Murphy’s Law Meets Southern Living

August 23, 2010 | By | Comments (14)



If Murphy was standing in front of me now, I’d punch him right in the face. You know his law — “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” That’s never truer than on a Southern Living photo shoot.

Photographing a beautiful garden, like that of Birmingham landscape architect Troy Rhone (shown above), isn’t as easy as it sounds. See, the thing is, if it’s going to be in Southern Living, everything has to be perfect. We don’t want a leaf, flower, seat cushion, or recently escaped convict out of place. We don’t want harsh light, screeching wind, or a big load of dog poop in the middle of the grass.

(Note to readers: Contrary to popular convention, the Grump does not ascribe to the notion that shortening “poop” to “poo” makes it any less disgusting. Calling it a “bomb” or “land mine” does not do so either. It only emphasizes the point that your dog has not been properly toilet-trained and that you should therefore be whipped.)

Shooting a garden is not like shooting a room. With a garden, you often have only a very narrow window of opportunity to get it at its best. If a shrub dies, if the owner dies, if someone drives the Exxon Valdez over the lawn, if a monsoon comes, if Charles Manson comes, the whole shoot could be ruined for a year

So lots of legwork and innumerable visits with the homeowners, landscape architects, designers, and photo stylists take place before the shoot, ensuring that absolutely nothing could go wrong. But, of course, it does. Thank you, idiot Murphy. The garden below is a good example.

Photo Disasters 001

We planned to shoot this beautiful garden in the early morning light to capture the elegance of its formal design, the simplicity of its plant palette (boxwood, crepe myrtle, and grass), and the utter peacefulness of the spot. Notice anything that’s not quite right?

You got it. The swing on the right under the arbor. The painters were supposed to stain both of them dark the night before. Only they ran out of stain after doing the first swing. So knowing that we would be shooting in the morning, they asked themselves, “Should we get more stain now and finish before then? Or should we leave and go get a beer?” In case you’re in suspense, beer always trumps stain.

True — we could have photo-shopped the unstained bench, but our integrity (and ire) wouldn’t allow it. So we called the painters and threatened them with unspeakable horrors (unchilled salad forks and wearing white before Easter) if they didn’t rush right over immediately and finish the next morning before it got too sunny.

Photo Disasters 004

They only had time to stain the front, but hey, that’s all the camera could see.

Here’s another example of a garden that was beautiful the day before the shoot, but something unforeseen occurred prior to the following morning. The owner’s black lab peed on the boxwood in front of the house, making a big brown patch on it. Muchas gracias, you fleabag Fido.

Photo Disasters 005

We tried spray-painting the spot, but never could find a “boxwood green’ that looked natural. So we photographed the garden anyway and probably will resort to Ye Olde Photo Shoppe for this one.

When you have only a very short time to photograph something, the least oversight can screw up a shot — like the homeowner forgetting to water. Living flowers need water. It’s rule. I didn’t make it up.

Photo Disasters 006

No, we can’t always shoot “around’ drooping, dying annuals. This is why I’m such a staunch proponent of plastic flowers in home gardens. Plastic rocks.

I’m not the only Southern Living editor who’s felt Murphy’s wrath. A little while back, garden editor Gene Bussell had made arrangements to drive from Alabama to North Carolina to photograph a garden with a sweep of rare, endangered orchids. The homeowner assured him everything would be perfect and told the yard man to make it so. The yard man grabbed his weed-whacker and vowed that not a single weed would remain.

The next day when Gene arrived, he discovered the yard man thought orchids were weeds.


  1. Andrew


    March 18, 2011 at 12:40 am
  2. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Oh yes — it does.

    September 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Oh yes — it does.

    September 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm
  4. Melissa Clark

    I chuckled all the way through this. As someone who has just finished shooting five gardens for the upcoming local Open Days tour in two weeks, I can add nothing. Hoses left out can at least be moved. Dead boxwoods, not so much. This is why we now worship the content-aware healing brush in PS CS5. It rocks.

    September 10, 2010 at 10:46 am
  5. Pam/Digging

    Hilarious. I’m still laughing and so is my DH. Thanks for sharing what happens when real life intervenes on a photo shoot.

    August 29, 2010 at 11:18 pm
  6. Aunty Matter

    Plastic does indeed rock.

    August 26, 2010 at 11:51 am
  7. gardenwalkgardentalk

    Great post and photos. Little behind the scenes humor. Love the half stained swing. Are these guys for real. This falls into the category, ‘what were they thinking’. I’ll bet the yardman got a walloping. I know I would have done that or worse to him.

    August 25, 2010 at 10:34 pm
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    The white flowers are a mix of upright and trailing angelonias.
    East Texas Grower,
    106 degrees every day for a week is what you get for living in east Texas. I’ll be out there in about 3 weeks and I expect it’ll be 106.

    August 24, 2010 at 2:31 pm
  9. east texas tree grower leone’

    Newbie to this grumpy gardener site. Really hot in Texas, send us some of that cool East Coast temps.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:25 pm
  10. UrsulaV

    *cringe* Oh, those poor orchids…
    I feel better about the constantly rained-down, fallen-over, overgrown condition of my garden now, though.

    August 24, 2010 at 10:50 am
  11. julianchandler

    I know this question is not in the spirit of Murphy’s Law, but what are the lovely white-flowered plants in the concrete planters around the pond?

    August 23, 2010 at 9:47 pm
  12. RBell

    Knowing how dismally my garden compares to most of those featured in SL, I find it at least a little comforting to know that the featured gardens don’t always look as perfect as they do in the magazine – that even they have off moments!

    August 23, 2010 at 8:20 pm
  13. Dave

    Things don’t always go as planned! I think if I were the orchid owner I’d be finding a new yardman. A good reason to do it yourself!

    August 23, 2010 at 9:04 am
  14. Rhonda

    That confounded Murphy!
    A beautiful garden all the same- in spite of the stain debacle. I hope those painters will be paraded around town in white looong after Labor Day.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:00 am

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