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Gardening: Roses Are Red, Grasses Are Green
Robert Dahlin -- 3/6/00
For this flourishing niche, the outlook stays keen

After looking in on today's gardens, it's no mystery why plots thicken all over the country. In a recent American Nursery & Landscaping Association report, Kip Creel, v-p of the PK Data market research firm, declares, "Today, roughly 70 million households in the United States garden. At last count, the U.S. had 101 million households in the nation, bringing household penetration of gardening to 69%." Creel also states, "Conservatively, consumer purchases of all lawn and garden products amount to about $30 billion each year."

Why do all these folks cultivate their green thumbs so fervently and open their purses so widely, making gardening the number one hobby in the country? An American Demographics magazine survey finds that 44% of gardeners want to be outdoors. Some 42% confess that they choose to be around beautiful things, and 39% remark that gardening helps them relax. Staying active and getting some exercise is given as another reason by 35%.

With so much going on, do they all know what they're doing? Not necessarily. Research also shows that while many gardeners are indeed experts who know how to double-dig a new border, prune an unruly bridal-wreath spirea and divide a bed choked with bearded irises, even more are people who stuff a few geraniums into plastic pots every summer or whose gardening chores amount to not much more than mowing the lawn.

However, whatever the level of a gardener's knowledge or interest, publishers with an eye on that $30 billion being dispensed so freely have answers for just about every gardening question or problem, and because hundreds of new books promising solutions are published every year, the publishers' challenge -- a common one faced by all categories today -- is to make their books stand out from the pack.

"It's difficult to find new areas to publish to," concedes Jennifer Feldman, publisher of cooking and gardening titles at IDG Books. "There are a lot of niche areas already well covered and when you're publishing a book with four-color photographs, you have to have a book that will sell enough copies to make it financially feasible." One way IDG adds a salable authority to its books is the Dummies brand name coupled with the National Gardening Association imprimatur, as with Trees & Shrubs for Dummies by Ann Whitman and the National Gardening Association.

Frances Tenenbaum, the editor of Taylor gardening guides at Houghton Mifflin who has her own imprint there, says, "When I go into a bookstore, I find so many similar books. I'm always trying to do something different." As a result, in addition to such books as Taylor's Master Guide to Landscaping by Rita Buchanan and a new paper edition of Taylor's Guide to Growing North America's Favorite Plants by Barbara Ellis on her 2000 list, Tenenbaum speaks fondly of The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada by William Cullina and A Man's Garden by Warren Schultz. Among the gardens described in the latter is one where a gent grows 430 species of palm trees on a quarter-acre lot -- you can't get much more different than that. But there's more going on with Taylor guides, too. "We've started creating totally new books of our major early bestsellers with completely new texts and new photos," says Tenenbaum. "I was just doing catalogue copy for the new Taylor's Guide to Perennials, which has 22 genera that weren't in the older book. Over 200 new species makes this quite a different book."

New Directions, New Looks
"The thing that really excited me about our new Better Homes and Gardens Perennials for Today's Gardens," says Cathy Wilkinson Barash, executive editor for garden books at Meredith, "is that it includes plants I didn't even know about. There's so much that's new in the marketplace from plants found through explorations in places like China and Japan and in the creation of new hybrids. We're also just finishing up a makeover of Step-by-Step Landscaping, which we first did in 1991. We're totally redoing it with a different emphasis on design aspects and more attention to organic gardening."

Organic gardening is a methodology that's pretty much taken for granted these days, but for about a half-century, one of the most notable sources of information utilizing this approach has been, of course, Rodale Press. "Our winter 2000 list is our largest," says Nancy Small, publishing director of the Organic Living program. "We're in the midst of developing a new magazine with the working title Organic Living. The preview issue will be out in April, and a book program will follow, which will encompass our Organic Gardening books. Essentially, we're in the process of redefining our organic line." Small explains that Maria Rodale, editor of Organic Gardening magazine and books (and granddaughter of the pioneering J.I. Rodale), is working to create a more attractive approach to many of the books. "They will continue to be authorities with how-to information, but they will be embellished with a more stylish look," says Small. "We aren't going to be doing coffee-table books, and some of our books won't need a four-color presentation throughout, but we are going to be combining substance with a greater amount of style. The first two books with this look are Perennials for Every Purpose and Heirloom Country Gardens, both of which represent a fairly significant change for us and help us reach out more to the book trade."

