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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
Beginning Gardener Fundamentals – Registration wait list: Sign up to be notified about the next class!
Milorganite® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
25 Responses to “090-Catching up with Paul James, Superstar of HGTV’s Gardening by the Yard”
Joe, I can’t tell you how much joy this brought to me. There was not one episode of Paul’s show that my husband and I ever missed. We learned so much over the season’s, and we felt like we were in one of our friend’s backyard garden when we were watching. Paul welcomed us all in to his gardening adventures, and we thoroughly enjoyed every moment. Not only did we love his knowledge, but that witty sense of humor would leave us laughing during every show. I particularly remember one show, where he showed a new plant that he had put in…he called it a “fothergilla”. I so loved the plant, and especially that name, so I went out and searched one down. It still resides in my garden…Paul, thank you for all of the years of enjoyment of your show and your charm. Truly you are missed…enjoy your retirement and we wish you and your wife all the best…Warmest Regards from Upstate NY
Wonderful story and memories Yvonne! Thank you for sharing this. I’ll make sure Paul sees this.
I’m so excited that you did this podcast/interview with Paul James…it feels like catching up with an old friend! We loved watching Gardening by the Yard. I’m sure I wouldn’t be as confident with gardening now if it weren’t for his show. Now, how can we convince him to create a “Food Origins” YouTube Channel?! Maybe a reboot of Gardening By the Yard, too? 🙂
Absolutely loved Paul James, and not just because of his Corgi! I think I watched every episode he had twice…. that sounds a little stalkerish!! LOL So glad you could include him here and I look forward to seeing what he’s up to now. Thanks Paul James for getting me so interested in gardening way back when and thanks Joe Lamp’l for continuing on!
Thank you Susan for your thoughts. Glad to bring this fun conversation to so many of his admirers. He really did blaze a fun new path into the world of gardening TV. Even with a 13 year run, it ended too soon. Just goes to show you, the TV execs got this one (and others) wrong for sure!
Thanks Jessica. Yes, I intended to do a show with him a long time ago and so glad we finally made that happen. Glad you enjoyed it.
I still have video’s of Paul’s TV shows. Thank you Joe for taking the time to allow us to rekindle memories with masters from past garden shows. I also have some video’s of your old TV show’s Joe. Review them frequently. Have the best day ever.
James from Florida.
HDTV used to have a handful of gardening shows and I really miss them . I continually search for gardening shows but all they have is house remodel shows which I enjoy, I would watch the garden shows especially in the wintertime . I finally resorted to Netflix and there’s two shows on there but they’re basically remodeling people’s backyards but it still enjoyable to watch a yard being created into something beautiful.
Joe,I was a fan of Garden by the Yard. My wife would watch for it on the TV schedule and call me in from the yard to take a break and watch when it came on. I really missed it when it ended. When I had a mustache I could have been Paul’s doppelganger. I never wrote to you or emailed you Paul, thank you for that wonderful, informative and fun gardening program. I miss it way more than I miss Seinfeld.
Hey Paul, I loved the show and all the fun you brought to it. I remember your odd hair days too. Thanks for all the infor and fun. And Joe I like Growing a greener world too.
Kay from Colorado
Me too Forrest! Thanks as always for chiming in.
You’re welcome James. It was fun for me too!
FINALLY! You told us how you shred your leaves! I’ve been wondering and forgetting to ask. I live in a hardwood backwoods In East AR. Leaves I got…(and skeeters).
Just finished the delightful “Paul James” episode on Growing a Greener World. So nice to hear from him again. He and James Crockett – Victory Garden, were my favorite TV watching for many years. I loved his approach, humor, information and inspiration. He always made me feel like I could have fun in the garden. Thanks from aa old white haired gal. Ps saving the pod cast for mowing today. Pat K New Berlin, IL
Oh my gosh, I was such a huge Paul James/Gardening By The Yard fan for it’s entire 13 year run! I looked forward to Saturday mornings just so I could watch the show and be entertained by Paul’s offbeat humor. HGTV definitely took a turn for the worse when it cancelled Paul’s show and several other favorites. I still followed Paul’s website, and was so sad when he shut it down, obviously with much sadness. It’s nice to find videos of him online, just to watch for old time’s sake.
