How-To vs. Everything Else


I thought about our ongoing discussion about how gardening is covered in newspapers, magazines, and in books the other day when I opened the paper and read this column by Jon Carroll. It’s about golf, an activity I care nothing about.  I never read the sports pages, watch sports on TV, listen to sports on the radio, or go to games. 

Really, it would not be possible for anyone to care less about anything than I care about golf.

And yet.  Fascinating article. The LPGA wants to require players to be fluent in English.  So already–golf and immigration!  Golf and English-only rules! OK, that’s interesting.   But then there’s this:

Before every professional golf tournament,
professionals and amateurs play a round of golf together. Amateurs get
to compete with, banter with and get tips from real professionals.
Professionals get to make business contacts. Maybe there’s a little
flirting; maybe there’s a little drinking (not by the pros).

The LPGA raises a lot of money from the pro-ams; it gets a lot of
sponsors. In many ways, the pro-ams are the real event of the week; the
golf tournament is for the television money. And here’s the thing: The
young Korean players are lousy at the pro-ams.

The piece goes on to quote someone else saying that:

you put an 18- or 19-year-old girl who’s maybe not really comfortable
with her English, playing with four CEOs, and she’s not going to feel
comfortable making small talk…It’s teaching these girls how to do a pro-am more than teaching them English.

So this is what I’m talking about.  It’s interesting. It’s universal. It’s more behind-the-scenes and insider-trading-ish than horticultural coverage ever gets.  People with only a passing interest in golf, or no interest whatsoever, would nonetheless be engaged by this issue.

If sports writing can be this interesting and energetic, why can’t garden writing?  Sports writers could stick to dull reports of yesterday’s scores and five easy tips for improving your golf swing, but they don’t.  They go way beyond that.

And why not the plant world?  Why not find out if people who are interested in plants are interested in more than five easy annuals for fall color?

Just a thought.


  1. I see where you are coming from on garden writing and the usual how to articles.
    When I write for newspapers, give talks etc. I always tie in to the general how to’s some anecdotals, funny and related info to make the instructions relate to what is going on in and around the place, room area I am talking in, writing in etc.

    The Troll

  2. Exactly. Garden writing is a bore in the public domain. More than a bore it’s embarrassing. Mostly it’s what is asked of writers by newspapers/magazines.

    My weekly column for pushes boundaries but I’ve got to consider what they want from me.

    Today’s paper is a great example. Their lead garden article is about planting pansies.

    I chose not to write that type of article. Instead focusing on Diane M., age 49, laying on her couch….needing to hide the house next door. A real story and solution.

    Garden writing hasn’t changed in the 2+ decades I’ve been in the industry.

    My soul says keep writing real garden stories. Keep pushing. Change is close. Reader response is good.

    My blog has stories/thoughts honestly within my heart about gardening. Not ready for prime time but that won’t be true much longer.

    It’s not surprising women are changing the tone of garden writing. Women make the majority of residential garden purchases.

    Men buy a lot of plants/hardscape wholesale but it’s often because they’ve been hired by a woman.

    The audience for garden writing is busy, smart, creative and wanting more. Deserving more.

  3. I think there’s a mindset that “garden writing” is mostly “how to garden” writing, with a splash of, “Oh, look at this amazing garden” writing.

    Maybe that’s one reason I fell in love with Beverley Nichols’ “Merry Hall” trilogy and the earlier “Always” trilogy. They’re about his gardens and homes, yes, but even more about the people — albeit fictionalized — that surrounded him. Later books were much more about his views of gardening, but the early books sparkle with all sorts of personalities running in and out of his cottage and manor.

  4. Interesting garden writing in NOT an oxymoron. That’s why we have you gals at Garden Rant and all your contributors–always something interesting to think about.

    What I’ve done to get more people interested in gardening, particularly sustainable gardening, is to record podcasts for the Jacksonville newspaper. I choose and topics that might attract people who might not have thought much about how they are managing their landscapes. Every six weeks or so, I trek up there (combined with other errands, of course,) and record 5 or 6 sessions. I’m heading up there tomorrow where my topics are: Save Money–Grow Your own Food (Now is the time to plant our fall/winter gardens.); Edible Flowers; The Grand Opening of Jacksonville’s Arboretum; Compost Tea; Reasons for Diversity in Your Landscape. I write the Q and A script and the newspaper loves the free content for their online edition. My podcasts have a high hit rate on the paper’s site.

