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090-Catching up with Paul James, Superstar of HGTV’s Gardening by the Yard

| Podcast, Resources

Whenever the topic of gardening television shows comes up during conversations on my social media channels and as I travel for speaking engagements or filming for my show, Growing a Greener World®, one name is mentioned often – Paul James.

The legendary host of HGTV’s first garden-related show, Gardening by the Yard, Paul is my guest this week. He’s sharing how he got his start, what led to 13 seasons on HGTV, and what he’s up to these days.

Paul and his wife, Carrie, bought their first home in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1979. Before he had unpacked the moving boxes, Paul began to dig his first vegetable garden. An avid gardener, Paul was so eager to get started that he broke his thumb, wrist, two fingers and an arm while trying to move a borrowed rototiller. Undeterred, Paul came home from his trip to the emergency room and immediately set to work tilling his garden space.

That was in the days before we, in the garden industry, learned that tilling does more harm than good, and this year, Paul has already set to work planting his 48th vegetable garden. I’m happy to say, there have been no injuries reported – so far.

 

Paul James and Joe Lamp'l

Paul and I have been friends for a number of years. We sometimes find ourselves at the same speaking event and always enjoy an opportunity to catch up.

 

A Star is Born

During those early years of his first gardens, a friend in Paul’s social circle was an anchor at a local television station. She asked if Paul (by now, a master gardener) would be interested in creating short gardening video segments to broadcast on the station. His short morning segment became so popular that he was soon filming noon and evening segments as well.

At about this time, Tulsa was known in the marketing world as the top test city for new American consumer products and services. The area was considered to represent the average demographics of the country at large.

So when Paul read an article in a television trade magazine featuring the launch of a new network – HGTV – he recognized an opportunity. He figured if his hometown loved his show and his hometown represented the nation’s interests, maybe the country would love a little more of what Paul James had to offer.

He contacted what was then a very small HGTV staff and met with them to pitch his idea for a gardening television series. By the time the meeting was over, HGTV had ordered 26 episodes.

Paul found himself with a very good problem on his hands. He had to transform his two-and-a-half-minute, local television garden segments into a series of half hour shows for a national audience. Paul had no crew, no production experience, and very few contacts. Those “minor” details were certainly not going to hold Paul James back.

He set to work, gathered a production team, and the rest is history. Gardening by the Yard was born.

It was the first HGTV garden show, and it was a huge hit. Those first 26 episodes led to thirteen years during which Paul shared his offbeat humor, garden expertise and creative skills with audiences across North America and beyond.

Surprisingly, executives of HGTV allowed Paul absolute creative freedom. He was the creator, writer and senior producer and allowed to film the garden like a true gardener.

 

Paul James

Paul James is a master gardener with a passion for teaching others how to grow their own food. (photo: Courtesy Paul James)

 

Oftentimes – as with scripts for other television series – a garden show script is written months in advance. Well, Mother Nature always has her own plans for our landscape, so the advance planning common to the television industry can really hamper the ability to capture some important learning moments.

Fortunately, Paul was given free rein to craft scripts in real-time. Rather than writing months in advance, Paul could hone in on what was happening, in the moment, in the garden and would sometimes write his scripts the night before filming. If rain was in the forecast, he had the freedom to draft a script focusing on indoor plants – rather than delaying production or fighting bad weather.

That said, Paul and his crew were no strangers to some tough situations. For the first several years, all episodes were filmed in Paul’s two acre “backyard” in Tulsa. Anyone who has gardened in Oklahoma can attest to the difficult conditions there. The Gardening by the Yard crew found themselves filming in temperatures ranging from 8 degrees F to 104 degrees F. Not to mention the wind. Oklahoma sometimes feels as if it will be blown right off the map.

Mid-way through Paul’s 13-season run, he began to incorporate travels to other gardens, mainly in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Why the West Coast? Weather in those areas can certainly be more accommodating than other parts of the country for filming, but Paul admits that he happens to love the fine dining and wine lists there too. (Be sure to listen in to our conversation as Paul shares a funny story about another type of drink he enjoyed while filming during a particularly cold Tulsa day.)

 

Paul James

Audiences have always loved Paul’s offbeat sense of humor. (photo: Courtesy Paul James)

 

An Ever-Changing Landscape

As they say, the only thing constant is change. That was true for Paul’s television experiences too. Early on in the series, less than a month would pass between the time a show was filmed until it was ready to air. As the years passed and logistics shifted, it would often take up to a year from filming until completed production on a show.

The mindset at HGTV changed too. During his seventh year, the network began hiring many new young executives who knew nothing about gardening. They began to push for control over Paul’s scripts, but Paul pushed back. His show was so popular at the time, that ultimately, he was able to win over the executives and maintain his creative independence. Then, things changed again.

