- Green thumbs are proliferating from an unexpected source
By Juan Martinez
Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2008
Straight to the Source
The answer, according to many publishers, authors and educators, is young people. In a world going green, the under-35s have taken it upon themselves to make positive use of their natural surroundings. College courses and easily accessible online resources have turned what was once referred to as a middle-aged pastime into a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry. Before the rise of the Internet, those who may have desired to grow their own tomatoes might have been baffled by the prospect, struggling to find information in their local library. Today, however, prospective gardeners are but a few clicks away from a plethora of knowledge. And gardening is so popular with the younger set that a Google search combining young + people + gardening yields 42.7 million results.
Pam Art, president of Storey Publishing, believes that two factors are responsible for the surge of young gardeners: a heightened awareness of green issues and an interest in preserving natural resources-and the ability to do it in one's own backyard. "Perhaps not since the 1970s and the homesteading era has the interest been so great in gardening using ecologically sound methods, including having organic lawns and flower and vegetable gardens," says Art. Storey's The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin, out this month, follows the green theme by urging readers to "take the compost bin from behind the garage and place it right in the garden, where it becomes part of a nourishing, organic environment."
With an ecological crisis looming, Cool Springs publisher Roger Waynick sees young people turning to gardening as a means of "nurturing the planet back to health." Each individual gardener, he says, believes he or she is "taking care of their little piece of earth." Waynick notes that the just released Green Gardener's Guide: Simple, Significant Actions to Protect & Preserve Our Planet by Joe Lamp'l plays directly into this goal.
The ecologically conscious gardener is also likely to be more selective when it comes to what he or she eats. Community supported agriculture and organizations such as the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, as well as farmer's markets found in virtually every community are also part of this trend, says Pam Art.
Karen Bolesta, senior editor for Rodale Lifestyle Books, believes that young gardeners are not only interested in sprucing up their first landscape; they also want to "grow their own salad greens. There's such enthusiasm for a green lifestyle and a living-more-lightly attitude, and we find that goes hand-in-hand with organic gardening." Chelsea Green publicist Jessica Saturley, too, views organic gardening and local eating as "increasingly popular topics." Coming in June from Chelsea Green distribution client Green Publishing is Charles Dowding's Salad Leaves for All Seasons: Organic Growing from Pot to Plot. And published last month, Rodale's Newspapers, Pennies, Cardboard, & Eggs-For Growing a Better Garden: More than 400 New, Fun, and Ingenious Ideas to Keep Your Garden Growing Great All Season Long by Roger Yepsen and the editors of Organic Gardening is an example, says Bolesta, of the "great no-nonsense tips book... used by successful backyard gardeners today."
Firefly publisher Lionel Koffler offers an additional reason for this spurt of gardening newcomers: first-time home ownership. "Starter homes' front and back gardens have almost nothing in them," he says. "There are millions of these houses whose owners don't have a clue as to what it takes to make a mature shrub and perennial garden five and seven years hence." A March Firefly title, Time-Saving Gardener: Tips and Essential Tasks, Season by Season by Carolyn Hutchinson, addresses the many concerns of gardeners in this category.
Sandy Siegle, media and sales director at Timber Press, concurs with Koffler's assertion about first-time home ownership, but adds that this new generation of gardener considers things its parents never would have. "They are interested in a beautiful outdoor space, yet many aren't sure how to get there. Some will want to figure it out and in the process they will consider things like the environment and sustainability."
In some cases, sustainability is getting a makeover. Author Barbara Damrosch's The Garden Primer, which has been a gardening must-read for 20 years, is being published next month by Workman in a "completely updated, 100% organic edition." Damrosch herself has noticed a change in today's young gardeners versus their '70s counterparts: "[Today's young gardeners] aren't dropping out, but they feel they are making somewhat radical personal choices." Though the young people who come to her farm have Blackberries and iPods, "they are very, very tuned in to what is fake and what is real when it comes to food.... They see food and food growing as a political issue."
Gardening in Academe and Online
To say that the new green thumb isn't dropping out is an understatement. Gardening has become a recognized field of study in most universities. Author William Cullina-whose Native Ferns, Moss, and Grasses: From Emerald Carpet to Amber Wave, Serene and Sensuous Plants for the Garden (Houghton Mifflin, Feb.)-was always interested in nature and gardening, though it wasn't until college that he decided to pursue horticulture as a career. Cullina says that as a child, while his brothers read the Hardy Boys or comic books, he "used to pore over nature books, field guides and back issues of Natural History and National Geographic." Though he chose to study statistics in college, he "started thinking seriously of horticulture as a career" and later went on to earn degrees in plant science and psychology. For Cullina-like so many younger gardeners-gardening morphed from a childhood passion into both a profession and a lifelong hobby.
Jeff Gillman, a University of Minnesota associate professor of horticultural studies and author of The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks and the Bottom Line (Timber Press, Feb.), has witnessed an influx of students with backgrounds similar to Cullina's. "Recently, we have had an increase in the number of students enrolling who already have degrees," Gillman says. These students, he adds, bring with them a networking ability unfamiliar to previous generations: "Blogs such as GardenRant and ColdClimateGardening are making it easier for young gardeners to share information and experiences. As new gardeners appear, they have an easier time finding how-to information through these routes." Siegle at Timber Press is a firm believer in the Internet's influence on this new gardening generation: "For the young, the Web lends credibility. If you as a professional want to reach an audience younger than 30-the age may actually be higher now-you must have a Web site."