At DK, a prominent new direction for its coming lists is the generation of more titles in the U.S. "That's a big trend for us," says senior editor Ray Rogers. "Most of our books have traditionally originated in London, although we have always done a lot of Americanization here. But even with those for the last couple of years, the London team has asked me for my thoughts, so I've been pretty much involved from the beginning. Our next big book, Pests and Diseases, has been hugely Americanized, but some things absolutely have to be done here, books for the American southwest or the very humid southeast, for example. There is even the look of the pictures in the books. If it's going to sell in America, the pictures need to look like Pennsylvania, for example, and not Kent." Rogers reports that DK is so committed to this concept that both the editorial and design staffs are being increased in the U.S. "The first book that we've originated here in gardening," he says, "is Ultimate Rose, which is a celebration of roses, not a how-to for growing them. The pictures are the cream of the crop from our library in London as well as from the American Rose Society."

"Photos are probably the most important thing in a gardening book. When looking through one, they're the first thing to catch your eye, unless what you're looking for is a specific kind of instruction," says Wendy Sleppin, an editor at Barron's, where matters are bullish. "The number of gardening books we're doing has definitely increased. The latest I've worked on is Complete Gardener's Dictionary by Barbara Ellis, which is really much more than a dictionary. It can work for someone who wants to know what terms mean and for someone else who's taking a basic botany course because it explains things like double-digging and grafting. Yet it's not too sophisticated for a beginner."

Like Rodale and DK, other publishers are reexamining and refining their programs. "We're doing more up-level, fewer basic-level books," says Charles Nurnberg, executive v-p at Sterling, who also points out that backlist remains highly significant in the house's gardening book area, despite Sterling's aggressive frontlist stance. "In our publishing program, 80% of sales come from the backlist," Nurnberg discloses. In fact, Sterling's bestselling backlist gardening title is The House Plant Expert by D.G. Hessayon, which was first published in Great Britain in 1960. Nurnberg d sn't say how many copies Sterling has sold, but notes that the book has moved more than 12 million copies in English worldwide in its various editions.

"In the past couple of years, we've been going through our backlist and updating all of our key titles," says Bob Doyle, v-p and editorial director of Sunset Books. Sunset is also stretching out to expand its geographical coverage. "We have a regional set of books we're putting in place," Doyle adds. "We started with the Western Garden Book, Western Garden Problem Solver and Western Landscaping, and then did Southern Living Garden Book, Problem Solver and Landscaping. This year, we've released Northeastern Landscaping. The Northeastern Garden Book will be available next January, and we hope to do a comparable set for the midwest."

Regionally Speaking
Regional vs. national attention is an ongoing consideration in garden publishing. Since climate plays one of the most crucial of all roles in growing plants in particular environments, many publishers seek to provide both local and national advice. Although primarily known for its books on southern gardens, Taylor continues to build its Book of Lists series (next up: New England Gardener's Book of Lists, coming in June), and it also presents titles that can be applicable to growing anywhere, such as Liz Druitt's Guide to Little Roses.

Regional publishing is not of great interest to Neil Maillet, executive editor at Timber Press. "It's true that growing conditions vary greatly by region," he says, "but for the most part, techniques remain the same. What you do in the early spring, for example, is what you'd do anywhere. The major difference is when early spring arrives."

"To get totally regionally specific is really very difficult," suggests Meredith's Cathy Wilkinson Barash, "In our Step-by-Step Yard Care, we have checklists covering the things you should do in every season both in cool climates and warm climates, but with weather patterns today, you don't even know what to expect. In February we had 60° days here in Iowa."

Booksellers, however, are particularly sensitive to regional demands. Stacey Langal, spokesperson for Waldenbooks, says that the chain focuses on each store's location when buying. "A book that's really, really good for us is The Southern Gardener's Book of Lists [by Lois Trigg Chaplin, Taylor]," says Lynn Clark, manager of Norfolk Botanical Garden Gift Shop, "but people are also interested in reference books identifying plants, books like American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants [edited by Christopher Brickell, DK]."

