Garden Literature goes Up in Smoke

Shutterstock image

Dear friends, just as there is no hiding the fact that Professor Roush is a rose nut, there is also no suspense to the revelation that I am an entrenched bibliophile.  My love of printed and bound material stretches far back into my childhood, to that happy time when I was still an only child and had to find ways to occupy myself.  While burdened now with middle-age, a sister, a wife, and children, I continue to feel comforted with the feel of paper and printed letters, the smell of new ink and glue.  I aspire to become the last person on the planet to purchase a Kindle or Nook.

My long worship of books and growing interest in gardening has, for the past twenty years or so, connected in that genre we know as garden literature. I have discovered natural gardening with Sara Stein, delighted in the philosophical ramblings of Michael Pollan, grown older with Sydney Eddison, and grumbled with Henry Mitchell.  I’ve plotted spousal demise with Amy Stewart and searched for old roses with Thomas Christopher.

All that, I fear, is disappearing.  Literally, it seems to be going to pot.  Marijuana, Mary Jane, reefer, and cannabis.  Call it what you want, I was shocked, visiting a large national book chain, to realize that what was previously eight shelves of fascinating garden literature is now four shelves, two of them composed entirely of books about growing, marketing, or self-medicating with marijuana.  I counted 87 different books on pot cultivation, with such imaginative titles as Marijuana 101Organic MarijuanaEverything Marijuana, and the Marijuana Garden Saver.  The Big Book of Buds is not about roses.  Only one even looked mildly interesting to me—Super Charged: How Outlaws, Hippies and Scientists Reinvented Marijuana, probably because it was more science and history-oriented rather than a how-to-grow-to-get-high-at-home manual.  I didn’t buy it for fear someone might see it laying around.

Can the drive for all these new books about marijuana really be sales-based?  I don’t see these on the bookshelves of friends, sitting on tables of garage sales, or promoted in bestseller lists.  Perhaps the gray-haired members of my daylily club are only pretending to grow hemerocallis in my presence, but pass the potato bong when I’m not around.  Somehow, somewhere, are the same clueless editors and booksellers just surmising that these are what the public wants?  The same editors that contract good writers to produce lame and repetitious books of landscaping dumbed down for the homeowner, or to write the 200th tome cautioning against over-watering houseplants (which currently comprise the other two gardening shelves in the store)?  Would Scotts, Bayer, and other companies grow richer if they forgot about lawn care and rose chemicals and concentrated their marketing on hydroponic fertilizer and gro-lamps aimed to entice that little extra buzz out of hemp?

Don’t answer that last question. It was rhetorical, not a suggestion for improvement.


  1. I’ve noticed this at the local Barnes & Noble for the last few years, now. I guess it might make some sense if I lived in California or Colorado, but I’m on the east coast.

  2. Here in DC, which has legalized medical pot, I expect we’ll be seeing more of those how-to-grow-pots on the book shelves.
    The “Super-Charged” book about pot I already own and am reading it for a review here on the Rant. So that’s my excuse for having it lying around MY house.

  3. Been happening at my Barnes & Noble for ages.

    I will admit that it annoys me. My ex-husband was (in the long-ago days when I was in college) an avid grower of illicit substances in the closet. He was a farmer with one singular cash crop and neither interest nor sympathy for gardening. (I wasn’t trying to put crocuses under the grow-lights, but years later, suggestions that maybe we could expand the flowerbed a teensy tiny bit past the foundation planting was met with mute horror, because Neighbors Might Judge Us.)

    Now, if people are gonna grow their own weed, it’s really not my problem, as long as it’s not MY closet, but at least give ’em their own shelf at the bookstore. The two customer bases really don’t intermingle much at all.

  4. I’ve also been disappointed in the decline of good gardening books in local bookstores as well. It seems to be an combination of a couple of unfortunate trends. Big-box bookstores seem to be focusing almost entirely on lifestyle books these days. Anyone remember when literary fiction was upfront?– now it’s all dieting/yoga/cookbooks/exercise. And there seems to be a declining market for garden literature, which the bookstores understandably reflect. Popular writing about gardening has, I think, declined markedly over the past decade or so. The Times coverage has diminished in recent years, and the Post has never replaced Henry Mitchell (although Jonathan Yardley remains) and ended its book review section (Bookworld) years ago. And television has essentially given up on serious gardening.

