False Holly: A Perspective on Garden Writing

False Holly Osmanthus Goshiki3

This morning I walked into the kitchen to make my tea, as I do at the start of every morning. The kitchen is a mess. If I’m being honest it is always a mess, but right now the disaster has taken the form of camera gear, photo props, 300 pounds of pumpkin, and a few tender potted plants that I haven’t the heart to let go of just yet. Even my dog is reluctant to navigate this maze in order to get out the back door. Amidst the mess, my eyes landed on this beautiful plant, False Holly Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’.

False Holly Osmanthus Goshiki3

Isn’t it lovely? This small bush that looks like a holly, but isn’t, was an early Holiday gift from a good friend. I just can’t get over those scalloped leaves and the patterns of green and white variegation. According to my friend it will also take on a third colour, a pinkish blush. However, because it is not a true holly (Ilex), it will not produce fruit.

The friend who gave me this beautiful plant loves the Holiday season; I do not. I believe that this generous gift was a way for her to share some of the beauty and joy she sees at a time of year when I struggle with both. The gesture was thoughtful and caring, and this morning, as I stood in the middle of all the kitchen’s mess, I was moved to tears, undone by the knowledge that I am cared for and I am seen. What I lack, which so often feels like a lot – financial security, professional advancement – is overshadowed by the wealth of love, support, and deep connections that I enjoy in my personal life.

Still, the month of December is a cheerless time of the year, a time when I often find myself feeling slightly morose, a time when I want to withdraw from the world of freshly fallen snow, endless social gatherings, happy happy happy happy (so brutally happy) carols, and a barrage of saccharine sweet sentimentality. All of this is made worse by the sense that these negative feelings about The Most Wonderful Time of the Year make me some kind of alien weirdo; a Grinch; a deplorable, hateful human being; one of the Kardashians. I promise you, I am not a misanthrope; I just really hate The Holidays, and for good reason. Later at my desk, I began typing a story, a continuation of this post about False Holly that explains my Holiday hate-on, but stopped myself with the feeling that I was crossing – no, smashing my way over an invisible, yet unmistakably persistent wall. That voice in my head screaming, “Whoa there. Too far. Too much. Not appropriate for gardening.

False Holly Osmanthus Goshiki3

A great deal of who I am, my voice, and the stories I ache to tell, no matter how intertwined with my gardening life, are not to be mentioned within a stone’s throw of the subject of gardening, by a person who is by-and-large a garden writer. This maddening separation of worlds is something that has been troubling me for almost as long as I have been writing about gardening. Over the years, I’ve tried to address the problem by being conscious about giving more space over to personal narrative and crafting stories that move beyond the cheerful how-to portions that are expected of me. I have fought to keep a few lines of personal writing in client work, even when words were limited (they are always limited, sometimes to extremes) and the personal is always the first to go. I have allowed myself to go off on tangents here on this website, where I am not working for pay and there is no one to say what I can and cannot write. My partner Davin suggests that I can nix the problem in the bud, so to speak, if I simply stop referring to myself as a “garden writer” and leave it at “writer.” His strategy is doable except for one thing: as long as I am writing on the topic of gardening, I continue to be a garden writer.

Garden Writer. It’s not the title that is stifling, but the expectations that come with it. I want more.

I’ve been asking myself why it does not feel like enough to give over a little space to narrative and why it is not satisfying to simply segregate my writing, with some time allotted to paying gigs (wherein the idea is that I am paid to write. How novel) and the unpaid garden writing that I do here on this website, with everything else placed into their own tidy silos. The answer I have come up with is this: gardening is something that I engage in with my whole being. It is not separate from who I am as Gayla, the person. It is not enough – certainly not satisfying enough or truthful enough – for me to write about the act of gardening without engaging with my personal background, my experiences, my humanity, my struggle, my joy, my values, my world view, my anxieties, and all of these other things that make me, me, and that tag along into the experience of tending this little patch of earth.

I am absolutely certain now that this is how it is for all gardeners, whether we acknowledge it or not. The way in which we approach gardening, the vastly different reasons why we do it, the ways in which we do it, the other things we enjoy, the broken parts of us, the healthy parts of us, the way we evolve as gardeners and the way that our gardens evolve with us, all of the little trivial things that we think have nothing to do with it at all… it’s all relevant. It’s all a part of the story. Our stories. We all lose out when we choose to focus on only one part.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s engaging, wickedly funny, and honest book on writing, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Several times within the book she makes mention of her writing students: how they are more interested in getting published than in being writers. Obviously, the two go hand-in-hand on a practical level: if you want to eke out some kind of living as a writer you need to be publicly recognized and published. However, the point she makes is that often we writers don’t make much of what you would call a living anyway, and that if we focus on publication as the be all, we lose everything that the act of writing can offer us, which, it so often turns out is far more meaningful than being published will ever be.

