Ethne Clarke and the Makeover of Organic Gardening


Organic gardening We join Organic Gardening magazine (OG) at possibly the most exciting time in its history.  With magazines folding all around them, the lucky bunch at Rodale find themselves sitting on top of a tsunami of veg-growing popularity, and they're riding that wave for all its worth. 

Not that they're solely responsible for the upsurge in growing food and growing it organically, or in what now gets called the "organic lifestyle".  Lots of factors, including the recession and the First Lady, have contributed to OG's 17% increase in ad revenue last year and their surging circulation.  But it's OG that's been talking and walking organic gardening, especially food gardening, since 1942, for crissakes, and times have finally caught up with THEM.  As editor Ethne Clarke told me in a phone chat, organic gardening is no longer the fringe – it's mainstream.

So last spring, at the height of anticipation over the White House Kitchen Garden, Rodale brought in a new regime from Des Moines, home of Meredith Publishing, led by Ethne and followed quickly by others from Iowa. 
(Does this count as a brain drain?  How ya doing, Meredith?)  I was happy to learn that they didn't just keep Therese Ciesinski on but promoted her to managing editor. 

So Ethne's first big task in her big new job was a total make-over in design and content, which is now revealed in the Feb-March issue and heralded via press release. Have you seen it yet?  Here's my quickie version of what's new:

  • Design-wise, the look is bolder, the photos are sexier, the paper is heavier and larger.
  • The main change in content seems to be "expanded food and cooking coverage," including a new nutrition expert, a food writer, and photojournalist Mathew Benson covering his own family's organic farm in the Hudson Valley, New York, complete with chickens, heirloom fruit trees and who knows what else.  On the ornamental side, designer Gordon Hayward will contribute regularly – something for us non-homesteading gardeners.

There's a new Gardener in Town

Now in media reports you've probably seen photos of the professional Ethne Clarke and that's cool, bEthneclarke2ut here's a casual shot of someone I totally believe is a gardener.  Her qualifications for the job are nicely summarized in Rodale's announcement of her hiring: "A professionally trained
horticulturist and internationally known garden historian and author, Clarke has
published 15 books on gardening and landscape history".  All that and business-savvy to boot, with more details here.  Yes, she spent 30 years in England but is originally from Chicago, so don't expect to hear an accent.  

Now for some gossipy, off-resume bits.  Her husband Donald Clarke is a music writer, with not just that website but a blog, too.  And in her five years in Des Moines she got to know Governor Vilsack enough to declare "Yay, Tom!" at what he's doing in his new job as Secretary of Ag.  Also, 'I'm proud of Vilsack" and he's a "down-to-earth guy".  Good to know.

The Gardens of Ethne Clarke

So with a chance to chat with Ethne, I naturally asked about her gardens – because I can't imagine relocating every few years as she's done (though with enough pluck to see each new garden is an opportunity to learn.)

After gardening on 1.5 acres in England for 30 years, the Clarkes relocated to Austin – a fine place to garden but what a difference!  But they "loved Austin dearly" for lots of reasons (remember her husband writes about music).  Though their new property was so void of plants there was "nothing but a dead possum in the woodpile", in her six years there Ethne created a native-plant, water-wise, all-organic garden and volunteered at the famous Wildflower Center.

Next garden?  In Des Moines, Iowa, for all of five years before the Clarkes uproot themselves once again and land in Allentown, PA – which Ethne says is "a bit like England."  Well, compared to Austin and Des Moines, I bet.  Their first goal is installing greenhouses for all her succulents (souvenirs of Texas), and they'll have veg garden, of course.

Next – Extreme Makeover, Online Version

Phase two of OG's makeover will update their online presence – the website, blog, and social media.  Hey, how about some blog posts about Ethne's own gardens, old and new?

Talk to the Editor 

So what do we think of OG's new look and content?  My quick review is that it's a big improvement visually, and the changes
in content look smart and promising.  I'd like to see the authors'
names made easier to find – why hide 'em?  And the oversize paper I'm not crazy
about.  But I love Rob Cardillo's cover photo and really, all the
photography inside, too. 

