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Cooking up a storm: Keith Floyd shattered the traditional template of TV food shows. It’s high time someone did the same for gardening. Show caption Cooking up a storm: Keith Floyd shattered the traditional template of TV food shows. It’s high time someone did the same for gardening. Photograph: Victor Watts/Alamy
James Wong on gardens

Food shows had a massive makeover, it’s time the same happened for gardening programmes

Sun 10 Apr 2022 08.15 BST

I have always found the conventions of how gardening is talked about on TV weirdly fascinating. Not only because it is all so different from how I and my friends think about gardening, but also because I wonder if the approach taken, born largely out of a desire to broaden its commercial appeal, paradoxically hampers our ability to reach people. Let’s just imagine, for a minute, what would happen if the presenters of food TV shows talked like those of garden TV…

First you’d have your obligatory “jobs for the week”, which would be a seasonal reminder of all the little chores you had to do around your kitchen, starting off with detailed advice on how to defrost your freezer. Showing the one “proper” way to do this, it would end with a reminder that it had to be repeated at least once every six months. There’d be a lengthy segment on the best way to peel an onion next, followed by tips on how to reorganise your spice rack. Actually, wait, that’s not quite right. They wouldn’t be described as simple tips to make things easier, they would be called “rules”, implying that if you, for whatever reason, didn’t memorise and follow them to the letter, everything would fall apart.

Then would come the recipes, but these wouldn’t be an exploration of ideas and ingredients from cultures all over the world. No, they’d be traditional staples, like cottage pie or parsley sauce, sticking to rigidly established formulas, based on the idea that cooking reached its zenith in Victorian Britain. They’d be long sunlit shots of archaic kitchen tools, presenters wearing period chef’s outfits and quite a lot of “Britain has led the world in cooking” peppered throughout. If you find this analogy getting tenuous, check out how often things like scythes and tweed waistcoats are featured non-ironically in 21st-century gardening media, and how little any gardening innovation after, say, 1950 is featured.

Oh, and before I forget, these recipes would be on a cycle. So every year around the same time, the same collection of dishes would feature in loose rotation. Because after all, you can’t assume viewers would have learned anything from previous episodes and might want to explore a new slant. To make things accessible to beginners, they’d have to treat everyone like perpetual newbies. Every year at Easter there would be wall-to-wall egg recipes. But not Heston making some kind of liquid nitrogen creation or Ken Hom looking at century eggs in China. All presenters would make virtually identical segments on how to boil one. Every year. For ever.

If you are a young person, this might sound ridiculous. But those of us of a certain age will remember that, back in the 1980s, prior to trailblazers like Keith Floyd who shattered this rigid, traditionalist, instruction-manual mould, food shows were quite like this. A list of pre-measured ingredients would scroll up the screen, showing you how to make stuff like (I kid you not) cheese on toast over a painfully drawn out 15 minutes. They weren’t even called “food” shows either, but “cookery” shows, reflecting the focus exclusively on the process, not the enjoyment of it. Thank goodness that all changed in food TV-land, opening the joy of cooking (and eating) to people it never could reach before. Hopefully one day it’ll be garden telly’s turn.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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