    I have to wonder, though, whether the marketers are wrong. Books on marijuana growing seem to tap into several market segments — adolescent boys; geeks interested in amperage and water delivery systems as well as mind-alteration; budding entrepreneurs; sellers of industrial horticultural supplies. Serious gardening books appeal to an increasingly niche market. Despite the constant drumming in the horticultural press about America’s love of gardening (the most popular hobby etc.), I’m not sure it’s accompanied by much serious interest in ornamental horticulture. As evidenced as well in a decline in enrollment in ornamental horticultural programs nationwide and the abysmal state of suburban gardens generally.

    • Hey, the WashPost not only has Jonathan Yardley reviewing books; it’s one of the few newspapers in the U.S. to have a full-time garden writer in Adrian Higgins. Plus the syndicated Barbara Damrosch.
      Before the excellent Higgins we did suffer a few bad years with Jack Eden (after Mitchell), who never saw a toxic chemical he didn’t love, and recommend highly. Lots of complaints were finally heard.

  5. Still thinking here that legalizing it would be a major boon for farmers and add significantly to our national coffers (tax it heavily).

  6. Here’s a scriptural reference from the Wise King Solomon. It has powerful & insightful so take it for what it means and nothing more. I actually saw this back in the 1970s when in High School when reading and studying seemed a chore and not the pleasure it is now.

    Ecclesiastes 12:12

    “And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

    As never before, the quantity of information available to the public is exploding. It is estimated that the total stock of human knowledge is doubling every four and a half years. In the United States alone, over 150,000 new book titles are published each year. When used discerningly, though, libraries continue to be what the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization calls a “local gateway to knowledge.”

    On that note I have to admit something here that I’ve never told anyone. When I do research on the net and I do a massive amount, I have found when it comes to holistic approaches to gardening and wild habitat restoration in general that many in the Medical *cough – cough* Marijuana industry who are growers are very scientifically up to scratch on latest techniques and organic methods on subjects like seed germination, mycorrhizal inoculum and beneficial bacteria and any of a number of things that truly replicate nature. I’ve gone to their websites and public forums and it’s incredible the amount of superior knowledge a dedicated Pot-Head possesses.

    Go figure!

    • Well, er, uh, yes, I agree….primarily because I have a son whose gardening genes were expressed early on in the Colorado hemp boom….and it was amazing what he knew about hydroponics and….cultivars….although he’s been squeezed out of the business now.

  7. many pot growers are very savy farmers and produce a great product. they are also the reason many nurseries are still in business.

    • Sadly Tom, your input falls on glazed over eyes. Let us not forget, it is really difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. Still, there is something so solidifying in tradition.

  8. The Barnes & Nobles here in Oregon have all morphed into gift/toy stores with coffee shops and what might best be described as a newsstand feel when it comes to the kinds of printed matter they sell. A place to rest during mall shopping, but not to buy books.

    In my small town a few years ago, a tiny shop opened up that specialized in indoor gardening and hydroponics, obviously catering to pot growers but also those interested in extending the growing season, starting seeds, etc. Last year, they moved to a bigger storefront and expanded their wares to include mainstream organic gardening stuff, and other related things such as bee-keeping supplies, cheese and cider making kits, and other homesteading supplies. Maybe floundering independent garden centers could learn something from them.

    I hope Professor Roush has a good independent bookstore nearby!

  9. This puts the oft-asked question “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in a new light. But I wonder if all those books are actually selling, or if the book buyer at your local store has been using that position to, um, do some research.

    Timeless, several people at a tomato-growing forum have also pointed out where the liveliest discussions on organic methods are coming from. They’ve also noted that the easiest place to find organic potions and seed-starting paraphernalia is at hydroponics stores! I’ve discovered that to be true locally; my nearest supplier of Happy Frog is a hydro store.

    • Unfortunately, most B&Ns I’ve been to (we have several in the general area) have the same selection in the Gardening section. Despite my discussions with staff & even a manager or two on the benefits of broadening the offerings beyond pot cultivation, the selection remains. Even when I’ve asked for specific books, they say they can special order it for me, but they won’t stock it on a regular basis. Seems like a backwards way of thinking to me – continue to dust off the limited genre of books you insist on offering to the community, but ignore the repeated requests by that same community for something more.