“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises… The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” – from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The same can be said of gardening. We treat the garden itself as a reward, especially when the garden meets certain aesthetic standards, when, in fact, the act of gardening is the best part. It can also be the worst part, at times. Yet, even in being truly awful it offers us so much more than we could have expected. Decades in and I am still discovering all that there is to gain – gifts that far exceed a bounty of fresh produce and pretty green things that delight my eye.

As I work on the garden, the garden works on me.

How we choose to write about gardening draws boundaries around what a garden is, what it can be, and who gardeners really are. The more I learn through gardening and the more gardeners I come into contact with, the more I come to understand that we are far more diverse than the handful of talking heads that have come to represent us in the mainstream media. Here is your cardboard cutout expert who will teach you much and offer you almost nothing in the same breath.

We gardeners come from all walks of life, with different skin colors, economic realities, and personal backgrounds. We come to gardening, which is not a singular, universal act, for vastly different reasons. We interpret it in our own unique way, and enjoy vastly different experiences as we engage with it. We are not a homogenous entity and for that reason I believe there is the potential for those of us who are taken to writing about gardening to find our own voices and tell our own stories rather than repeating what is already out there like a bunch of myna birds stuck in a box together relentlessly repeating the same sounds.

These days, with blogs and self-publishing we have the unique opportunity to do things differently, take risks, find our audience. But in what looks like a desperate scramble to grab for a sliver of a seemingly small pie, we seem only too happy to serve out countless dishes of the samey sameness seen in mainstream publications. And all the while we wait and pray that the gardening establishment will anoint us as experts and assign our work value when it turns out we already hold the power to give that to ourselves, should we want or need it. Sometimes that which is deemed good is not, it is merely compliant, easily manipulated and useful to make other people money.

“…if I’m not working for money; I’m working for freedom.” – Dave Chappelle

The other day I admonished myself for placing self-imposed boundaries around my own garden writing. I said that nobody is telling me what I can and can’t write about, and while that is mostly true when it comes to this website, it isn’t when it comes to the writing that I am hired to do for magazines and other publishers. There, very powerful real-world limits are driven, in part by economy. Magazines publish that which they believe will make money. They will take risks when they determine that a particular writer or topic will draw in a previously untapped audience/market. While I think I have demonstrated ability over the years to push boundaries and offer something more, the fact is that I am most often asked to write on the same topics in exactly the same way. There have been many times when I have tried to lend my own voice to a piece, and it has been edited out in favor of one that is lighter and often superficially optimistic in tone. Mediocre fluff. When you are only given 500 words to articulate a fairly complicated concept, trying as hard as you can to not dumb the info down, there is hardly enough space left to create a compelling narrative. We don’t allot the space to these other experiences that are a part of gardening because the very people who are working as editors, publishers, etc in garden media often either aren’t gardeners themselves, or they just don’t believe that anything beyond the very basic how-to holds much value or will sell to a paying audience. Feelings don’t sell, or aren’t perceived to sell in the same way that 12 Tips on [Insert Whatever Here] On a Budget does. Through the years I have been reminded nearly relentlessly that works in the gardening genre do not sell. While I suspect that this is said, in part as a manipulation to justify paying me less and less (in what other profession does one find themselves demoted with time?), over a dozen years of experience in the field has demonstrated that there is some truth to the manipulation.

I believe Willie Nelson said it best when he sang, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be garden writers.” Few garden writers make what could me construed as a living wage. I once tallied my work hours versus my actual income and discovered that your average fast food employee is in far better financial shape and probably has better job security to boot. That the misery of this fact hasn’t driven me to the drink or to give up entirely is a testament to either sheer stubbornness or insanity. I suspect that this is one reason why there are so many people of means, particularly women, working in a field where a handful of white men prosper. The job of writing about gardening is sold as a privilege and a gift, a hobby undeserving of fair compensation or respect. Since gifts do not pay the rent or keep the heat on through the winter, the genre is too often left to those who have the financial stability that affords working for little or no pay. It’s no wonder that the discourse is dominated by consumerism, perfectionism, and mainstream tastes.

Look, I’m not calling for an end to light pieces on how to wack weeds or grow a salad on your windowsill. I can’t write difficult, challenging stuff all of the time because it is sometimes painful, emotionally draining, and there are personal costs involved when I put my vulnerability into the world, even if it is also liberating and satisfying. I enjoy writing the light, how-to pieces, too. That said, I would like to see a balance. I would like to see more personal, heartfelt, and diverse stories come out from the confines of the gardening memoir ghetto. I would like to see the how-to pieces given more space to incorporate personal narrative and well-crafted anecdote. Heck, I would like to see more humor!

