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Garden Writing, an uncertain art

John_D
February 16, 2005

One problem with writing about gardens and plants is that there are so few constants.

In food writing, which I have also done, most items are fairly steady (aside from fads, which soon run their course). In your kitchen, you can take a recipe and create a dish from it with reasonable accuracy and with appealing presentation and flavor. Following a few basic rules, you can mix foods and recipes from different cultures and come up with a delectable whole. And you know that your readers can safely pass that recipe on to their children and grandchildren.

But matters are not that easy in the garden. You tell your readers that February is a great time for planting, and your region is hit by unseasonable frosts and snow storms. You write about certain fruits, and the summer turns wet and cold and nothing ripens. Or temperatures soar, a water shortage prevents you from keeping your plants moist, and your garden dries up. You praise a hosta variety, and it develops a virus. A tree you extol becomes the favorite food of a newly imported beetle or fungus. You talk about a plant you hate because you can never get it to grow or bloom, and readers will immediately write to you, telling you how they love this plant, how well it grows and blooms for them, and how they don't understand your problem. They may even tell you that folks with black thumbs shouldn't be allowed to write about gardening.

What all this adds up to is that garden writing is highly uncertain and thus -- potentially -- very exciting, but it can also be hard on the writer's ego.

Comments (6)

  • Cady

    You can always play it safe -- stick with the aspects that don't change, such as repotting, dividing perennials, etc. It would be pretty boring reading for everyone, though.

  • alpiner

    John, well said.

    I've written a few articles for garden magazines and am careful to not write in terms of 'absolutes'. Gardening is not an exact science and is full of exceptions. I don't write you 'can't' grow this plant or one 'must to' do this or that. Just when you're sure a particular plant can't grow in your zone, etc. then you find some non-gardener has one merrily thriving beside the garage, completely neglected for the last 20 years. It's better to write about personal 'favorites' for a situation than 'best' plants. Or 'what works for me' rather than what one 'has to do'. This leaves room for exceptions to the rule and experiences outside of our own.

    We must also remember that in many ecologies we just don't have a long track record. Often only decades and not hundreds of years as in Europe. The wealth of knowledge that comes out of an English garden is valuable but toss in a few new variables and...?

    Any non-fiction writer's most important tool is their credibility. If readers think you are well grounded in facts and experience then you can be more creative in tackling more fringe topics. It's a bit of a no-brainer but I've found keen gardeners just like reading about gardening even when the topic is off season or not relevant to their own situation. In fact, many gardeners bemoan the lack of garden shows on television or gardening newspaper atricles more so in the depths of winter rather than in the height of the garden season.

  • inkognito

    In my opinion a garden is most successful when it does one thing well rather than a lot of things half-heartedly, garden books are the same. I would rather read an in depth study of, say, the history of John's garden, than a book that skimmed the surface of "The History of Gardens". I would rather read about one persons relationship with their garden than yet another book telling me that camellias don't like morning sun. A book that told a personal story that incidentally told about the importance of knowing your microclimate would suit me better than a dry textbook explaining it with diagrams from research done in 1934. A book written from the heart and not the ego.

  • katycopsey

    The beauty of writing for newpapers, which do not pay well, is that you can take local conditions into consideration and write to those. Floods, droughts, late frosts etc hit everyone, but cannot be addressed 4mnths ahead of time in magazines.

  • John_D

    This morning, I caught myself doing something I once swore I never would: I removed two garden "features" because I found it difficult to explain them in my book. I won't go into details (you'll have to read the book for that) but let's just say that they were the result of a fun idea that suffered because I had to travel for a month as soon as I started them. When I returned, I could not complete the original design. Last year, they began to look decidedly ugly. But for some reason, it did not occur to me that I could remove them. (I must have just glossed over them whenever I looked at the garden.)

    This morning, I noticed that they began to interfere with growth of a hydrangea and a dwarf apple tree. They also retained water which turned an adjacent area into a swamp. Out they went.

    Of course, I will write about their genesis, short life, demise. and successors. But first I'll have to decide what to put in their places -- something I can write about, of course.

  • fredw10

    I had a one page space in a garden magazine for about four years. I presented garden related subjects in humorous, inspirational, thoughtful, but also informative ways. I always thought there should be more of that in gardening magazines because pretty pictures and how to pieces can be enjoyed to some extent just by glossing over them. I tried to make the reader want to complete reading my articles by the way the subjects were presented. It is over five years since I last appeared in that magazine, but occasionally I come across someone who mentions my work.

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