dilapidated Craftsman cottage, Garden Rescue is quieter, more polite, and rooted in the simple pleasure of pottering around in your very own small patch of paradise.
The premise is simple: Charlie Dimmock, a beloved garden and television personality, and Harry and David Rich, two young landscape designers, compete to create a garden for one of their clients. The clients in question are normal people with big dreams, all with budgets that are relatively reasonable, hovering at or around £7,000 at the high end. The clients pick either Dimmock or the Rich brothers’ design ideas, and the “loser” of the competition has to help execute their competitor’s vision. There is no genuine animosity between the hosts, and they are always cheerful and ready to take on the task at hand even if the vision being executed is not theirs. I can’t think of another show on television in America that is anything like it, but that is the majority of its appeal.
Unlike most reality TV hosts the Rich brothers, Dimmock, and the recent addition of fashion executive turned landscape artist Arit Anderson, are all charismatic and charming without being irritating. Dimmock got her start on a show called Ground Force, which is another garden renovation show that ran on the BBC for years; my British source informed me that Dimmock was a bit of a sex symbol in the ‘90s during that show’s peak, simply because she never wore a bra. Now some years after the fact Dimmock has the air of a friendly aunt who might put a little wine in her coffee cup as she potters around the veg beds. “I can’t see anything happening when it comes to romance; somebody would have to really bowl me over,” she said to the Daily Mail in 2017. “I am quite content without a man in my life.”
Her designs tend towards the pleasantly blowsy and lush, though some of her ideas give me pause in concept. An episode I recently watched saw Dimmock redoing a boring back garden for a widow who wanted a Spanish courtyard feel on a relatively small budget. Dimmock blew out half the budget in plants and then tasked the brothers with building a pergola made of scrap wood that I assumed would be hideous, but was actually quite lovely.
In contrast the Rich brothers prefer contemporary designs that are less quirky and more abstract; they’ve won the prestigious RHS Chelsea Garden Show twice and also run a landscaping company that, according to this informative article from Hello!, has done designs for clients like Chanel. Where Dimmock’s tendency is to go traditional and cottagecore, the Rich brothers are somewhat more subdued. It’s not that they don’t love the drama, but their drama often comes in the form of an enormous statement tree, or four huge boulders plucked from a quarry somewhere in the depths of the British countryside and plopped into a backyard in a suburb in Kent. It’s different strokes for different folks, and although their design styles are so radically different there’s never any sniping between them, even in jest.
Part of the thrill of an American home renovation show is passing judgment on the occasionally-nightmarish decisions made by the “experts” at hand, but nothing about the gardens on Garden Rescue are bad. Even if the space in question is not entirely to my taste, the thought and care that the designers take with their task is evident. After binging the show, I now redesign the medians and small triangles of green space I pass on my walks in my head, ripping up weeds and laying meadow turf where there was once dirt and discarded surgical masks. I do not have a garden and probably won’t for some time, but watching Garden Rescue has led me to believe that if I just went to a garden center, rented a turf cutter and bought $1,000 worth of perennials, I could fix up anyone’s New York City backyard by myself. My landlady has a garden that is well-maintained and lovely, but could use a bit of an update; every morning I gaze upon it from my kitchen window and think of ways to convince her that she needs a pergola, festooned with clematis and star jasmine, back in the corner of the plot that gets the most beautiful evening sun.
Though I’m sure I’d be just as passionate about this show if millennials weren’t abandoning New York for greener properties upstate, there’s something about my ardor that feels especially heightened and it is likely the pandemic’s fault. I have no intentions of moving anywhere and no longer have outdoor space of my own. But just looking at the end results of the Charlie and the Rich brother’s hard graft—bumblebees flitting around beds of lavender and salvia in the buttery sunlight of an English summer—gives me hope for what could be. Indulging in that fantasy and being given the space for it to blossom is why Garden Rescue is a perfect show.
The results are almost always spectacular—both Charlie and the Rich brothers have very different styles, but always manage to fulfill the brief no matter how ambitious or convoluted it might sound at the outset. There is a perverse appeal to watching a team of landscapers tear up perfectly good sod in a retiree’s lovely cottage-style garden in Shropshire to make way for palm trees and Mediterranean planting that looks out of place in the soggy British countryside. But what Garden Rescue sells with conviction is the fact that your fantasy can become a reality if you are willing to try, even if you kill every houseplant that comes your way.