Garden Writers Redux

After giving a speech to 600 garden writers in North Carolina last week, I returned in a state of uncertainty—had anyone heard the underlying message?  It was too cerebral, I think, to read a speech to a bunch of pumped up enthusiasts who wanted to chat about the gorgeous Sarah Duke Gardens that surrounded us.  So, I’ll try again.

Dear Garden Writers

As we plant our flowers and vegetables, we are different from the people we were just one year ago.  Turning up the soil, we enrich it with a new and improved compost elixir.  We endeavor to build on last year’s successes and correct or avoid our past missteps.

Gardening tastes evolve, shift and expand.  Maybe this will be the year we create a colorful oasis in the shade, or fashion a meandering border like one of Mrs. Jekyll’s.  Over the winter you’ve been using more and more root vegetables—parsnips, rutabaga, etc.—in soups and dishes.  Perhaps they deserve their chance in the sun.  And there are so many lovely and fragrant climbing vines, where shall we grow those?

We in the seed and plant business are also in the business of re-creating ourselves each year.  We seek to answer and anticipate the changing tastes and needs of gardeners.

Each year at Heronswood, Burpee and The Cook’s Garden, we want to inspire and excite our customers with new varieties.  We look at every phase of the customer experience, and try to improve how we do things.  We want to make the process as fast, easy and informative as possible.

When gardeners come to one of our sites or order from our catalogs, we want them to feel a serene confidence in choosing us.  We want customers to be, not just satisfied, but substantially happy.  From time to time, we hear customers who are, in fact, ecstatic.

It’s time for us in the gardening business, and writers, to reexamine our approach and get better—a lot better.  We have an extraordinary story to tell.  People—millions of them—are waiting to hear it.

And we must continue to get better.  We are privileged to work in such a magnificent field, one with so many fascinating dimensions.  There are so many paths to the garden.

From looking at gardening catalogs, websites and journalism, you would think we want to keep this passion of ours a secret.  We’re parochial.  We tend to talk in a sleepy monotone, scarcely audible in our noisy world.

I’m not advocating hype, hard-sell or finger-jabbing ferocity—although I know some of you can jab with the best of them.  I could show you jab-wounds.  Far from it:  I’m advocating persuasion and seduction.  And, above all, knowledge. Give them what the British call “shiny bits”.

Consider other forms of popular recreation:  music, sports, design, food, fashion, fitness, reading, popular entertainment.  The people in those fields bring bravado and brio to their writing.  Good writers care about their subject and make you care.  Everyone remembers a good story.

Good writers whet your appetite, fire your curiosity, inspire you.  They convey a conviction and point of view that turns you on.

Let me tell you something.  Gardening is sexier, smarter, cooler and more interesting by far than music, sports, design, food, fashion, fitness, reading, or popular entertainment.  It’s more creative, more dimensional, more engaging and deeper than any of those things.  Gardening is the real deal, the last, best refuge from vulgarity and a dumbed down culture.

There are going to be millions of readers wanting to know about gardening.  Vegetables have become the new rare perennials, while the latter are utterly mainstream in the garden world.  Don’t pigeonhole yourselves as “garden writers”.  Just write features about the “news” that is the current explosion in gardening and wave it in your editor’s face.  “Over here!  Headline story!”  The good ones will hear you.  Remember:  great first sentence.

I’ve given about 100 interviews in the past year, and most were to non-garden writers.  Reclaim your place in the publishing world, both offline and on.

There’s another side to this situation, too, and that is the business.  We in the product vendor community have to step up to the plate as well, and do more creative advertising. 

No slackers allowed.  No hesitation on this particular battlefield.  It’s a moment to be bold, if there ever was one.  Imagine:  a growth industry in the midst of a recession.  There are few better opportunities than the one facing us in the next several years.

Thank you.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 at 8:32 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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24 Responses to “Garden Writers Redux”

  1. William Grant said:

    Delightful essay you just sent. I have been writing and lecturing on roses for fifty years, here and in UK, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. I am hopeful a publisher soon may publish a collection of my essays. I’ll let you know if I am lucky.

  2. Carolyn said:

    Good article!
    I think we need to connect gardening(all types) with global warming. That should get more people doing it to “save the planet”.

  3. diana said:

    Great article! As a seed and plant consumer I’d love to be “wowed” by the “shiny bits”!

  4. Karen said:

    Loved this article. Especially the veggie garden bit. I have always done veggies because I don’t want poisons in my food. It did my heart good this summer to drive around and see some lawns tilled up to grow veggies.