Save a handful of notable, exceptional writers, I have all but given up on the gardening world. I am older and wiser, but I am also right back where I started in my 20s: unable to relate to most of what is out there and downright bored. Instead, I have found myself looking to the food and cookbook world for inspiration and camaraderie. Each season a seemingly endless parade of beautifully illustrated and expensively produced hardcover cookbooks are published (Of the sort the gardening genre reserves for coffee table picture books of fancy palatial estates) and I am blown away by how many willingly, seamlessly incorporate at least as much storytelling as instruction. I eat those books up (pun intended). They invite me into worlds beyond my own and tell stories that delight, challenge, and engage my humanity. They inspire me to cook more, enjoy food more, try new things, experiment, and explore. Sometimes they are too rich for my blood and function purely as aspiration, but more often than not they are within reach and without intimidation, yet full, whole, and real. The writers are not just chefs or cooks. They are people with stories to tell, lives lead, and rich experiences that are part and parcel of preparing food to eat. I have read cookbooks that speak honestly of family, of familial joy, closeness, sadness and pain. Personal difficulties are revealed; beautiful works that are sometimes sad, dark, bleak, snarky, political, and all of the things that we shy away from when it comes to garden writing or relegate to its own little darkened corner.

Why can’t we do that in the garden world?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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58 thoughts on “False Holly: A Perspective on Garden Writing

  1. If it is any consolation you are likely much healthier and have a much better quality of life than the average fast food worker. :)

  2. Oh wow! I can sure relate to this post. I love reading peoples stories too. Last month I decided to write for the whole month about family life. That was a step out of the box for me as I generally write about gardening but I certainly needed it. It was more difficult than I expected because I shared openly about my family and its trials and tribulations. Some posts had me crying while I wrote and I think that bringing passion into writing is what we need and maybe we don’t get it from garden writing. Like you said, its often the same stuff each year.
    By the way, Osmanthus is a lovely shrub for the garden.

    • But we can bring it to garden writing. I find so many openings every day to do so… Good for you for challenging yourself in that way. It can be a lot to take on emotionally but worth it.

      I received the plant late in the year so will be growing in a larger pot and keeping in a protected but cold spot this winter and then will try moving into the ground next year. It’s not really hardy here but I feel confident that it can be pushed with the right conditions. Cheers!

  3. Thoughtful, as always, Gayla. To comment on your last point: while we all have to eat, we don’t all have to garden. Plus, we get bored with our food, and there’s so much to discover (yesterday, for instance, I stumbled upon a wonderful blog all about African cuisine). The market for cookbooks is, therefore, simply more marketable.

    I think you just have to go on being exactly who you are. You have a loyal following. Although that doesn’t pay the rent in itself – yet – that’s how you’re paid.

    • Good point. Again, economics. However, part of the point I was trying to make is that we can’t really know what sells and doesn’t until we take risks and find out. I suppose I was also saying that we should be willing to take risks regardless.

      Anyways, I have to say from experience that when I pitched my first book (which to me did not seem so crazy or off the wall) I was met with a lot of opposition. At the time it wasn’t cache to use the word “organic” and I was not allowed to use it in a title. In the publishing world they have to see something do well before they’ll take risks and then once one person has success it is like a green light for everyone to do the same.

    • Sorry forgot to respond to your last point. I don’t want to in any way undermine how much it means that people come here to read what I write and enjoy it. I’ve met lots of lovely people and have made lots of meaningful connections over the years through my writing. I am grateful for it. However, the problem with the hard work of skilled garden writers not making their due is a terrible problem. It’s exploitative, and like I said, it also keeps things so that a certain demographic dominate the discourse, which in turn effects the way that gardening is framed.

  4. Go for it, Gayla girl! This is an excellent piece. I am so drawn in to the emotions you have allowed to show. For the record, I used to garden some, but right now, it’s not possible for me. Yet, your writing is irresistible. That’s because of the little glimpses of you that show through, mostly in what you find interesting. Break the mold! You may be surprised by enthusiastic reception. Why allow a terminology to define you? BTW, I find “the Holidays” a frustrating, difficult time, as well. I love the spiritual realities of Christmas, but the commercial frenzy drives me wild. I’ll be thinking of you and praying that the “next two months” will bring you peace and happiness, despite the parts you hate.

  5. Gayla, this blog post of yours held my attention until “the end.” I would enjoy more of this kind of writing from you. I read a lot of blogs. Most are cooking blogs, and I am finding that the authors’ voices are becoming more and more predictable and a little boring. There are some exceptions, of course. Luisa Weiss comes to mind. Three of my passions, though, are writing, gardening and cooking, so the recipes have great redeeming value in terms of returning to the same blogs. I used to buy Dan Hinkley’s Herronswood catalogs just to read his descriptions of plants. Luckily, I also lived near Herronswood, when he was the proprietor, so when the color of a flowering variegated phlox “brought him to his knees” in the catalog description, I had to go over to his garden and look at it. The phlox now rewards me each year in my own garden. In this blog post, I read that kind of passion in you. Thanks for sharing a bit more of yourself with us.