So readers, while we have OG's attention, tell us what you think of their makeover.  And what would you like to see in phase two?


  1. Well I’m certainly happy to see garden magazines still going and OG especially (although I haven’t seen the new look). I met Ethne back in her Austin days (Ethne – I met you at Len and Sue’s a couple of times) and it was a delight to speak to such a well informed fellow gardener. I look forward to checking out the new OG.

  2. I haven’t read Organic Gardening in a while. I guess I kind of burned out on gardening magazines. However, one thing I would love to see in a gardening magazine is more of the simple, home remedies that work so well in organic gardening. I don’t mind some advertising in articles for new products, but how about details about home cures, like rabbit food for rose fertilizer or soapy water for aphids, as well. No, it might not make advertisers happy, but the magazine would prove useful. And I might even pay more attention to the products advertised because I wouldn’t feel like the entire magazine was an advertising ploy.

  3. I agree that the new mag looks better (actually, much better), but content-wise this latest issue seemed like more of the same. I’m hoping that the content improvements are still to come.

  4. Shout out to Annie: Look no further! We have the tea-bags and stockings, soap and garlic recipes, AND we have savvy, organic advertising partners — whose ads support the publication of the tea-bags and stockings, soap and garlic recipes.
    Generally speaking, and not wanting to sound too much like Pollyanna, we’re all in this thing called organic together, working towards the same goal. Healthy soil, healthy people, healthy planet.

    Now if only this snow would melt…
    Ethne, EIC Organic Gardening.

  5. Delightful write-up, Susan. Your “I’ll bet” comment about PA made me LOL. I’ve been a fan of Ethne’s for years–I love her style, the way she uses words, and her obvious passion for gardening. (Also, she a stickler for accuracy, very much appreciated.) I, too, can’t imagine relocating that often, but I’m delighted to see her at the helm of OG. You grow, girl!

  6. I find that OG, though I enjoy it, doesn’t meet the needs of readers in warmer climates, like my own Southern CA garden climate. Perhaps there can be climate/regional experts or occasional columns by writers from non New England-ish climates.

    I am enjoying the more veggie oriented direction though. I’m the type of gardener that believes that a garden can be GORGEOUS and food-producing at the same time, and I like that OG seems to be taking that same approach. However, more info can go to fruit trees and home orchards. Overall, I hope the articles will become meatier.

  7. I quit subscribing to Organic Gardening oh, maybe 10 years ago when they went thru a format change and decided to do dark green font on pale green background and reduce the font size to say 9 in sidebar columns. It was too much eyestrain, and I can’t imagine that I was the only person who would find it dificult to read. The articles were all the same old same old: The best tomato of the year. The geared it toward urban flower garden. I am glad to see it will be focused on vegies once again. I hope they have more articles on raising ducks, or cheese making from your own goats, all kinds of things I will never do but love to read about. I will give the new OG a try.

  8. I love OG and it’s new look. But like Christina (above), I wish there was less focus on East Coast/Midwest gardening, & that we in warmer climes could see something specifically for our plots. Winter is another growing season for us (I’m in NorCal); there’s no such thing as putting the garden to sleep for the winter (unless we want to). How about it ?

  9. Regarding Annie’s comment, while those home remedies are useful and I do want to know about them, I think they’re already covered extensively in books and online. What I would hope OG would do is apply some science. Which of those home remedies actually work and why do they work vs. which are just old wives’ tales and a waste of time? It’s really time to apply a Mythbusters approach to organics, both to support the movement and to keep us all from just drinking the kool-aid.

  10. I would also like to see more information for those of us in the warmer climates. I like the idea of regional writers.

  11. IF you’ve been reading OG for 20 years, you probably got all the what to do with old stocking tips in the first 10 years. I like Mike McGrath, and Maria Rodale was okay too, but that was mostly the 90s. I lost interest as I felt I was rereading similar information. What I would like to see is a better online edition, so that I can go to that great article on growing cauliflower or artichokes, without storing paper magazines forever. I hated scrap-booking things of interest back then and thankful the internet is here to store all that stuff for me. Searchable database of articles, please.

