One of the first things you’ll notice about Rakes Progress is the £10 cover price (perhaps not the very first thing. It's printed on the back). More of that later. The next thing you’ll notice about Rakes Progress is that it's flippin’ gorgeous, although its beauty is not of the kind we are used to with the posh, glossy, country-set end of the gardening press, but rather a more tactile, earthy-but-urban vibe. It’s not exactly Hoxton v Hampshire, but there’s a pervasive sense, from the printing to the editorial and art direction, that a key market for this magazine will be people moving from the centre of the city to the outskirts, exchanging a few neglected window boxes for a suburban garden, and wondering just what to do with it. Hipsters with responsibilities.
The format is 210mm by 270mm, as wide as an A4 page but a little shorter – slightly smaller than a standard glossy magazine without feeling cramped. It’s a thick object, 120 pages of sturdy uncoated stock with a heavier weight for the cover, the heft and matt surface to the paper being key to the tactile qualities mentioned above. Pleasing to hold and ridiculously satisfying to flick through, flip-board animation style, though a more measured perusal reveals a generously illustrated interior, with many full page photographs and an agreeable density of text (set mostly on a two column grid in a smallish serif typeface).
The photography itself is magnificent (and, in places, charmingly random), the absorbency of the paper giving extra drama to the low-key images, of which there are many in both colour and monochrome, while, oddly, the high-key images which can often appear dull and dirty on such a rough stock work just as well, benefitting from the illusion of extra grain. In only one instance, the main subject becomes slightly muddy – and, according to the universal First Law of Sod, this would be on the first double page spread – but balancing print densities across a whole publication is a tricky thing at the best of times, and it doesn’t detract from the article. Elsewhere, both the line-work and textures in the quirky illustrations are crisply reproduced and, minor gripe aside, the whole package is something of a printing tour de force, which would be nothing in itself without the very deft art direction. All of this makes for a publication with which you want to spend time.
So much for the physical aspect of rakes progress, but what of the content? I’ve already alluded to the demographic that I think the publishers are aiming for – between them, the editors’ introduction and Kate Finnigan’s ‘Confessions of a garden centre junkie’ read like a manifesto for the project and its intended audience, the latter stating “I work in fashion but I shop in garden centres. That’s the way I roll these days.” while the former confesses to have stumbled upon gardening “after a lifetime spent avoiding anything beyond the cutlery drawer that called itself a fork”. There’s an evangelical note to the magazine, clearly seeking to reassure the reader that it’s okay to be interested in gardening. Within the first few articles we’ve encountered fashion designer, fashion editor, jewellery designer, florist du jour, a perfumer – it’s as if the editors are saying, “look at all these wonderful creatives, they’ve all got gardens. Damnit, some of them even do the gardening themselves!” Some might sneer, but I see it as part of encouraging more folk into an appreciation of gardening, plants and the outdoors, all of which has been achieved with style and mercifully without recourse to mentioning the imperative to “make gardening cool” or – worse – “sexy”.
There’s an honesty to this as well, which is refreshing. The interview with Nigel Cabourn (the piece with the muddy photograph) doesn’t seem to be going too well at first. You can tell the interviewer wants desperately to be told how central the designer’s garden, in which he works, is to his creative process, but it takes a while to get there. He doesn’t really do any gardening (that’s his son’s job), he favours sketching on the computer rather than sitting among the plants, and he seems content to have the lawn mown and leave the beds a bit “rough”. By the end of the piece, realisation dawns about the importance of the garden, so all is well, and the piece has a greater integrity for allowing us to eavesdrop on the conversation as it was – complete with apparent panic that the garden would be inconsequential to the designer – rather than creating some slickly edited version of events. Quite endearing.
Japan keeps popping up – that ever fashionable part of the world – with yakisugi scorched wood furniture from Simon Gaiger, masashi steel knives from niwaki.com, and the first plant we encounter within these pages, wasabi, the staple condiment of the susherati. Just as you think things might be getting annoyingly hip, the balance readjusts, with an article on sheds, or tree houses, or some such. There are more heavyweight gardening articles too; pieces on Luciano Giubbilei and Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter, guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, and a feature on war gardens from Lyse Doucet, whose name can’t be seen in print without hearing Kate Adie intoning it on From Our Own Correspondent. For lovers of nature writing, there’s also a wonderful piece from Robert MacFarlane on our lost language of nature, beautifully illustrated by Oliver Gaiger.
Practical gardening is not neglected. With an emphasis firmly on the new gardener, the last section of the magazine contains 23 pages of advice edited by Sue Carter, Head Gardener at Lacock Abbey. Generally, the advice is great, with a couple of oddities – there’s a page on creating a ‘perfect plot for pollinators’, but no mention of the effects of neonicotinoids on bees is made when advocating glyphosate for weed control a few pages earlier. Also, advice on using crocks to aid drainage at the bottom of containers has now been fairly roundly deprecated. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with a piece on how to create great compost, or the importance of knowing your soil. Sound advice for the greater part, engagingly presented with attractive photographs and delightful illustrations.
And so to the cover price, the whince-inducing tenner, which has raised the odd eyebrow. Yes, it’s a indication of an affluent target market, priced outside of the impulse-buy section of the newsagents (for most of us). But it needs to be remembered that this is a quarterly publication – three months of content (and there is a lot of content), equating to less than £3.50 a month. That’s a quid cheaper than many other gardening monthlies.
The editorial team of Victoria Gaiger and Tom Loxley have managed to create a beautiful magazine for new and aspiring gardeners, which can also be enjoyed by those with more experienced green fingers. “Even if you never pick up a rake,” they say, “if you want an antidote to the mad whirl of digital, there is something here for you.” I love it for its uncompromising production values, its missionary zeal, and its advocacy of a kind of slow living, antithetical to a world dedicated to the smartphone’s ping. My advice? Head to the garden. Leave your phone. Take this magazine.