  6. In 30 years when someone writes a biography—or you write an autobiography—it will be the deep stories that resonate and are written about, not the Top 10 Plants To Grow in Fall.

    Start writing the stories down now anyway. I know there are many who would want to read them when they are published.

  7. I call this phenomenon “blog drift.” And it’s happening all over the place. It’s healthy, normal, natural to want to branch out after one has reached a certain level of proficiency with the medium and the topic. I say open yourself up. People are craving connection. Meet that need.

    (P.S. I went through blog drift a couple of years ago. Best thing that ever happened to me.)

    • Hello,

      I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to read and comment. However, I need it to be clear that “blog drift” is not what I’m getting at here. In Feb I’ll be headed into my 15th year writing on YouGrowGirl.com so naturally there have been many changes over the years as my work (and myself) has evolved.

      However, I write in many other media as well… the blog is just one part. I do mention a call to action in terms of the opportunities we have with blogs to be more, but I’m not just calling for a change in how we write for ourselves when we are not being paid. I am calling for a change in what we accept in all media that publishes garden writing: newspapers, magazines, books, etc. I have worked in all three as well as television and I can say with confidence that all are extremely limited in what they expect and demand from garden writers/writing, the consequence of which is a very homogeneous portrayal of gardeners and gardens.

  8. i stop by from time to time and look at the cheery ‘How To’ stuff on your blog….but this post here is quite compelling…. because, as you say, the ‘how to garden’ stuff is all over the place. be a writer who gardens or be a gardener who writes, it doesn’t matter. just keep doing both :)

  9. Bravo!!! BRAVO!!! I have been a writer all my life and a blogger since 2005. In the past few years I tried my hand at garden writing and that (along with a few health crisises) has literally blocked up my writing to a degree I’ve never experienced before and until I read your piece here I didn’t see the connection despite my unhappiness with trying to be a garden writer and it filtering into my other writings and my blog. Thank you, brave, inspiring Gayla, for this post! You are a wonderful Writer.

  10. Your personal thoughts in print are compelling and revealing. I read your post with great appreciation. Thank you, Gayla, for opening up and sharing.
    “As I work on the garden, the garden works on me” is so apt a description it’s eerie.

    For me, the garden has been intense therapy and a precious creative outlet after losing a beloved teaching career at age 46. My current level of devotion defines me as a gardener, above every other role I play.

  11. You’ve covered so much and given so much food for thought that I can’t bring myself to reply in any meaningful way because I’m over-stimulated and can’t focus. But I want to comment because I want you to know that I get it and I hear you and the call to action.

    Will I be able to join you in this new and brave path of writing about gardening? I don’t know. I’m having trouble breaking from the how-to gardening posts and writing voice. I’ve wanted to break from it the past two years because I feel myself to hamstrung by it.

    I find it a lot easier to let personality shine through on Twitter than in longer form pieces like blog posts. I want to have that same bravery that makes me say “F— it!” when I hit submit on a tweet that I know is going to cost me followers, and apply it to my blog post, but I can’t seem to work up the courage. Yet.

    • I’m not calling for an end to how-to writing. I know from experience that writing engaging, clear, how-to is not easy work. It is also necessary. I’m just saying that there is so much more to tell that either isn’t being told or when it is, is pushed aside into the margins and sometimes even trivialized. I know you have a lot to say that needs to be heard. I also know you have it in you to say it well. I support you wholeheartedly.

    • You’re not calling for an end to how-to writing, but in order for us to get more from all garden media, the Internet-based writers are going to have to break from how-to in order for it to become a “trend” and get the attention, and participation, of television, radio and print.

      So let’s say your post becomes a thing. People join in and start to let more personality shine through. Then some garden writer picks up on it and writes a story in a newspaper that gets syndicated about how there’s this group of writers doing “slow garden writing” and the trend is leading to yadda, yadda, yadda. Even more garden writers jump on the “slow garden writing” because they too want to be validated by being published.

      Then some publishers/editors/marketers see the newspaper story and are like “Hey, people love this. Why aren’t we doing this? We’re important and on trend and relevant.”

      Everything in gardening that has been noteworthy the past ten years started online first and then spread to the mainstream gardening world. From ideas/memes to hacks like the upside down tomato in buckets.

    • This is tricky because while cynical, your comment is 100% spot on. The worst part is that I have seen so many good ideas that come from the online world twisted up and dumbed down to the point of farce. That’s always going to happen and it is sad that this is how a certain amount of so-called change is made.

  12. I am so glad you decided to share your thoughts on this topic. I was particularly awestruck about your comment that you feel like you did in your 20s: unable to relate and bored. I concur and the only “garden” blogs I read these days are those who have personal stories involved. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gained basic gardening proficiency so many of the “listicle” type articles don’t interest me anymore. I prefer reading about a garden and gardener’s evolution.

