Why I’ve Rejoined Garden Writers



From left, Ashley Sullivan (GWA deputy exec. director), Louise Clarke (Regional VP of GWA), Maria Ungaro (GWA executive director).

I’ve been a fair-weather friend to the Garden Writers Association for as long as I’ve been garden-writing, targeting my complaints at the management firm it paid to run everything. Like many other back-bench complainers, I’ve been hoping, hoping, hoping the management would change someday.

Now it’s happened! President Kirk Brown has announced that there’s a new team in charge, as of the first of this year.

GWA’s new executive director is Maria Ungaro, who’s also served as executive director for, among other things, The Content Council and New York Women in Communications. I got to meet Maria recently (at this trade show) and in a follow-up asked about her background. She told me that her parents immigrated from Ireland and Italy to the U.S., and the family had a “nice-sized vegetable garden” and made their own wine and tomato sauce. She attended college at Fordham, just across the street from the New York Botanical Gardens, and as she tells it, “the gardens were a constant source of solace for me, a great place to clear my head.”

So she’s an experienced association manager who gets gardening. GWA’s deputy executive director is now Ashley Hodak Sullivan, and others at the firm now managing GWA are Sandy Stevens, Caitlin Norton, June Price and Alexa Haller.  Bios here.

What’s Changing

gwa logo
Old GWA logo.
  • The logo and other branding graphics are already new and better, and the name is in the process of being changed, as well. Right now “GWA” stays but the name is The Association for Garden Communicators, and it might take some time to find a more inclusive title AND and initials that aren’t currently used by other garden entities.
New logo and tagline.
  • More changes to the website are coming soon – improved responsiveness, member communities, and more social media communication across all key channels.
  • A revamping of all communications, including social media.
  • A blog! Guest posts are welcome.
  • A “Next Generation Summit.”
  • Relations with corporate sponsors, which have been cause for so much contention over the years, are under discussion.
  • Remember when Great Garden Speakers was created because GWA didn’t have a speakers bureau for its members? Now we’re hearing from Katie Elzer-Peters via social media: “I run Great Garden Speakers. It is possible that it will merge with GWA down the road if that seems like a mutually beneficial happening for all parties involved. It has been discussed.”
  • And a GWA Youtube channel is on Maria’s wish list.

Rejoining, and Traveling to Atlanta

Rejoining is easy enough but for this homebody, the big deal is that I’ve committed to attending the next national symposium this September in Atlanta. I’ll be attending not because I need help advancing my garden-writing career; I’m happily retired, now just doing what’s fun.

I’ll attend because I want to support the organization and be a part of the revolution it’s experiencing. Plus, I suspect I’ll enjoy myself, as I have at previous symposia I’ve attended in Portland, Raleigh and Pittsburgh.

What took so long?

Debra Prinzing and Kirk Brown (dressed as F.L. Olmsted)

Now to answer the question I have to ask – why DID the same management firm run GWA with a sole-source arrangement for so long – 22 years?

It just takes what it takes, and apparently in this case that means enough members of GWA’s executive committee agreeing to put the management contract out for bid. Former president Debra Prinzing fought for that during her 2011 to 2013 tenure and got a partial but important step approved – having outside expert help with the next renegotiation of the contract, a first for GWA.

After there was finally enough support for an open bidding process, the existing contract was still in effect until January of this year, so Kirk and a volunteer committee were able to take two years to research the needs and then do the search and negotiation. (He recited for me the many steps in the search and selection process and I’ll just report that it was exhaustive and thorough.)

A surprisingly big deal is that the bidding included companies outside the plant world, which Kirk tells me was a “huge hurdle for voting members of GWA’s board.” But he says the winning bidders “know management. Widgets, wingdings and greens are virtually the same in the process that develops a positive bottom line.” GWA is now the only organization in the green industry with management from outside that small world.

Big picture, Kirk writes that “On many levels and across many fronts, Debra and I worked harmoniously through the past 6 years of this transition. I would not be here without the incredible amount of structural work Debra did to effect this opportunity.”