  5. Pam Beck said:

    George, We did hear you, and thank you for your very special part in the amazing evening at the Sarah P Duke Gardens. Delighted that you stayed for the entire Garden Writers Association conference so that you had a chance to meet the other attendees and see other wonderful North Carolina gardens, too.

  6. Jude said:

    I agree–totally! Keep on writing!
    Those who understand what you are saying,
    do well (in many facets). And those who
    don’t , don’t!

  7. Steve Chamberlain said:

    I completely agree that those of us who write about plants and their cultivation MUST improve on our communicating our deep-seated enthusiasm, our obsession, our joy, etc. in what we write.

    Good call to arms!

    Cheers,
    Steve

  8. jemma said:

    I love your blog. Wish I had a lot of time to read it more carefully. I am starting mine…and I ‘ll let you know. Perhaps the printing could be one tic bigger-for ease of reading. j

  9. SCARP said:

    This is excellantly writen. In such times that we all are going thru, the feel of dirt on your hands, can’t be taken away. And the results are priceless. And non-taxable. No one can take this away. For thousands of years, no one has even come close.

  10. Jerry Burns said:

    Well spoken!

  11. Bill LeFevre said:

    Thank you George for your insightful and inspiring speech. Despite being distracted by the beauty of the gardens, the food, drink and lively conversations,the majority of the crowd was listening and you were heard; but it is good that you posted your remarks here for all to read. Thank you again for Burpee’s generous sponsorship of the Garden Writer’s Association evening at Duke Gardens. It was a magical evening indeed. Appreciatively, Bill LeFevre, Executive Director, Sarah P. Duke Gardens

  12. Linda Cobb said:

    George,
    I could not make the convention this year, so thanks for posting it.

  13. felder rushing said:

    sir george, you AMAZED this old garden communications f*rt, with this insightful, lucid, challenging, but delightfully passionate post. my hat is off to you for hitting so many nails, so accurately.

  14. Tara Dillard said:

    Go baby doll, speak from your heart. Been doing it for decades. Agree with everything you said. Sorry I missed you at GWA. And I go further in thought, I’ll bet you do too.

    What did you really want to say & didn’t? Obviously more, ready for it with enthusiasm.

    Missing your “SHINY BITS”. Why only tell me, why not show me? Seduce me with words AND pictures. Blogging allows it easily, except here, in the comment section, otherwise I would add a pic, or 2-3-4.

    I didn’t go to GWA because I’m too busy, in this economy, designing/installing landscapes, writing/lecturing about landscapes.

    Never seeing landscape criticism I decided to invent it. PUPPET BARBUDA. She’s here now, criticising, with love, your words as Roger Ebert would a movie.

    Notice how newspapers praise every stupid garden in a flower show? DISGUSTING. One reason flower shows across America are closing. They lost relevance to the consumer. Becoming showcases for landscapers showing off stone walls, outdoor kitchens, & etc.

    Notice how newspapers write about creating a landscape with how-to of soils, types of plants, physical labor? Yawn, it’s not working. How many gorgeous landscapes do you see driving around America?

    I invented a new genre of landscape how-to, the void was gaping. Teaching thru beauty/design/pics/words, leaving the other parts to the local Extension Service.

    Inventions? Landscape design formula, Tara Turf, Vanishing Threshold, & more. Why? They’ve been done for centuries but never assimilated.

    What is a gorgeous landscape? It’s beautiful, timeless, sustainable, organic, eco, green, increases property value, reduces heating/cooling, fills the spirit with joy, peace, energy.

    Well, I, and PUPPET BARBUDA, must complete a landscape design, get it copied and in the mail before driving to a client garden my contractor is installing this week.

    Again, I wish to know your thoughts ENTIRELY. Thank you for what you’ve written, so far!! Don’t forget, seduce me with pictures too.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara Dillard

  15. beth said:

    Yes, the article was a wonderful call to action. I agree wholeheartedly with Carolyn. Within this context I believe we really need to get out the native plants, exotic invasives story. I know some of you may have just rolled your eyes, but as a five year convert to the native plant movement I find that the more I learn about it, the more fascinating it becomes to me and the more I see how much there is to know (and much more yet undiscovered). There are layers and layers to the story and many concurrent plots and paths to explore. “Shiny bits” everywhere!