    In 2009 I met many garden bloggers at an event, and while some have become good friends, I noticed the sameness you described above. I returned home from my trip and a few months later my life fell to pieces and I lost my garden, and the idea about garden blogging fell out of my life, and was never really the same once I saw what was behind the curtain. Today I pick up garden magazines and read the names of article author(s) before I choose to read the article or not.

    I have always appreciated your ability to articulate your life in a way that conveys your personal experiences as they relate to your gardens and yourself as a gardener. I am happy for your current garden and that you shared this with us. The world needs more real, and less hustle.

    • Hustle. Yes, I find even being near it exhausting. I like your use of “behind the curtain.” Once you’ve looked on the other side there is a lot that just seems too fantastical and hard to swallow. And what would be the point in trying?

  13. Bingo.

    One of the best, if not the best things I’ve read all year.

    I have warm fuzzy feelings about the holidays, but then, I don’t really shop. Hate it, hate the busy-ness, but love the time with family and close friends. Hope the season passes quickly for you Gayla.

  14. Gayla – this resonates with me more than I can articulate. I hated feeling pressured to cram a gardening angle into things I felt I needed to write that were just personal stories.

    Like Katie, I’ve kind of lost my garden, too, albeit in a very different way. I’ve kind of destroyed it, along with a lot of myself, through neglect. One day I hope to restore it and me and write about the journey. It’s good to know if I should decide to do that, I’m not the only one that appreciates a personal story with some humor (and for me, pathos…I can’t help it!).

    I often do google searches using your blog name and whatever topic I’m looking for so I appreciate them all. But mostly these days I love your pictures and personal stories.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective, Gayla.

  15. I absolutely abhor reading simple ‘how to’ articles. It’s like a very dissatisfying daliance that left me wondering… what the heck just happened? I want to learn and I want to absorb a sense of feeling, of connection, of community. I, as a reader, want to know my host. I don’t learn from the Top 10 most recommened. I learn from experience, I learn from passion, from mistakes and triumphs. I love hearing the frustrations, the humor that follows, and then the joy of success. It’s what makes great writers, great. It’s what makes me remember. Gardening does need more of it. Food already has it. Gardening and food, I think, need to learn a sense of community with each other, and the passion that comes from food needs to be planted in the garden, and its writing.

    I planted my first garden this year. I started late, I started in makeshift planters to shallow, and with to few plants. My tomato was embarassingly spindly and lanky, and only 3 fruit ever appeared. None of which grew big enough to ripen and eat. I had issues with ants and some funky little curvy shelled thing I have still yet to identify. Oh did my heart break.

    I love reading this blog. It gives me hope that next year my garden will be better, bigger, and that my dog can share in it with me. I’m moving from my southern facing front porch that didn’t get enough sunlight because I am surrounded by tons and tons of trees, to a much sunnier back corner in the back yard. I look forward to your journey through the winter and spring, as much as I look forward to my own. I look forward to seeing more of you in your blog, as much as it has attracted me since I stumbled upon it this summer.

  16. Hot damn, a lot to take in. In a delicious way. I will only read blogs w personal narrative at this point as the “how-to” angle loses me quickly. I tend to incorporate my “life” into my gardening writing (probably to hide bad gardening skills) but I feel inspired to do so even more after reading this. Thank you.

  17. Hi Gayla,
    I know you said on twitter that our issues are different but that’s strange: this is what I have been struggling with for the past 20 years.

    I have now got to a position where I can sometimes get published – generally only in the Telegraph (UK – http://veddw.com/category/annes-writing/) – in my own voice. And I no longer think I could write any other way. I also can, of course, in my own blog. (http://veddw.com/blog/)

    I think I discussed the problem in The Bad Tempered Gardener, and for that I interviewed some editors and made interesting discoveries about the restrictions they operate with. But mostly the result of being honest and personal is that I don’t get published much.

    I created thinkingardens to try to give a different voice to gardens. But that isn’t (on purpose) gardenING. Perhaps we need to create a similar outlet for the kind of material you are thinking of but gardening focused? Thinkingardens makes a little money (not as much as a couple of mainstream articles!) – could make more. Gardening could be more popular – could work as eventually commercial.

    But most of all it could provide a model and outlet for garden writing which moved out of the happy happy ‘inspirational’ sick making writing into something really worth reading..

    There are online magazines – but they have all followed the happy happy formula so far, I believe?

    We need to make this big and see what sympathy there is out there.. Most thinkingarden contributors are also gardeners..

    What do you think? Can we take this further?

    XXXX Anne

    • Thanks for writing Anne, I admit that I read parts of your book at a friend’s and it sounds like I’ve missed a lot. What I read was focussed on writing critically about gardens in the way that art, music, etc is discussed with a critical eye. This is why I said on Twitter that i thought our criticisms were different, although still appreciated since too often in this genre we are told to only speak of the positive (and sometimes in the most thoughtless way).