"We can sell anything that has to do with the area around Houston," says Laura Voigt, hard goods buyer at Teas Nursery in Bellaire, which is part of that Texan metropolis. She cites A Garden Book for Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast by the River Oaks Garden Club [Gulf] as a particular success. "And a more general book we've liked is Let It Rot [by Stu Campbell, Storey]."

"A tremendous seller for us has been Home Landscaping: Southeast Region from Creative Homeowner," says Julian Howard, bookseller at Joseph-Beth in Lexington, Ky. "That's by Roger Holmes and Rita Buchanan. One that's not regional that I'm really going to be pushing this year is The Vegetable Gardener's Bible from Storey. I think it's going to be a big one."

"One of the things that sets our books apart," says Sunset's Bob Doyle, "is that we've established a proprietary set of climate zones that are much more detailed than those put out by the USDA. The USDA has 10 zones for the whole country that respond to when the ground tends to freeze in the fall and when the last frost occurs in the spring. We have 46 zones for the U.S., taking into account high summer temperatures and humidity levels. In the west, nurseries use Sunset zones, and we're trying to establish them in the rest of the country."

Yet another publisher with reform in mind is Chronicle Books. Senior editor Leslie Jonath says, "We're putting a new focus on our garden book program. There's so much competition out there, and so many books hit the same subjects. We're moving more toward lifestyle books, rather than books that tell you how to plant a pansy. We're also going for an audience beyond the gardener, people who aren't necessarily gardeners, but who love gardens." In what some might call an adventurous step, one of Chronicle's newest pictorial celebrations is Weeds by Howard Bjornson, 64 color photos capturing the natural beauty of such (usually) unwanted plants as the thistle and the dandelion.

Beauty vs. Practicality
An explicitly visual élan has long been the hallmark at Clarkson Potter, where Martha Stewart has established her inimitable trademark. Martha Stewart's Gardening is a stalwart Potter title, and upcoming are Gardening from Seed and Gardening 101, both bearing the Martha Stewart Living byline and the promise of achieving an enviable outdoor panache. "We're best known for our lifestyle books," says editorial director Lauren Shakely. "We consider the mystique of things. Whether it's cooking, decorating or gardening, what's important is the author's point of view -- such as Martha Stewart's. In its way, too, Ken Druse's new book is truly revolutionary. With Making More Plants, he takes a subject that's instructional and makes it seductive. He shows that propagation is not a tiny corner of gardening. It's what gardening really is. As a cookbook author would invent and test recipes, Ken creates his own methods of plant propagation. When a category like gardening matures, that's what happens. The books become more sophisticated in taste."

If sophistication and aesthetics have gained favor, it might seem that the myriads of coffee-table books radiantly portraying gardens and flowers would be enjoying a heyday. While many do sell admirably, that is not the kind of gardening book that rules the market. "Coffee-table books aren't selling as well as they did earlier," says Meredith's Barash. "What remains is a need for good solid, basic information, as well as inspiration."

At Waldenbooks, Langal agrees: "Customers seem to be looking for practical guides more than full-color coffee-table books." She also judges that "books by Better Homes & Gardens and the American Horticultural Society, as well as books in the Dummies series, are really popular right now."

"Coffee-table books are nice," says Donna Hamilton, special markets and rights manager at Fulcrum, "but practical books sell better. Even so, having helpful four-color photographs throughout usually means bigger sales. Garden centers tell us that people want to be shown and told how to organize plants and what to do with them." Hamilton notes that, although traditional bookstores provide the lion's share of Fulcrum's sales, garden centers are a growing resource, and catalogues such as High Country Gardens and Charley's Greenhouse also account for significant sales.

Camille Cline, senior editor at Taylor, concurs with Hamilton about what sells best. "Practical books are tops with us," she says. "We publish all types, but the most popular ones are those that have really great how-to information and that supply lists of plants to grow and tell how to grow them, books that talk about soil and fertilization, shade versus sun. One of our bestselling books is Bulletproof Flowers for the South by Jim Wilson. He's a former co-host of PBS's Victory Garden, and he's promoting the heck out of it."