These sites haven't only connected adults to adults. Children have also benefited from the enthusiasm of online gardeners. Web sites such as jmgkids.us, which aims "to grow good kids by igniting a passion for learning, success and service through a unique gardening education," and kidsgardening.org are helping parents and educators teach through gardening. Over 37,000 children and 4,500 adults participated in kidsgardening.com's 2007 grant programs. Educators used the grants to teach subjects ranging from health and nutrition to history.
According to Clair Frost, a teacher at Camino Union Elementary in Camino, Calif., and winner of a 2006 Youth Garden Grant from the NGA, "When we started our garden program, garden time quickly became the most anticipated 45 minutes of the week. Students experienced hands-on learning in science, math, language arts, health and nutrition. Those on the fringe academically and socially became leaders of their peers in the garden."
Show Them the Books!
Given the money that's being spent by a generation of younger gardeners, one would think publishers would be eager to produce books on managing their new hobby. Instead, there's been a glut of insider guides, relatively unusable for those with little or no knowledge of gardening. Koffler says that Firefly Books grew on the first wave of gardening bestsellers in the '70s and '80s. He claims that the customers who helped create the boom have already had their share of gardening books: "That group of customers knows everything they really need to know. Publishers need to turn to young people to start a market again."
Another reason the market might have taken a downturn is the publication of books lacking practical information-or, as Barbara Damrosch refers to them, "Gardening books with a coffee-table feel. We all bought too many of them, because they were gorgeous."
So what can publishers do to create a new market for young gardeners? Damrosch believes what consumers are looking for now are books loaded with solid tips and information.
Sterling associate publisher Jason Prince agrees. Last year's Gardening with Children from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (distributed by Sterling), he notes, "simply and visually explains the basics." Sterling's texts for younger audiences, he says, keep things basic and simple. When dealing with inexperienced gardeners of all ages, the key for Prince is to make it fun, interactive and doable.
Simplicity is also a key to DK's success in this area, says executive managing editor Sharon Lucas. The publisher's method of attracting inexperienced gardeners is similar to its overall approach: "pictures integrated with easy-to-understand text-making [the books] accessible and relevant to the more visually attracted, sound-bite-preferring younger reader." This month the publisher adds two new titles to its Simple Steps gardening series: Low Maintenance Gardening and Shrubs and Small Trees.
Houghton Mifflin editor Frances Tenenbaum believes that gardening books that "combine brilliant, encyclopedic information with wit, humor and personality make gardening feel accessible and fun to young people, who are just now turning to gardening." Despite the statistics, Tenenbaum doesn't believe that gardening has become any more popular in the past five years, or that book sales have slumped, but she does admit that she would welcome any upswing in the genre's popularity.
Koffler, who unlike Tenenbaum recognizes the increasing interest in gardening, believes that gardening books for beginners need to assume that readers are "downtowners" rather than people in rural areas: "A lot of young people who are getting into gardening have no real experience with what a landscape is. It's a different kind of introduction for them."
A Different Approach
Young gardeners consider their hobby differently than their predecessors, says Storey's Pam Art-"they approach it almost as a craft." Magazines like Domino and ReadyMade, she says, feature gardening as "a way to create something eye-catching, unique, artistic and self-expressive." A May release, Deborah Peterson's Don't Throw It, Grow It!, says Art, instructs readers on turning kitchen scraps into windowsill plants that "will appeal to crafter-gardeners with an eye for the unusual."
Perhaps the digital age in general is also to blame for the lack of interest in printed information. Sterling's Prince credits the proliferation of targeted TV channels like HGTV and the DIY network. Others, such as Timber Press publisher Neal Maillet, think that young people just don't have the time to dedicate to gardening that older generations have. Which is why he poses the genre's most important question: "What can you get from a garden book that you can't get from the Internet or magazines?"
After all, why would an inexperienced gardener spend money on a book catering to an experienced gardener's needs when there is an abundance of information online about how to get started? Discussing blogs and online magazines, Gillman at the University of Minnesota says, "As new gardeners appear, they have an easier time finding how-to information through these routes."
Rodale's Bolesta thinks publishers need to rely on "notable authors with voices of experience, wonderful visuals and great packaging" to compete with the Internet. The combination of these three things, she says, can "convince a reader that a garden book is as worthwhile as a keyboard."
Maillet agrees. He believes that there is a certain kind of learning that balances the visual, technical and inspirational that only a book can provide. The industry is adapting to provide a better reading experience for the generation coming up, he claims. "We still put our focus on finding the credible author who can give the reader the reassurance that their money is well spent by buying a book rather than just Googling for free."
Perhaps there is more at play here than just supply and demand. According to DK's Lucas, "Publishers are fighting to get gardening books into the stores, period, and an interesting niche title aimed at the younger market is going to be difficult to place at the garden centers. This is a price point issue, but also a customer issue-young people aren't going to a garden center to buy books."
With the sudden wave of enthusiasm surrounding green-focused gardening, most industry insiders aren't too worried about the slump in sales. "I also think that these kinds of categories tend to be cyclical," says Sterling's Prince, "and my hope is that we will see the trend reverse itself at some point in the near future."