      I think there are some publications that speak to this disparity but they are marginalized. And more than ever this is my problem. Because while I work to change and evolve with my own writing, I don’t see an evolution happening in the industry at large.

      We should talk.

  18. I love, love, love this! Although I appreciate a good how-to article when I’m in need of information, I don’t find reading them soul enriching in any way and I hunger for that. I too bemoan the fact that I have to often search outside my genre for that level of satisfying introspection and humor. Authors like Anne Lamott can keep me stumbling ’round my head for days and how often I find myself gardening while letting her words percolate.

  19. Over at Whole Life Gardening I’ve been exploring how all of life is related to the garden for several years now. Do my readers tend to prefer those posts that have actual gardening information? Yes. Do they have trouble thinking metaphorically with me? Sometimes. Yet there are a group of loyal readers who appreciate this “whole life” approach.

    I remember Guy Clark’s song:
    You got to sing like you don’t need the money
    Love like you’ll never get hurt
    You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
    It’s gotta come from the heart
    If you want it to work

    Follow your heart.

    • I am following my heart. I have been all along. It’s not like I just woke up one day last week and thought, “I’m gonna start writing about gardening in a totally different way.” What I am calling for is a change in the gardening world at large. there are parallels to be drawn between how gardening is bought and sold in the media and who dominates the discourse.

  20. Hi Gayla…
    I’ve read your books which I enjoyed, they are somewhat different from the norm in a good way, I’ve read some of your blog posts which I have found interesting (I run warm to cool to warm on blogs in general, reading or writing as it’s hard to filter on styles you enjoy in order to miss what drives one mad).
    I think a lot of gardeners and readers of all ilk would enjoy reading more of what you propose – there’s a lot of great food/cooking reading out there (though personally I still think many cookbooks include too much repetitive basic cooking info, which I mentioned on twitter to you the other day, which wasn’t intended to mean it and good writing is mutually exclusive in the same book, I am a cookbook fiend of the worst kind.)
    Anyway, blather blather, to get to the actual point I wanted to make which is that in order to actually make the changes you speak of, a group of successful like-minded writers would need to start working on it and getting it out there in the marketplace.
    I wish you good luck, I’d buy that :)
    ~ Erinn

  21. After four years of garden blogging, I’ve learnt to write my posts on three levels. Yes, there are a few South African gardeners who could buy and grow the plants I write about. The second layer is gardeners who share my mediterranean climate and who might, since South Africa has given so many plants to horticulture, be able to buy THAT plant.

    But most of my readers are the third layer – not interested in the horticultural how tos, coming to my garden in search of blue skies and sunshine, a window on a different world. Which is in turn what I look for in the blogs that I read.

    Thanks to Mr Brown Thumb, Ramon, for bringing me to your post.

  22. You can well imagine in my line of work how boring all the “how to” run your garden business stuff has become. For myself, part of the solution has been to disconnect from the constant onslaught of media dedicated to this. Focusing more on my blog, where I can better express myself without the instant feedback, criticisms, and anger that so often occur in other platforms. Rather than looking outward at how “so and so” has done “this or that”, I wish to look inward a bit more. Renewing a sense of discovery by following our own paths, rather than the overly well trodden ones.

    • Hi Trey,

      A couple of points… You have a garden shop business; I do not. Writing is my business. For that reason it is not enough personally nor professionally to write inside a vacuum. I should be able to make a living doing my best work. I realize I have control over what I write here, and to that end I am constantly changing, evolving, and re-evaluating as I go. That should be obvious given the thousands of pieces that exist here.

      But I am also saying that we all lose out (not just me) when the collective WE (which includes the larger world of gardening media in its various forms) stifle and restrict discourse around gardening in a way that shows only one perspective, focusses and appeals to only one demographic, lacks the real diversity that exists and is possible, presents gardening as a superficial pursuit, is unbalanced and often hastily produced and dull… I am saying that the gardening world needs to mature and evolve. It is the slowest and least resistant to change of any genre I can think of!

      I don’t think it is too much of me to ask that the profession that I work in to change, too.

  23. I support your efforts, which is why your blog is one of the few I take the time to comment on. Promoting change, and disappointment with the “status quo” is why I became involved in creating and supporting the various media platforms that encourage open discussion and interaction. Sorry I missed your Twitter post. I have retreated somewhat from that platform.

    You mention “cookbooks that speak honestly of family, of familial joy, closeness, sadness and pain.” This is along the lines of what I intended with my writing, of “renew(ing) a sense of discovery by following our own paths, rather than the overly well trodden ones.”

    When it seems the public only want’s plants treated with chemicals to make them bloom sooner, a dull shopping experience provided by mass merchants, and our garden media tells us “attaching a coffee shop to our stores is the way forward”, I too feel like I am working in a vacuum at times. Small garden shops everywhere are dissapearring. Honestly, I am suprised my shop is still here.