    I believe they OG regional test gardens for awhile. More science, yes, but not that kind that tells me this veg or that veg is going to keep me from coaking- boring, and ever changing in my view. Science should be the insects, the soil, the plant science and how to apply it in home gardens. Keep a tips page at the back.

    What else, what else…..

  12. Hat’s off to OG. While the magazine has done an admirable job of keeping up with the times – it’s a joy to watch Time catch up with OG! I love the gorgeous photography and focus on food preparation. After all we’re growing food to eat it!

  13. I gave up on OG when it became a glossy, advertisement-filled publication. It originally was a small, basically one color, garden technique filled monthly jam packed with garden how-to’s. Each issue was worth saving and I have saved many. Ethne and staff, please bring back real gardening information and cut back on the fluffy glossy stuff….and I’ll give OG another try. Promise.

  14. I only peruse this magazine at the bookstores and only once in awhile have I been inspired enough to purchase an issue. It is usually not diverse enough, regionally speaking.
    Of course the one issue I did find interesting just happened to have a stock photo of my garden in it and it surprised the shit out of me.
    Now I check it for its unauthorized publishing of photos that they do not have permission to use and or do not credit the photographer or designer for their work product.

  15. As a gardener from the Far North, (uh, yeah that’s Canada, not Montana) I’m envious that publications like OG exist. Here, we have a fraction of the offering American readers enjoy. It was a sad day when one of our national gardening magazines, Gardening Life, folded in 2007. Any spike in gardening readership is good news….I’m glad that OG is alive and kicking and able to take advantage of an overhaul.

  16. I echo what was written previously. I might subscribe to OG if it covered gardening in warmer climates (like Texas). People who haven’t gardened here, haven’t a clue. What grows in the north, east, west won’t necessarily grow in the far south, even if we’re all in the same zone.)

    I’m also interested in frugal ways to garden organically. When opting between buying soil for a raised bed and making my own, I made my own for a fraction of the cost, and my plants did well. Laura

  17. LOL Allentown (I’m next door in Bethlehem) is nothing like England. But compared to Iowa and Texas…sure.

    I don’t know why, but I like oversized magazines. I haven’t read OG in a while, but like others have said, I might give it a second try. I’ll look for it next time I’m in the bookstore.

  18. I got the new OG mag but I got two of them – my suggestion, work on your accounting dept. Someone’s missing a good mag.

  19. I have not met Ethne but I visited her gardens in England in 1998 (my mom and her husband are friends).
    If OG becomes anything like her gardens, we are all in for a wonderful treat.

  20. I, for one am glad to hear all the positive comments about the new OG. Kudos to Maria for change, Ethne for vision, Therese & Gavin for the gold and all the rest who made it all happen. No magazine will ever be all things to all readers. Hey, it’s a big country – Canada included and OG is no IKEA. But they really do try. However, the negative comments about the lame website do ring the truest. Hello! your a media company for crying out loud.

  21. Yes, the mag does look slick and it might be hard to tell the ads from the pictures. Not like that is a such bad thing for the advertisers I guess. In this day and age, those folk seem to be getting scarce in print. I do like the larger size but it’s not very eco-friendly. Yet it is easier on the eyes as one poster mused about.

    For those of us newbies who did not know about tea-bags and stockings, I am looking forward to reading about them.

    What I would like to see in phase 2 is a little more edge, dirt under your fingernails kind of writing and like another commenter said “stuff I would probably never do but love to read about” Come’on OG – dazzle me.

  22. Am I the only one shallow enough to lament the fact that the Nov / Jan issue’s cover lacked color completely? I love this magazine, but, come on, it’s January. We need some love here. Give us a bloom or a berry or a blue sky – something!

  23. I used to subscribe to OG back in the M. McGrath days. I’m an edibles gardener and OG was awesome back in those days. I lost interest after the magazine was re-formulated for the umpteenth time – with emphasis on lifestyle and women’s concerns. Their website has been very weak over the past 5 years and I hope they can upgrade it similar to what Fine Gardening has done. I’ll give it another look but am skeptical.

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