At Storey Books, editorial director Maggie Lydic stresses that "the mission of our company is to provide practical information in books written by real people who are real gardeners. Oftentimes gardening books are written by committee or are imported and aren't on target for an American market. Over all, organic gardening g s without saying in this day and age, as is evident in Ed Smith's new book, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, but there's more to the book than that. Ed has worked out a system that he characterizes as WORD." The acronym stands for Wide rows, Organic methods, Raised beds and Deep soil. "All the photographs in the book are of Ed working in his own garden and dealing with his system of growing vegetables," says Lydic. "Most successful gardening books have to do with a system, and some methods of gardening have changed over the years. It's really hard to come up with something new in gardening, but we think we've done it here."

"We emphasize how-to information in all our books, and we're broadening that as we really build up a gardening book line," says Tim Bakke, editorial director of Creative Homeowner. "Our strength has been in hammer-and-nails books, such as building gazebos and decks," says CH's v-p of marketing, Kevin Edwards. "Gardening was the next logical step for us, and we've tripled our staff in the art and editorial departments. Our first relevant book was Quick Guide: Ponds and Fountains, which we published in 1994." Edwards adds that while historically the vast bulk of CH's sales was through home centers and hardware stores, the traditional bookstore market is becoming important now, with sales up 330% in these venues since the end of 1997, particularly with book wholesalers, clubs and libraries.

Water, Water (Almost) Everywhere
One of Creative Homeowner's spring books expands what began with Ponds and Fountains, as Complete Guide to Water Gardens taps into one of the bigger trends in gardening. Underscoring this fact, Sterling's Nurnberg says, "For us, water gardening is a category unto itself. We have about 18 titles on the subject, which started with The Pond Doctor by Helen Nash a few years ago. Gardening is also moving indoors. Bonsai is one of our specialty areas, and there's even Tabletop Fountains, which was published by Lark Books last year and which is, in a sense, an interior gardening book."

"We've signed up a book on water gardens, which is now a couple of years away," says Anne Knudsen, executive editor of gardening books at NTC/Contemporary. "Contemporary has only been publishing garden books for the last two years, so this is our first major season with new titles. I think we'll probably do three or four each spring, but I don't see the program growing enormously. We did a lot of research before we began and decided we wanted to do fairly sophisticated books for a fairly sophisticated audience."

Besides water gardening, an ongoing trend continues to be its opposite: xeriscaping, which confronts drought conditions with water conservation. Fulcrum, for one, has made xeriscaping a vital part of its list. In fact, an upcoming Fulcrum title is cited by buyer Margaret Maupin at Denver's Tattered Cover. "Passionate Gardening [subtitled Good Advice for Challenging Climates] by Lauren Springer and Rob Proctor is a book I'm really looking forward to," she tells PW. "Lauren did a book called The Undaunted Garden a few years ago, and that's now one of our core titles. People are getting used to the fact that we don't have any water out here."

A highly specific book coming from Workman is actually entitled Water. One of the latest in the Smith & Hawken Hands-on Gardener series, it serves as a handbook for gardeners in all climates, covering the right way to deliver water to the right plant at the right time.

A "drought" of a different sort seems to be prevalent at the Garden Book Club, where a conversation with director Klaus Kirschbaum reveals that the only club dealing exclusively with gardening and landscaping books d sn't offer books for beginners. "Our membership breaks down to 40% professionals and 60% pretty serious gardeners," he says. "The books that tend to pop for us have been on niche-oriented topics, such as container gardening, water gardening, stone-scaping. Perennial Combinations [by C. Colston Burrell] from Rodale was our bestselling alternate ever, and Hydrangeas [by Daria Price Bowman] from Friedman/Fairfax was our second bestselling alternate. Also, a book like Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs from Timber Press d s well for us." Among the club's summer choices are The Scandinavian Garden by Karl-Dietrich Buler (a main selection), published by Frances Lincoln, and a dual main selection of Christopher Lloyd's Gardening Year, published by Frances Lincoln, and Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden from Viking Studio. (Both Frances Lincoln titles will be distributed in the U.S. this spring by Antique Collectors' Club.)