  24. You mention “cookbooks that speak honestly of family, of familial joy, closeness, sadness and pain.” This is what I meant for my writing with “rather than looking outward at how ‘so and so’ has done ‘this or that’, I wish to look inward a bit more, renew(ing) a sense of discovery by following our own paths, rather than the overly well trodden ones.” In my mind, same idea.

    When it seems the public only want’s plants treated with chemicals to make them bloom sooner, a dull shopping experience provided by mass merchants, and our garden media tell us attaching a coffee shop to our stores is the way forward, I too feel like I’m working in a vacuum. Small garden shops here and elsewhere are disappearing. Frankly, I am happily surprised my shop is still here and able to open it’s doors for business. A year ago it almost wasn’t.

    I think change is occurring, albeit at a snails pace. I am happy to contribute in my own unique way to helping make that happen. I know you will do the same. Thanks.

    • RE: Garden Media Offering Advice: They don’t really know. They don’t know what sells, they don’t know how to sell it, they don’t know what readers want, they don’t know how to draw in new gardeners, and they don’t how you should alter your business. They are guessing and hoping. They are reading the blogs and copying what we’re doing without the heart, yet all the while we are looking to them to be given a pat on the head. It’s ass backwards. I’m glad your business is still going. I haven’t given up on the public. Not yet. I still believe it is up to us (I mean us writers and publishers, media) to be an example.

  25. Sorry about the double reply. I work with a very slow internet and had no idea the first response went through. I hadn’t time to look it over. Feel free to delete the first response. Sorry.

  26. hi,Gayla,

    I’am one of your faithful reader from china. I have started reading your blog three years ago, though this is my first time to leave a message.

    I want to say you have inspired me. I started planting herbs in my balcony one year ago and it brings me lots of joy.

    During the past three years, your blog is always in my bookmark list. I would thank you for putting so much effort to make this blog informative and inspiring.

    For the gardening writing, I don’t have much suggest due to my lack of knowledge, but I feel the media and some bloggers just try to please the audience, to gain attention and money. They make everything(words&photos? like a dream but it has no conenction with the life of readers. I will give up that kind of blog quickly.

    I hope you will always enjoy the writing, anyway please yourself first. Good luck


    • Hi Jane,

      I’m really glad to hear that gardening is brining you pleasure. Herbs are great to start with because they are instantly rewarding (look, smell, taste) and they keep on giving.

      Thanks for reading and writing in.

  27. Wow! That was quite the rant! “Suck it up buttercup.” You’re talented, intelligent, creative and a gardener. Maybe not meant to be a “garden” writer. Think of what you’re doing now as helping to pay the bills but look ahead to what you really want to do. Take it from someone who was self-employed for 30 years. It ain’t easy!
    And really, comparing Willie Nelson’s ‘cowboys’ to ‘garden writers’? Though it was kinda cute.

    • I don’t consider this a rant or a pity party but thanks for using condescension to reduce the point I’ve made down to nothing more than a childish affectation.

      If you have a problem with the whole of the argument I’ve presented, then state your case. Using infantilizing language and telling me to “suck it up” while offering proof of your greater hardship is cheap.

  28. An excellent piece thank you Gayla, which will give me much food for thought in the weeks to come.

    I think you summed it up so well when you started the Grow Write Guild with ‘Tell more stories’, so I try to keep that phrase in mind when I write my blog these days. It’s more of a wish rather than completely getting there so far, but things worth achieving deserve to have some difficulty attached to them.

    I must look up the book you’ve mentioned – sounds interesting. I wonder how many people who write do so because they need to write, rather than wanting to be published (I suspect there’s more of the latter). It’s something which isn’t just confined to garden writing…

    I have to write, there’s just so much in my brain demanding to be committed to “paper”. I’d go mad if I didn’t and it also informs my own learning.

  29. I’ve read your blog for several years, bought your gardening books, and noticed the posts on this site drift further away from the subject of gardening over the past couple years. This is your blog, and you can write about whatever you wish, you could start another blog that is not garden focused. I sense that you have some anger and sadness about life that hovers under the surface, which is why I find your call for garden writers to show more humour odd. You are a talented writer, but this manifesto is solipsistic and draining. If you want to see something in the world, make it happen.

    • Funny that you would accuse me of solipsism when you’ve left a comment that does not seek to discuss, but is instead condescending and insulting.

      Every post on this site (and there are many thousands) is about growing, cooking, or using plants in some way. That I allow myself to tell stories and occasionally pull in experiences that aren’t typically seen in garden writing is hardly indicative of a site that is “drift(ing) further away from the subject of gardening.” I’d argue that it is one that is getting closer to it.