  10. My Barnes and Noble is the same. I find it totally disgusting. Is this what the gardening community is coming to? It is sad!

    I am tired of reading the same old same old! Would it kill someone to write about more than how to plant a perennial? Geez!
    I also feel it is a true reflection of our society. We really know very little about anything! Except how to purchase the latest greatest new thing! THAT they could write an encyclopedia set about!

  11. I have a wide selection of gardening books. Majority from danish bookstores, but lately I also tried and even
    I started bying used books also, since they are in excellent condition, and I really enjoy gardening books, some of them – arent published anymore.

    Maybe this could bring the REALLY great garden books to your bookshelf? 🙂

    Best of luck with it


    • At the risk of pushing my own book (need to really, the US publicist didn’t appear to do a thing) I wrote about my favourite garden books in ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener’ – one of my points being that there are some really good ones available for free now on-line. Many books which are out of copyright are there. I have always enjoyed the personal accounts of making gardens which seem to have become rare now but were common once.

      Maybe someone should – or has? – made a list of what’s available with reviews? That would be great.

      Hurray for the internet as well as lovely second hand bookshops.

  12. I’d love a good local book store, not one that tells me to order on line. I’d love “the feel of paper and printed letters, the smell of new ink and glue.”
    I used to enjoy spending Sunday mornings browsing the gardening book shelves and children’s literature section while my husband played hockey nearby. Those shelves are all tedious stuff now, filled with plastic tea sets and stuffed animals etc. I much prefer certain garden blogs these days. I’m not saying I limit myself to horticultural or kids’ lit themes. My complaint is the stores’ refusal to commit to handsome, serious or well written works on site. Maybe we need to write “Book Selection for Dummies”? Even the fiction section seems to only have short books with questions at the back for book club discussions.

  13. I wouldn’t trust any weed grown with Scotts products. If their bird food can kill birds, imagine what the fertilized ganja could do! You forgot to mention the other books on the shelf below that, ‘Salvia for beginners’, ‘Morning Glory, All you need to know’ and the always dependable, ‘Edible Mushrooms of North America’.

    Book stores have to make money selling something, otherwise it becomes a coffee shop with a very big book shelf. I don’t like the fact they prefer to sell plant smut, but I can’t blame them for catering to the alternative gardener/farmer who wants to buy from untraceable sources. But let’s face it, bookstores don’t cater for the avid gardener, they sample enough to ‘wet your appetite’ and skim the surface. Once your hooked, then you discover what the better books are to hunt out and enjoy. Sounds alot like weed when you think about it.

    • Well, yes, but as an amateur author, I’ve seen it from the other side as well. After a mailing had no effect, I actually had a face-to-face with a local bookseller about stocking my own locally-written book….something that I assumed they would jump at. The next time I went by the store they had placed 3 copies out for sale, all in the gardening section instead of the local section. All were sold a week later, probably a pretty fast turnaround for their gardening stock. And they never replaced them. So I must conclude they don’t watch their inventory as a method of what to sell.

  14. All the BN stores have the cannabis culture books. But the ones here in the Hudson Valleyalso have a significant representation on gardening in general. My bite with gardening books is they are all the same anymore.

    Glossy covers promsing the most beautiful vegatable gardens ever, organic of course, but no real susbstance.

    A true garden to table reveolution is needed. Not just the what to grow and how but why. I would like to see garden writing be more like URBAN GARDEN MAGAZINE before the publisher went broke for other reasons. It bridged the gap between the professional gardeners, like myself, whose livelihood depends on people planting, and gardeners who want to know why not just how and what.

    The TROLL

  15. As was mentioned a few times above, I think that the most recent push for the legalizing of marijuana has a lot to do with the proliferation of books about growing and caring for it. I’ve noticed a similar hijacking on the hydroponic aspect of gardening. Trying to do a little research in order to build a system for growing lettuce, all I seemed to find was links to weed sites. There are some fine designs available through them, but I couldn’t help perusing with some unease.

    On a more positve note, maybe the fact that there are so many of these titles on the shelves shows a dreadful lack of sales. Just saying…

Comments are closed.