  16. Sharon Warden said:

    I always read these essays and blogs. Great stuff. Gardening keeps me grounded (pun intended) but mine is a different kind of garden, a domain if you will. I fenced off a little “piece of earth” in front of my house (to protect from grazing horses who had eaten all of my spider plants with great relish) and have created an eclectic garden where birds, butterflies, squirrels and sharons can relax and talk to the flora. I have seen some amazing winged creatures and some amazing plants that the birds have planted! I have some lettuce coming, some collards, the bean beetles got my beans but I guess they need to eat too. I rescued 3 blanketflowers from slow death by thirst from Lowe’s, 1 dianthus and 1 angelonia just yesterday. They are so happy now out there with the Dune sunflowers, the lantana, penta, etc and the mexican petunias. There are a couple of roadside plants I “drug in” and planted, they are flowering and beautiful. It is indeed obsessive and affords very good exercise whatever age.

  17. gail wild said:

    Here here! nicely said.

  18. Anne Dunn said:

    The mention of garden writers and North Carolina made me remember the wonderful book “Two Gardeners” edited by Emily Herring Wilson — letters of Elizabeth Lawrence(a NC garden writer) and Katherine White (New Yorker garden writer among other things) — Wonderful book. Made me read K White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden and Lawrence’s Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins

  19. Like sports, gardening has teams that do compete. The passionate total planet loving organic sustainable, slap ya in the face if you even say the word pesticide near my garden gardener competes to sho he or sahe can make a garden pretty as and productive as the total all out bug killing, high potency liquid chemical glove and mask wearing gardener. The in between ones trying to be organic, but maybe cheating a little here and there. Major horticultural centers trying to show their stuff is better than the others, and then, the master gardeners who don’t have ears, only mouths…yea, it’s competition. Levels and forms much like music…ha! A garden might be called Baroque or Classical stretching things. You almost touch on a thing here. Almost. May I say? Seeds. Saving them. Growing them. It is such a natural act, one of the very defining traits of humanity. We simply can’t all of us forget how to do that, or we die. The business end of doing that is also natural, and I think that part of it must have something to do with our brain’s size. We needed to specialize, and those specializing by living in cities, doing city things, lose some of that humanity defining trait. Buying seeds will always be the thing, but don’t we hope there will always be those who save the old kinds? And others who make new kinds from the old? Our human knowledge base grows best if old ways are not lost. This one lives for the ways of old. The way things are going worldwide, we just might have to have seriously large varieties of Beets, (for example), that store well in a root cellar. Almost all my heirloom crossed tomatoes did very well this summer, though a little slower than usual.

  20. flyaway said:

    Gardening IS the “real deal” It is, it really,really is! George Ball – you are the bomb!

  21. Stephanie said:

    I was a “First Timer” at this year’s GWA Symposium and, as such, was overwhelmed by all the beautiful gardens, informative sessions and great networking opportunities. I learned so much in so many ways and am still sorting out all the details and how to use them in my life and writing career. That said, after six days of intense information gathering, I was able to pull it all together instantly after reading your wonderful blog. The LOVE of gardening must “shine” through our writing or we may as well write for a tool catalog. Thank you for sharing your insights with us here in your blog and for your time and knowledge at GWA.

  22. nancy meader said:

    I have enjoyed your messages and have been gardening for over 50 years. This year I read the book BRINGING NATURE HOME and felt I had experienced an epiphany. We gardeners need to include native plants in our gardens, but the sources of seed and plant material are scarce.
    what a wonderful thing if companies of your caliber would make native things available.

  23. W.W. Wustenberg said:

    This essay arrived on a day when I was still basking in the memories of a fine weekend with my 14-year-old niece. She came to our farm on a harvest weekend, and proved to be a natural at gathering Honeycrisp apples, golden raspberries, tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash varieties, and eggplant. My 16-year-old daughter made breakfast omelets that morning from Julia Child’s famous recipe and her pet hens. Then my niece baked her first apple pie after going back outside to get a few more. She chopped, I sauted, we blanched, we slipped skins, and then gradually the huge kettle-full reduced to become spaghetti sauce by dinner. Two of the fresh-picked spaghetti squash were steamed into “noodles,” and by dessert we had eaten all day from the 12 acres of sandy ground we call Windswept Hill Farm. Her obvious interest and joy in the bountiful life springing up from the earth kindled mine anew, as always happens when I share a garden with a young person. They are me, 45 years ago: wiping dry dirt from the sweetest carrots I ever ate with Grandpa; dipping tart rhubarb in a cup of sugar Grandma sent along. The essayist is right that those gardening moments changed me then, and change me still. Now I’m the one who gets the questions. Mine is the hand that holds enough berries to share with an amazed child. This essay reminds me that ultimately what gets shared in those moments aren’t the carrots and berries. We are allowing all the glorious attributes of gardening described in the essay to cultivate the next crop of stewards. Thank you for an inspirational read.

  24. Marren Meehan said:

    Hope you’ve been enjoying Garry Trudeau’s take on garden catalogs!

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