Garden Writers Gone Wild –
A Report from OK City, OK


Guest Post by Kathy Jentz, who blogs here and produces the Washington Gardener magazine.

Ever read a garden magazine or book and think to yourself, "Who is this joker?"
Well, that joker would be

me — your lowlBiggwababy_3y regional garden writer and editor.
Trolling the test vegetable growing fields and back offices of garden
centers for story ideas to bring you the latest and greatest gardening trends.
In that noble mission, I attended my second annual meeting of the Garden Writers
This year the GWA chose Oklahoma City, OK, for their international
symposium. Like me, you are probably questioning why OK? Well, it turns out this
jealous sibling of Texas has much to boast about on the gardening front. From
tree farms to farmer’s markets, we saw it all.

Oklahoma exceeded my
expectations and gave me lots of story leads to pursue. In addition, I was able
to observe almost 500 of my fellow garden writers, photographers, editors,
public relations flacks, and garden supply sales reps in up-close and personal
quarters. I’m obviously still wet behind the ears in GWA, as I made
several classic newbie errors when dealing with other garden media types.
Here are a few:

1. Never relax on a hayride with a bunch of competing
garden writers while sipping on glasses of complementary wine. If you do, you
might have the urge to blurt out an intriguing garden-related story idea you’ve
been hard at work researching for the past few months. I clearly cannot hold my
liquor, cause after just one glass I was telling my most colorful sources all about it. It wasn’t
until I saw the mad scribbling in notebooks and typing in Blackberries that I
realized thGwahedgee huge blunder I’d made. Here I thought I was being oh so
entertaining and sociable. Lesson learned.

When it comes to the loading
and unloading of GWA bus tours, it’s every garden writer for themselves.

2. If you
want to be first to view a garden and photograph it without 100 or so other
bodies milling about the same tiny, perfect wildflower in bloom, you need to act
quickly. Get on the first bus and grab the seat closest to the front. If you
have to body-check someone to do so, them’s the breaks. One famous garden
photographer, I’ll call him Heinrich Smell for purposes of this rant, is
apparently a notorious bus bully. No matter where he ends up sitting on the bus,
he manages to shoot up to the front and be first one off every time. I quickly
learned to get out of his way lest I lose an eye to those pointy

3. Whatever directions you’re given by the GWA organizers and
volunteers, go ahead and ignore them. They are just suggestions, after all, and
you know better. One experienced pro took me under her wing. She told me of her
theory of the evolution of the garden writer. According to her well-thought-out
analysis and years of field observation, garden writers are a breed apart –
literally. One does not become a garden writer because one is a conformist.
Writers in general have earned a hard-scrabble, ornery reputation. You certainly
don’t go into it for the job security or money. Pair that with the often
solitary pursuit and love of gardening in one individual and you get someone
with little respect for authority and a whole lot of time spent living inside
their own heads. When you get a bunch of us together is it any wonder chaos
ensues? My theorizing mentor told the tale of a group of GWA attendees at an event a
few years earlier who took over one of the buses and did not allow others to
enter so that they could use it exclusively for the touring day. They had so
cowed their volunteer bus captain that he turned Patty Hearst and by the end was
defending their ill-behaved actions.

Suffice it to say that I had a great
time at this meet – no joke. I love meeting the people in person whose books,
articles, and blogs I’ve so enjoyed reading over the years. And yes, we can all
be a little cantankerous at times, but isn’t that why you keeping buying and
reading our creative output?

If you were at GWA ’07 in OKC, please share your thoughts and observations in a comment.
I’m truly looking forward to GWA ’08 in Portland and another encounter with the
tribe of wild garden writers.

Photos by Kathy Jentz.  Top, an unnamed participant.  Bottom, touring.


  1. Okay, the guy dressed up as a baby is freaking me out. What’s that about?

    Kathy, apart from the social/networking stuff, what else did you get out of the conference? I’ve thought about going, but just haven’t been able to justify the expense. If I knew I was going to get some face time with big magazine editors, or learn something that I couldn’t just look up on the internet, it might be worth it. What do you think?

  2. The big baby was in Novalis’ booth ( – I’m not sure the direct connection but they have a Lemon Daddy and Big Daddy hydrangea line plus they have a slogan of “Where Color Comes to Life” — maybe related to one of those? It certainly worked to get attention on the exhibit floor.
    Amy, I highly encourage you to attend – lots of face time with magazine editors from “The American Gardener” to “Fine Garding” to the Better Homes & Gardens publications crew. The networking for me is the #1 reason to go, #2 would be learning out all the plants and products coming down the pipleline, #3 would be the intensive schedule garden tours and lots of photo ops, and #4 would be the educational sessions – this year I came away with several article and column ideas basically “in the can” from things I was inspired by at those.
    Believe me I hemmed and hawed on going to OKC due to the airfare and hotel costs and going on my own dime (while many others may be on expense-accounts) and take several days off with no one to watch the business back home. I’m extremely glad I made the decision to go as I could not have made several connections without it.

