New host takes old garden show back to its roots

As a young boy growing up in Milwaukee, Michael Weishan was accustomed to watching "The Victory Garden" on PBS, a television show it's safe to say few other children were familiar with.

Today, he is the new host of the venerable program, which has entered its 27th season.

"I was only 9 years old when the show started," Mr. Weishan says with awe in his voice. "I never in a thousand years imagined I was going to have my own gardening show" – much less one that has become an institution on public television.

It's an honor that would make his late grandfather – the man who introduced him to gardening – very proud, he says.

"Gramps" was a career diplomat who was passionate about gardening. He taught his young sidekick the joys of planting and pruning, of cultivating and harvesting.

Weishan was a natural, and by age 13 had laid out his first garden behind Grandpa's garage. He also thinks he was probably the youngest member ever of the American Iris Society.

On this day, at the end of a full morning of taping "The Victory Garden," Weishan (pronounced Y-sahn) repairs to his farmhouse to reflect on his new assignment.

Since the garden used on the show is out his back door, the logistics are easy.

The original Victory Garden was located in a converted parking lot at WGBH, Boston's PBS station.

Later it moved to the yard of longtime producer/director (now retired) Russ Morash in suburban Lexington, Mass.

The new location is on Weishan's more countrified three-acre homestead, called Stoneybrook, in Southborough, Mass.

"You couldn't dream of a better space. It's very unpretentious, very simple, like really being home," says Laurie Donnelly, "The Victory Garden's" current producer/director. She adds: "We didn't want a high-end suburban landscape."

The location fits the show's current effort to get back to its roots of practical, how-to television with a strong focus on one garden – the Victory Garden itself – and not glamourous gardens around the world.

"Part of the idea is to respond to what the viewers have asked for, which is more basic programming – more how-to, less travel, less exotic locations, and more 'how do you do this in your own backyard,' " Weishan says.

This is how "The Victory Garden" began in 1975, when Jim Crockett was the host. Bob Thompson took over from 1979 to 1990; then Roger Swain, who began as a regional contributor, became the regular host, logging 15 years on the show altogether before retiring to assume an emeritus status.

Now that Weishan is the host, the idea is to present him as a personable, down-to-earth teacher and not as the ultimate expert.

He draws inspiration from Thalassa Cruso, the host of "Making Things Grow," another PBS gardening show that Weishan was fond of as a boy. After a day ofdigging and weeding, he and his grandfather would hustle inside to watch the "slightly wacky British woman" who made everything seem so doable.

"As you watched," he recalls, "there was never any sense of, 'I could never do that.' In fact, you felt, 'If she can do it, I certainly can.' She was funny, informed, and creative, and made the show entertaining to watch. If I have a model for the current 'Victory Garden,' that would be it."

Weishan, who's quick with a hearty laugh, wants to steer clear of making the show too fussy and precise.

If he makes mistakes, they won't necessarily be cut. In the new season's May 4 opening show, for example, he admits to an error in planting a bed of irises too close to the road, where they're subject to strong air turbulence.

Weishan says taping the show in his own garden, where he's done the planning and much of the work, will send a message about the value of digging in and sticking with the work.

He thinks that shows that hopscotch around to too many different locations can send the wrong signals to viewers.

"What does that tell you about the long-term needs of plants? What does it tell you about working with the soil or knowing the space, all those things average homeowners actually have to do to get a garden to grow?" he asks. "Those are things we can address here, because I am here."

The tricky part is to engage both novices and enthusiasts, a task he considers possible with good planning. If he's taping a segment on potting basics, for example,he may select a rare, new plant variety to hold the interest of advanced gardeners.

Weishan acknowledges that in the past two years he has spent less time actually gardening than he'd like, just because he's been so busy with other gardening-related activities.

He hosts one public-radio show ("The Cultivated Gardener") is a regular guest on another ("Living on Earth"), and publishes a quarterly magazine called Traditional Gardening. He owns and operates GardenWorks Ltd., a firm specializing in designing and building historically accurate landscapes. He has also written a book, "The New Traditional Garden," which takes an in-depth look at how to create and restore authentic American gardens.

Weishan has done what he once didn't think possible – make a living in gardening. He studied romance languages at Harvard University, with thoughts of following his grandfather into the diplomatic service. Instead, he became an editorial assistant with an archaeological organization.

Soon, however, he began imparting his gardening know-how to a colleague. It wasn't long before he found his expertise in demand, and his interests in gardening, arts, and history converging. Voilà, a successful horticulturist-landscape designer emerged.

Weishan says that combining avocation and vocation is ideal – a way to always be doing something he loves. But when gardening is both hobby and job, there's a tendency to be too one-dimensional. So he's careful to draw a line.

For instance, he has no plants inside his home. "I don't like [them] around, demanding 'Water me, fertilize me.' I think that's the only separation I possibly have."

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