Debra wrote to tell me how hard it is to be a volunteer president while keeping one’s own career afloat and “I can’t tell you what sacrifice Kirk has made to get to this point.” She added that she admires “Kirk and most of the leadership that followed me for doing the very difficult work to change direction and literally save GWA.”

I’ll end by thanking Debra, Kirk and their co-conspirators for their hard work on behalf of garden communicators, and welcoming Maria and her team. Oh, and see ya in Atlanta!


  1. Susan: Thanks for this post and for filling us in on how the new management team came about. I hope it it all positive for GWA. I, too, have wondered about keeping my ties with the group, and the change seems like it will be a good one. Maybe I’ll see you in Atlanta! Barbara

  2. I’ll definitely see you in Atlanta, Susan, and I also extend my thanks and gratitude to Debra, Kirk and all the board members who helped make this change. I’m excited to see all the changes.

  3. Thank you Susan! I was on the search committee, and we all took the responsibility very seriously. We’re feeling very optimistic about the future and I look forward to seeing you in Atlanta.

    • What Susan’s article minimizes is the incredible amount of volunteer effort exerted by all of the GWA committees charged with moving the organization into the 21st Century. But Ellen speaks to the heart of the group that worked the hardest to learn all there was to know about association managers in the digital age. Kellen represents associations in that future world.

  4. Flatbush Gardener and others – no one at GWA was/is “in bed” with Scotts. Accepting their event sponsors $s does not equal endorsement or even guarantee coverage by any GWA member.
    On the otherhand, if you write/speak/blog for a garden center or publication, and they make much of the $s that they pay you from Scott’s products/advertising, means you are “in bed” with them, IMHO.
    But that is a discussion for another RANT thread.

  5. The enormity of the step that the board of directors for GWA chose to take in contracting with Kellen is small against the potential for growth that the change promises. The new company has targeted human resources and advanced technology that could never have been accessed by remaining where we were. Thanks Susan for recognizing that change is challenging but that evolution is natural. I look forward to all of the positive things that can happen with a newly galvanized and dynamic membership!

  6. Thanks, Susan, for your thoughts and message. We are looking forward to seeing you and so many others in Atlanta in September. Although the process of change is never easy, I feel very positive about the direction that GWA is headed and am optimistic about the future of the organization!

  7. Thank you, Susan, for test-driving the new GWA. There are a lot of committed people driving a lot of good change. I’m excited about what we can do for garden communicators!

  8. Great news about the new management team. There were several things about the old set up that bothered me, so I let my membership lapse.

    Now I’m rejoining too (even though our Canadian dollar has tanked and it’s going to cost me a lot more!)

  9. I let my membership lapse eons ago. Really loved the annual annual get-together and the terrific members, but found the official group pretty irrelevant to what I was doing. Glad to hear about positive changes.

  10. Welcome back Susan. I never let my membership lapse (since 1989) hoping for modernization but never doing much about it, running for office etc. The dues are significantly less than my other professional photography organizations (ASMP, ASPP) so I figured something was better than nothing. I do think the previous management looked to corporate sponsors for money to keep dues down, not necessarily bad thing, but will bring up some interesting conversations going forward.

  11. Excellent update! These are exciting times and it is nice to see this organization reaching outside of the industry for new ideas and options. Thank you to everyone who has invested so much time in this organization– I look forward to seeing you in Atlanta!

  12. A great up-date, Susan. I had heard about some of this at second hand, but it is a real service to have you report so thoroughly about the change. At a time when the media are changing so quickly and so drastically, a new, more energetic and imaginative management was really needed.

  13. I have never been a behind the scenes person regarding GWA and I look forward to it being better than ever. That being said, I will say that I will miss the former management people. They were like friends because I saw them every year and they remembered me. I hope with the new management firm, we aren’t always looking at different workers every conference. I appreciate thew effort put for e by the president and board to make GWA the best it can be.

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