  3. This is what makes GWA meetings valuable to me:
    1. The private gardens we visit. Wasn’t that small garden done by the two guys worth the ENTIRE TRIP??? I love it when someone talented pays attention to EVERY SINGLE DETAIL.
    2. I take photos on these trips that I use in presentations for years to come. Not just the gardens we visit, but the neighboring properties as well. I got a great shot of a foundation planting done totally in crabgrass…my trade show audiences will love that one.
    3. The educational programs get my juices going…from podcasting to blogs and beyond…they have me inspired and motivated. Brian Minter’s talk about Gen X and Y was fantastic and generated many thoughts about spinning what I’m already doing in order to attract and inform a younger audience. I have a long list of ideas for my winter writing/speaking/video/radio work.
    4. I brought home samples of new products and plants to try, and more coming by mail in the future. I have several guests lined up for the radio program – perfect for the winter months when there are fewer callers. I have sample products to give away when I speak – my audiences LOVE it when I give things away, and I enjoy telling them about good plants and products.
    5. I had FUN! I was wined and dined at the OK City art museum and saw two paintings that made me cry. Not to mention the glass exibit… I got lost with a group of great people as we were trying to get to another private party (we never found it – OK City is a MAZE of highways and our host was vague about the directions…) and ended up having an honest and personal conversation in the bar with someone that I would never have connected with otherwise.
    6. I loved how much our hosts loved their home state – this meeting had more “sense of place” than most such events I’ve attended. As always, enthusiasm, humor and love are contagious. Not to mention gardening.
    7. I come away from these meetings saying “YES! YES! YES!”

  4. Sorry – can’t post photos of this garden. First of all, if I decide to use the photographs in any way whatsoever I will need to get the gardeners’ permission…common courtesy, not to mention a legal necessity. And it’s doubtful that I’d post them online in any case. I’ve talked to several garden writers/speakers who say that they’ve seen their photos from their website or other postings used in Powerpoint presentations without their permission. So I have decided that any photos I’ve put on the internet have to be images that I have no interest in using in any other way.

  5. The baby was a part of the family gardening with the Novalis booth’s, Nooks and Crannies new line of tiny ground cover plants. We had mannequins and I didn’t like the idea ofa family with no movement or real activity, hence the baby playing in the garden. Start ’em youny ya’ll. The point is to get them into the booth. To the women who had problems with it, seek help, now! It was hard getting all that soil cleaned out of my diaper.

  6. Hi there GWA friends. Kathy, I really appreciate your post about the Oklahoma City Garden Writers annual symposium. You have quickly learned how to make the most of your few days with “500 of your closest friends” celebrating the industry, plants, gardens, people and places we love.
    I echo your and CL’s comments about the value of attending what to me is my “annual meeting” and the best professional development I could invest in.
    I got hooked on the national symposium in 2002 when I innocently agreed to serve with veteran garden columnist Marianne Binetti as co-chair of the Seattle local arrangements committee. We worked our butts off and found that we quickly forgot the hard work and never forgot the amazing connections forged during that conference.
    Since then, I have attended every subsequent national symposium and I can honestly say I always come home with contacts that lead to freelance work that usually covers the investment of my plane ticket and hotel room. One year an editor I met called me out of the blue and gave me a $1800 assignment; another year, a tool maker hired me to write an educational brochure which yielded $3000; another time, a publisher asked me to write two books.
    There are no guarantees, of course. But for anyone hesitating to invest in themselves, and to invest in this profession, please think about making the effort (sacrifice even) to participate.
    For the record, the 2008 symposium is scheduled for Portland – September 19-21, 2008.
    And PS, I moderated the Garden Blogging panel featuring three GWA members, including Mary Ann Newcomer,; Kathy Purdy,; and David Perry,
    The experience inspired me to FINALLY get my blog off the ground. You can visit it at

  7. With over 20 meettings under my belt I can concur with the extremely important point that free lance writers can seldom get a better chance to find work than a GWA meeting. I’d like to remind folks that the same thing occurs at the Regional Meetings, so keep your calendars open, the costs are much lower.

  8. I enjoyed the humor in Kathy’s posting–so I don’t want to take her remarks too seriously. But I feel compelled to say that I have found GWA symposiums to be a real blessing to my life. I have made so many great friends that going to the meeting is now a family reunion. Contrary to experiencing the competitive atmosphere she mentioned, I have been astounded by the openness and sharing of members and have received invaluable aid that has helped me stay in business. (And, jeepers, why you expect to be able to photograph a garden if you’re on a tour with hundreds of other people?) And, like so many other members who live and work in isolation, I find it my only opportunity to have peers, “coworkers” who understand the world and problems I face. I’ve definitely gained lucrative work and connections–it more than pays for itself (I hustle for them, true). Plus, I get to flirt and dance. I dunno about you, but I don’t get a lot of that in my average day alone with the computer screen!
    I am very, very grateful for GWA and the great job the staff and noble volunteers do putting together these meetings. My thanks to everyone.

  9. I’m a little late chiming in on this, but here goes. The OKC conference was my first GWA event and I couldn’t have loved it more. I’m a slightly different situation than many GWA members I met — rather than working as a freelancer, I work full-time at our local land-grant university writing about gardening topics. The people I met at GWA were warm, wonderful, and definitely happy to share the ins and outs of the garden writing world with a relative newbie like me. So long as our budget allows, I’ll be there in Portland in July.

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