"Our books are not primarily for first-time gardeners," says Taunton publisher Jim Childs, "and we're always looking for a new positioning in the category, which is not a radically fast-moving one. We want authors with a strong point of view and also authors who have real hands-on experience."

A writer with an especially strong point of view holds forth in a new Contemporary book entitled The Landscaping Revolution. "Andy Wasowski is quite strident here, but he knows what he wants to say," remarks Anne Knudsen. With a starkly forceful cover, Wasowski's book vigorously promotes the use of native plants, non-chemical products and easy-to-maintain landscape designs. "It's not an approach that you'd usually find on a gardening shelf," says Knudsen, "and that's purposeful."

Annuals, Perennials and Other Favorites
One of the frequently debated topics among gardeners is the popularity contest between perennials and annuals, which usually ends with the longer-lived plants coming out on top. "There's always a swing back and forth between perennials and annuals," says Sunset's Doyle. Lynn Clark at the Norfolk Botanical Garden Gift Shop remarks, "Perennials are one of the hottest things right now." On the other hand, Perry Atterberry, co-editor of home and garden books at Amazon.com, reflects, "I think we're going to be seeing a resurgence of annuals over perennials. I think a book like Annuals with Style from Taunton will do well. Our buyers are primarily hardcore gardeners looking for new design ideas for established gardens. We don't have any really basic garden books on our bestseller list."

"Perennials has been a big area for a few years," says Timber Press's Neil Maillet. "We published Gardening with Perennials Month by Month, a $60 book, back in the early '90s. That did really well, and we've yet to get burned with any books on perennials since then. Our single bestselling book in terms of copies is The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust [1998)], and one that we're expecting a lot from is Armitage's Garden Perennials by Allan Armitage, a March book with over 1400 photographs as well as a lot of information on many, many plants. It's true that one of the biggest changes is the sheer number of garden plants available for purchase today. It has grown exponentially, and what's more, people are constantly testing the hardiness limits for plants. People have been able to push boundaries of established plants like magnolias and camellias northward. In May we're publishing a new edition of Magnolias: A Gardener's Guide by Jim Gardiner, which we published first in 1989. The number of plants has doubled since the first edition."

Sally Kovalchick, Workman editor-in-chief, also points out the accelerating spread of appreciation for older plants as well. This month Workman publishes Smith & Hawken: 100 Old Roses for the American Garden by Clair G. Martin. "Biodiversity is now so great that people want to go back and plant what the Empress Josephine planted," she quips. Josephine may not have been planted many veggies, but one of the "historical" standby sellers at Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Wash., is Heirloom Vegetables: A Home Gardener's Guide to Finding and Growing Vegetables from the Past by Sue Stickland (Fireside). "We're a seed-saving organization," says Foundation manager Aleta Anderson. "Some of the other books that sell well for us are How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons from Ten Speed Press and Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, which was published by Seed Savers Exchange."

What else? "Books on orchids are selling tremendously well," says Doyle at Sunset. "You run into orchids all over the place now, and ornamental grasses too. They're very popular. We cover another popular subject in Landscaping with Stone."

Also more fashionable than ever are herbs, inescapable evidence of which is seen on TV as herbal-based medications are touted repeatedly. Langal at Waldenbooks mentions the wide acceptance of Llewellyn's Herbal Almanac for the Year 2000. "People are starting to create their own herbal remedies," notes Storey's Maggie Lydic, "but many aren't familiar with what the plants look like or which part of the plant to use. Our new book, Growing 101 Herbs that Heal, is by Tammi Hartung who's a herbalist who gardens herself." Mary Wulff-Tilford and Gregory L. Tilford proved singularly enterprising with their holistic health book released last November, All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets, published by BowTie Press (dist. by National Book Network).

Another topic that Tattered Cover's Margaret Maupin has witnessed growing in importance is the garden with a tropical ambiance. "As with everything else, styles change," she says. "Some people want to break away from the English garden and use more exotic plants." Tropical Ornamentals by W. Arthur Whistler is on Timber's July list, and The New Exotic Garden by Will Giles, published by Mitchell Beazley, will be distributed by Sterling next month.