    I’ve listed links to the more than 50 podcasts on my website ( and have put links to individual podcasts in articles where I’m covering the same topic to provide more depth. I think the podcasts enhance my reputation as a knowledgeable and experienced gardener and they provide more depth for my transplanted gardener website. And maybe, just maybe, listening to my podcasts might be interesting.

  5. Tara, you’ve piqued my interest in your writing. Now how can I subscribe to your feed? Gotta have an RSS – that’s how I read nowadays. And thank gawd for Google Reader.

  6. When I was writing a weekly garden column I was lucky enough to be able to write what I wanted. So it might be about plant names (based on two well known people in town named David Ward and who was the real David Ward pulmonaria name after etc.)

    Or about working with my husband for ten years designing and building a garden (two eldest children, artists and control freaks and how you learn to work together)

    Or the ducks that have come to our pond for ten years (record keeping and history in the garden) etc.

    The paper ran a garden contest for a number of years like the Chicago Tribune’s which got a lot of reader interest and generated a number of other stories.

    All stories had great photos (often more online). I know from the comments and speaking engagements that I connected with readers. I think it was a matter of being interested and excited in the ideas and topics I was writing about rather than being told what to do. And since I know a number of male gardeners, I tried to keep them in mind and not just write to women readers.

  7. I think one of the most interesting, and also most challenging, aspects of garden writing is how it is tied to the seasons. So you get the usual cookie-cutter “it’s fall, time to put your garden to bed,” “plant your spring bulbs now,” and “top 5-10-100 plants for winter interest,” etc., in the press, and there’s a place for that, because there will always be new gardeners who need to know this stuff. But there’s also great writing like Henry Mitchell’s and Elvin MacDonald’s (I’m afraid I’m showing some male bias/ignorance, would love to hear about favorite female garden writers beyond the excellent folks who post here) who acknowledge the passing of the seasons and the way gardening forces you to confront it in a very personal, emotional manner.

    You could call it the difference between a classroom lecture and a sermon, though we all recognize how closely they can overlap. Myself, I’m always happy to see a little more passion and individuality even in a how-to article, and yes, I’m hoping Garden Rant and others can move things to a higher standard of writing and insight.



  8. Interesting topic Amy. Yes, garden writing can be more compelling and interesting to the masses. As a garden communicator, garden television personality and blogger, I do like to focus on the human interest side of gardening and enjoying what I call “the good life- spending time outdoors! On top of this of course, I do try to be entertaining in my approach.

    My readers glean inspiration and “how to ideas” from stories that are not formatted as how-to pieces. I find some readers who are very much into gardening like the “how-to” and straight information pieces. Others who are less experienced in the garden sometime just like the stories about how fun or rewarding it is to live the eden lifestyle.

  9. Good garden writing can take a lot from the sports world…very similar in some ways (lots of sports are outdoors and seasonal, both very activity-oriented, both lack the inherent need to delve into divisive topics like abortion for political writing). I think if you notice, on the sports pages there is not a bunch of how-to stuff, mainly what happen, what will happen, why it happens, and a healthy sprinkling of personality-driven news – the story.

    Having said all that, I can just see the local sports guy rolling out of bed from the local AA baseball team’s double-header that went into extra innings the night before showing up to talk to garden writers about capturing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat…something just doesn’t seem to work about that scenario. I am not sure what the box score for gardners would be…

  10. Well to be fair, I think a lot of us wish we could write as well as Jon Carroll. He’s not really a sportswriter but a long-time columnist who is consistently engaging about any number of subjects.
    However, I agree that garden writing could be better — my pet peeve is the LA Times — they’ve run a couple of garden pieces this summer with photo essays — but all the photos are of individual flowers! You can’t see what the garden looks like! Yargh.

  11. I agree with you, Barry , about the LA Times. Since Bob Smaus left, the garden section is terrible.

    One of my favorite current garden writers is Anne Raver of the NY Times ( Verlyn Klinkerbrod is pretty wonderful essayist too)Ann Lovejoy,up in the Pacific NW, is always informative & entertaining. All of these writers write about what MOVES us as gardeners/plant nuts as well as the nuts & bolts.

Comments are closed.