      I find it hard to believe that you’re a longtime reader. My writing is consistently humor-filled. It is sometimes wry and on rare occasions a little dark, but that’s nothing I will apologize for. Sure, I have a little sadness and anger. I also have joy, love, gratefulness, sorrow, connectedness, doubt, confidence… the run of the mill of feelings and experiences. You seem invested in painting me in negatives as a response to the fact that I am calling for balance?

      I am calling for a more balanced perspective that allows for a larger dialogue and an inclusivity that I see missing in the world of gardening and gardening media…. how that is so threatening confounds me. I get from this that you don’t agree with the argument I’ve made, but your comment is so focussed on attempting to psychoanalyze me personally that I can’t make heads or tails of what it is that you actually think or believe. Please make an argument that supports dialogue around the ideas I’ve raised rather than casting aspersions on me personally.

    • In the words of my favorite writing professor, HAPPY IS BORING! Good writing needs tension. That is not debatable, right?

      If some of these people would dig up some “saddness and anger” and infuse it into their writing it would make it a lot more palatable! For me, anyway.

      Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep apprecition for posts that get right to the point, too. For example, I have come back to your roasted tomato soup recipe over and over and emailed it to friends who have cooked and loved it. But there’s something more to it. To continue on with the tomato soup analogy, that I know you, that I have read about your struggles and triumphs, that you have let us into your life in a deeper way makes me view your recipes and how-to’s completely differently that I would many other writers. You make me trust you because you are not hiding anything from me. You lure us in with that shit, man!

  30. Hi, Gayla.
    I’ve been reading your blog for 8 or so years and have never left a comment, but felt inspired to today. I liked it. Have you seen/read Derek Jarman’s Garden? Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems like a counter-example to the trend that you describe. I used to “visit” this book at the bookstore. All the best, and please don’t stop blogging! Emily

    • I didn’t know there was a book. Thanks for letting me know. A friend sent me pictures of the garden some time ago. It is a work of art. p.s. i have no intention to stop blogging/writing/etc.

  31. Gayla,
    I guess it matters a great deal who you are writing for, your readers, your editor/publisher or yourself. Many people who create for a living aren’t free to create only for themselves. It’s something I see everyday from aspiring artists who work as graphic designers and copywriters in ad agencies. It is par for the course no matter how aggravating.

    You’ve got a great blog to showcase your complete voice and maybe one day you’ll have a TV show if you stick with it. Don’t you think decorating and gardening shows do a much better job of incorporating their hosts’ personalities than publications are doing?

    • I am very aware that when I am writing for publications that I am not free to write willy nilly about whatever. I don’t have a problem with that. However, I don’t think that should negate my argument that they could do better and that many of the limitations they place are contributing to gardening being presented in a one-dimensional way, populated by a very narrowly defined demographic.

      No, I do not believe that Garden TV is doing a better job. They are far, far worse and they are primarily hosted by banal talking heads and people who don’t know the first thing about gardening. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are rare and that’s a damn shame.

  32. Here, here! Just have to comment again. I absolutely agree with all your responses to comments. I also appreciate reading more balanced and more than one dimensional writing. Please know that there are many of us out there who will read the post, article, book.

  33. Aside from you being absolutely right, sterile gardening produces sterile gardeners where the reality is that most of us are as fecund as they get. We wouldn’t be bum’s up out in the garden watching through our legs as the chooks scratch away the mulch that we just spread if we weren’t eternal optimists capable of humorous appreciation. I am starting to think that most publishers are not even readers. Surely “engage your audience” is numero uno on the ladder to literary success and how can you engage someone while you are plugging the sponsors more than you are featuring the content? I get the feeling that garden writers are just about to take the same dive into deeper waters that cookbook writers are now enjoying…splashing around and out of your depth all thanks to the hipsters and their incessant need for simplicity and learning to do it all for themselves…sustainably.
    Just over that horizon are book deals and magazines with meaty content and all kinds of rewards but it’s we consumers that need to lead the push. Are gardener’s wallflowers? I think we need to rise up and wave our disposable income at publishers…if they have dollars in their eyes, let’s lure them with our change purses till we get what we want. I only read blogs with real people writing them. As soon as the false platitudes and salesmanship comes out I am off. I might not comment on your posts much but I deeply enjoy each and every one of them and if you should feel the need to veer off into anything other than the gardening vernacular, I, for one, will be most happy to exit stage left, for the ride.

  34. Hi,

    I’ve spent the last ten years maintaining residential gardens in the Toronto area. Often I get called in a few years after a ‘Design/Build’ company has designed every square inch of the place. Even though every ‘trick’ or ‘tip’ in the book has been used, these gardens usually have a very sterile feel to them.

    Occasionally I get the opportunity to work in a garden that has been envisioned and planted by the home owner. These are the places I can never get out of my head, because they always have a story.

    ‘How to’ stuff has its place, but stories about gardens and people will always keep me coming back.

    Thanks for the great post.


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