Paul was in the midst of negotiating a new contract and planning season 14 when HGTV canceled the show unexpectedly. Once again, the network had experienced another changing of the guard to a mindset that Paul found puzzling. Executives had begun to request that Paul attract more male audiences and younger audiences to the show. For Paul, gardening is gardening, and he wasn’t sure how to accommodate those requests. He was teaching what he knew, and network audiences were loving it.

Well, audience popularity isn’t the only consideration for television and, in gardening, demographics and advertising dollars won out. Gardening by the Yard was canceled. Still, Paul feels nothing but appreciation for his experiences with HGTV. Thirteen years is a great run for any television series, and Paul loved every minute of it.

He loved television so much that he wanted to continue with a different series. He wrote a “treatment” – a premise – for a new show which would explore the origins of the food we eat. It was to be part travel and part gardening. Visiting the far corners of our planet to understand where our common crops come from and how they evolved.

He pitched the idea to the Discovery Channel, and it got their attention. A representative at Discovery told Paul the treatment was the smartest he had read in years. However – the network was passing on the show. Why? They were only interested if Paul could provide a show more like Amazing Race.

That was the moment Paul realized that he and network television had different goals in mind, and it was time to shift his priorities to something else.

He developed a website and became active in social media for a time, but he soon found those experiences to be counter-productive. He was receiving hundreds of gardening-related questions from fans every day. Like me, Paul loves to teach and share knowledge. However, with only so much time in the day, Paul was only able to respond to a fraction of the questions coming in. And I can certainly relate to that too!

Oftentimes when he wasn’t able to respond to a specific question, he would hear criticism from those who had contacted him. He was a hero when he was able to reply, but he was the villain when time and sheer volume prevented him from responding to everyone. When you love to teach, that’s a tough pill to swallow, and I struggle with those challenges every day myself.

For both of us, the greatest joy of producing a gardening television show is engaging with the fans. Hearing that our shows have helped people in their gardens, that what we create helps the experiences of others – this is the fuel that feeds our drive to keep creating content.

In the end, Paul decided it was better to shutter his website and social media channels. He felt he was causing more disappointment than benefit when he wasn’t able to keep up with the demand for answers to all his fans’ garden questions.

If Paul had the opportunity to create a new show today, he says he wouldn’t change a thing from his Gardening by the Yard days. The thing is, Paul isn’t looking for that opportunity. He feels that he has said enough, and that it’s up to me and others in the gardening media industry to keep the horticultural information flowing.

These days, Paul is focusing on family, a little traveling, his own garden, and getting in a bit of reading. His favorite reading material? Ancient history, of course. Paul not only loves to teach, he loves to learn.

A few years ago, Paul realized that he didn’t feel like he was gardening on his two-acre property so much as keeping up with maintenance. So, he and his wife opted to downsize and move to a home on a quarter of an acre. He’s enjoying his garden more than ever now, and we shared stories of our passion for compost and shredded leaves.

Vegetables are Paul’s first love in gardening, and on his smaller property, he has the luxury of focusing more of his efforts on those edible plants. He balances that out with a collection of unusual deciduous and evergreen conifer species too, and he sharpens his pruning skill on his 40 bonsai plants.

Never let it be said that Paul James doesn’t keep himself occupied and engaged with the world around him. In whatever spare time he has left, he also helps the local nursery business of a friend and travels to a number of public speaking engagements.

 

Paul James

Congratulations to Paul and wife, Carrie, who just celebrated their 40th Anniversary. (photo: Courtesy Paul James)

 

If you miss Paul’s voice in the gardening media world – as so many do – take heart. We may not be able to watch him on our television screens, but there’s an important way we can honor his contributions and show our appreciation for all he has done.

Like me, Paul continues to feel disheartened that so many gardeners still use chemicals to maintain their lawn and garden. Despite his many years conveying that these chemicals are unnecessary and are often detrimental, Paul feels like the chemical industry is winning. Advertising campaigns still have many weekend warriors and garden professionals reaching for chemical products.

I’m happy to say that I feel that tide is turning. I’m hearing from more and more gardeners who understand that the organic approach provides benefits which ripple across plant health, easier maintenance, and beyond to benefit our wildlife and the ecosystems which surround us.

There is much more dialogue to be had on these issues, but it was Paul James whose voice helped to set this tone long ago. Anytime you opt for an organic method in your garden or share with other gardeners the value of avoiding chemicals, you are paying homage to the magic that is Paul James and that he shared with us through Gardening by the Yard.

Do you have a favorite episode memory? I encourage you to share it in the Comments section below.

If you haven’t already listened in to my conversation with this entertaining and engaging garden legend, be sure to scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. Paul is a one-of-a-kind, so you won’t want to miss this one.

Links & Resources

Episode 057: What Happened to the G in HGTV?

joegardener Blog: No-Till Gardening: If You Love Your Soil, Ditch the Tiller

joegardener Blog: How to Use Fall Leaves in the Garden – and Why You Should

joegardener Blog: Backyard Composting: A Simple Recipe for Making Great Compost

Beginning Gardener Fundamentals – Online course details

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About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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