PBS's `Victory Garden' -- 10 years old and flourishing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In late 1974 when Russell Morash and Jim Crockett were going over plans for Public Broadcasting's ``Victory Garden,'' someone met the late Mr. Crockett in the corridor of WGBH-TV in Boston and said: ``A program on vegetable gardening, huh? Well, that should be good for about seven sessions.'' That was 10 years and something like 270 programs ago, and the end is nowhere in sight. What even the more optimistic forecasters originally saw as only a one- or two-season deal has turned into the longest-running gardening series on network TV -- testimony, in producer Morash's opinion, to the growing interest in gardening among American viewers. ``We're still behind the British -- the BBC's ``Gardener's World'' is more than three decades old -- but we're closing the gap,'' Mr. Morash contends.

Surveys and just plain observation all point to the increasing sophistication of American gardeners. People are willing to spend more now. Gardens are getting smaller (along with the house lots), but the quality of the garden has risen, and so has the variety within it. Landscaping is way up as people show the same concern for dogwoods and camellias as they do for the color and pattern of the living room wallpaper or carpet.

``I like to think,'' says Mr. Morash, ``that we have helped this trend along.'' With more than 200 stations now airing the shows on a regular basis and with viewer response at an all-time high, the show's impact on American gardening is unquestioned.

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Naturally the show has changed over the years. What began as a ``this is how you grow a cabbage'' approach, confined solely to the 75-foot-square Victory Garden alongside the Channel 2 studios, now includes lessons in comparative gardening (a ``let's see how the other fellow does it'' approach) from all corners of the United States and from Holland, France, and Britain as well. What for lack of funds started out as a live-on-tape show, complete with whatever misspoken words came along, has given way to a single-camera technique with its ``stay there until it's right'' option.

In a major move last season, Victory Garden South was incorporated into the show, using a specially constructed ``suburban yard'' at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. It was a hit from the opening show. Encouraged by the response, the show's producers are including a Western edition this year at Newport Beach, Calif. Rogers Garden Center has provided the Western backyard landscape for the filming.

Jim Wilson, who came onto the show to handle the Southern garden, will be joined by Kathleen Brenzel, a senior garden editor for Sunset magazine, for the Western show at Newport Beach. Meanwhile, Bob Thomson, who took over as host of the ``Victory Garden'' from Mr. Crockett six years ago, remains, in Mr. Morash's words, ``the glue that holds it all together.'' He appears on all the shows.

There are still some demonstration (how-to) aspects to each ``Victory Garden'' program, but the show delves much deeper today. It might explain the significance of, say, tissue culture, but more than that it promotes an appreciation of gardening and brings the pleasure of the garden right into the living room. To a number of viewers the ``Victory Garden'' is their garden, perhaps their only garden, whether it is the plot alongside the WGBH studios in Boston, at Callaway Gardens, in a Portland, Ore., backyard, or one of the near-perfect community gardens in the Dutch town of Volendam.

Visiting other private gardens elsewhere in this country or overseas allows viewers to see ``what works for others,'' says producer Morash. ``They are introduced to new gardening ideas, and they are able to see where they are on the gardening scale.''

One of Mr. Morash's aims is to visit some third-world countries in the future. There must be much that the Taiwanese, the Indonesians, and perhaps the Indians have to tell us about intensive gardening, he believes.

It seems almost certain that sometime in the future the ``Victory Garden'' will, indeed, visit these exotic horticultural regions. After all, the show has become one of the more permanent and highly respected features of network TV.

If you wish to know what station broadcasts the ``Victory Garden'' in your area, write to WGBH, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, Mass. 02134.

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