Glad you liked it Pat. Thanks for letting me know. Keep your eyes open for a possible second new episode I may be doing with Paul for next season. He’s got some good ideas for future content!
I’ve been BINGE watching Paul Jame’s The Gardening Guy reruns on discovery+. I started with newest season #19 & worked my way back. I’m a Master Gardener & live in AK where I have several feet of snow on the ground 6+ months of the year plus the last year we’ve been in the middle of the Covid pandemic! His advice/shows are as current NOW as when they were filmed! I’m also watching Joe’s gardening show! Can’t garden right now but I can learn new things for the months when I can!
I used to watch his show forever ago, and rediscovered it on Discovery+. In the very first season, I was disappointed to hear him disparaging people who promoted native plants. He said imported plants did just as well, maybe better, than natives, completely missing the point. As a cherry on top, he added, “So if those people try to tell you natives are better, ask them where THEY came from!” UghThen, there’s the lawn episode. “Some people say we should plant wildflowers, but can you play ball in a field of wildflowers?” His yard is maybe a full acre of lawn by the look of it as he rides his tractor mower. Feed birds via birdseed you buy, show your children to enjoy gardening via mudpies! I was thinking, a field of wildflowers could do both of those things, and many more.I’m watching him thinking of my next door neighbor, with her two tiny patches of grass on her half acre, who told me about killing flies on her strawberries with a bowl of water and dish soap. Who killed asparagus beetles one at a time, by hand. It was the 1970s and she was organic gardening, so I know it was possible, but here’s Paul, cautioning us to read the labels on all our poisons, plant poison, bug poison, ugh, ugh, ugh.I’m going to keep watching now, just to see if he ever caught on, or went out mocking what we now know is the most responsible gardening practices.
HGTV and Food network went downhill when EVERY show HAD to be a competition. No one could TEACH because some idiot in a suit was looking for cupcake wars. I won’t watch any of that trash. I don’t watch gardening shows to see who wins. I pay for access to British gardening and cooking shows now via Amazon. They reward the UKs top amateur baker with a cake stand. Cupcake wars doles out $10,000 per episode and I can’t change the channel fast enough. I think I’m going to block those channels now that I think of it, just so I never have to see it as I past through the living room.
Holy smokes. He just told viewers that draining gasoline from a lawn mower was too much trouble, “If I were you, I’d just fire up the machine and let it run until the gas runs out! ….and there you have it!”Wow. I mean, just wow.
i think over the years, Paul’s thinking and practices have changed a lot as we have learned more about these things. For myself, even over the past 20 years of gardening, I do, or don’t do things now that I used to, because we know more abut the cause and effect. I know Paul is the same way. Those TV moments are a point in time and certainly don’t provide any opportunity to update the message when your show ended over 15 years ago. I know if he were still doing his shows, a lot of what he said then would be different now. Your examples are good cases in point to that, Maria. Thanks for your comments.
Can you do another interview with him? For years, my mom and I would get our morning coffee and sit on the couch to catch his weekend show. We love, love, loved his show – so much fun. What a shame that someone at HGTV failed to see the big picture and nixed his show. It was so wonderful and he was so much fun. The dog, the bare feet, the travels, the humor….loved it. I stopped watching HGTV nearly a decade ago except the really rare attempt. It’s all super commercialized now and has been for some time. Loved Holmes on Homes, and the Canadian guy turning homes into investment properties, too.Thank you for YOUR gardening info, as well! <3
Yes we will, Lisa. In fact we were already set to do our next show when COVID hit. So look for Paul on another episode in 2022. He was even the one who said; “let’s do another!”. Thanks, Lisa.
I miss Paul James terribly and was wondering what he had been up to.. He really took the “G” with him when they canceled his show.. big dummies. I wondered why he wasn’t on social media, too. People being people.. I too am a Horticulturist and understand how perspectives can change as we learn. Please send my love a from another goofy gardener! Looking forward to more Paul James in the future!! ????????????