Howard of Joseph-Beth suggests there are a few underpublished subjects that publishers may want to consider. "I'm big into cacti and succulents," he says, "and there's not that much in print. We also get questions about home fruit trees, and there aren't a ton of books on those." And overpublished? "In our buyer's opinion, an overpublished area within the gardening category is the 'complete guides,' " says Langal at Waldenbooks.

Whether it involves tropical exotics or stones, landscaping is all about personal need and taste. "People are treating gardening more as exterior design," says Taunton's Childs. "They tend to view the garden as a living space." A concept that has been percolating for some time steps forward again with a March Time-Life title, A Ceiling of Sky: Special Garden Rooms and the People Who Created Them by Pat Ross.

This desire to create exterior environments for living has also led to more books dealing with structures. One of the latest is Smith & Hawken: Garden Structures, due next month from Workman. "Everybody is spending so much time in the garden, we wanted to do a book about making the garden an even more pleasant place," says Sally Kovalchick at Workman, which struck pay dirt with The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch more than a decade ago and is now in the process of updating Damrosch's Theme Gardens for next fall.

Under the enormous umbrella subject of garden and landscaping design, inspiration comes from all over. "In our World of Garden Design," says Chronicle's Jonath, "we show how to take elements from gardens from different countries and incorporate them into your own life. From an Italian garden, for example, we can learn how to work with terra cotta pots." A spring book that Jonath considers unusually important in perfecting designs with flowers according to hue is The Garden Color Book. "The format is really innovative," she remarks. "You have three different horizontal leaves so that you can mix and match, almost like you can with fabric swatches. On the back of each color, plant names are given, as well as information about growing zones and practical and inspirational ideas."

Interestingly, Time-Life Books also has a spring book composed of mix-and-match flip pages specifying the growing habits of some 300 plants. In The Garden Planner, plants are organized not by color, but by height. Tall blooms appear at the top of the book and ground-level plants are at the bottom. "The staples for us are the how-to books," says Linda Bellamy, senior editor at Time-Life Books. "Next fall, we'll have Time-Life How-to Container Gardening, which takes you through it, step by step."

The Sales Picture
With the unendingly fertile realm of garden books, it's time to dig down to the bottom line, and we find that publishers offer varied answers to the query: How are sales overall? Fulcrum's Donna Hamilton says, "Sales are going up. They're continually going up." More frequently, however, responses are noticeably cautious. "Sales are not growing hugely," says Taunton's Jim Childs. "For one reason, gardening is a different kind of avocation. It's not like cooking, where people look for new recipes and new tastes. Once someone knows how to grow roses, it becomes harder to sell that person a second book on roses. There's also a limited window of opportunity to make the books work. Gardening is not like other categories where you publish books all year round. Here, everybody publishes everything at the same time for spring and summer."

A common observation as well is that the Internet offers so much for free that it has become a vast purveyor of information once sold through books and magazines. Not that the Net isn't also seen as a valuable promotional tool; Houghton Mifflin, for example, will soon present www.taylorsgardeningguides.com to spread the word about its imprint.

Another bottom line is that landscaping can significantly increase a homeowner's property value. Many aging baby boomers have settled down and recognize full well the importance of maximizing investments.

Furthermore, as people edge toward retirement, non-workaholics find more time to spend in the garden. Or, if not, they have more cash to hire some- one to do it. The American Nursery & Landscape Association reported last May that more than 21 million U.S. households spent a record $16.8 billion on professional landscape/lawncare/tree care services in 1998, a 32% increase over the previous year.

Still, the garden maintains its siren call. "For as many people who are gardening today, hundreds of thousands will start gardening tomorrow," contends Meredith's Barash. Even so, publishers seem to be heeding Taunton's Jim Childs: "These are such gorgeous books that a publisher can easily fall in love with them. However, we have to look at every book against the marketplace, and unless a book can be distinctive on some level, there just isn't a reason to publish it."

Gardening Titles 2000
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