There's a drastic change afoot in America's front and back yards. Where once gardeners toiled to beautify their property and satisfy their creative urges, the trend these days is to busy oneself arranging the patio chairs and making sure the cushions match the house color. Digging, it seems, has given way to decorating. Publishers of books for the horticulturally minded try their best to see the bright side of this trend, but it's not easy.

"Living in one's garden is what people are interested in," says Lauren Shakely, publisher at Clarkson Potter. "The fact that people are not gardening themselves doesn't mean they aren't interested in gardens." Clearly, however, other sources indicate that interest is waning.

According to Bruce Butterfield at the National Gardening Association, sales of gardening books have declined steadily in the past five years. Last year, 8.2 million households bought a gardening book, down from a peak of 11 million in 2001. "Sales at best have been absolutely flat," says Butterfield. "My analysis is that we've become a nation of casual gardeners instead of gardening enthusiasts. People who are serious gardeners buy books."

In January, garden writer Ann Raver pointed to the elephant in the room when she wrote about "a national gardening fatigue" in her weekly New York Times column. She cited figures testifying to a significant drop-off in sales of lawn and garden products in 2003 and 2004, and pinpointed aging baby boomers as the source of the problem. "Their backs are giving out. They're tired of expensive perennials that keel over in a drought."

Garden show producer Duane Kelly of Northwest Salmon Bay Events notes that attendance at his recent flower shows in San Francisco and Seattle was way down, as, he says, was attendance at similar shows worldwide. Hunting for a solution, Kelly commissioned a study and discovered that not only have boomers aged but so have their gardens. Boomers make fewer nursery visits and buy fewer garden books. "They have mature gardens, too, or else they have downsized their living quarters," Kelly says. "Their interest hasn't disappeared, but the intensity has declined." The next generation, he adds, views gardening in a different light. "They see gardens more as a social space, a place to entertain and be in for family fun. Boomers saw it as a sanctuary."

Hope Springs Eternal

Veteran publisher David Godine is an avid gardener as well as publisher of gardening books. His house, David R. Godine, specializes in literature about the garden. Speaking as a consumer, Godine says he used to buy how-to garden books himself, but no more. "I went through that stage of buying them and reading them and even underlining. You think the literature is going to help you, but the needs are so different in different zones and regions of the country that it doesn't work." But Godine the publisher is pressing ahead, offering this spring The Busiest Man in England: A Life of Joseph Paxton: Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary (Apr.) by Kate Colquhoun and Tales of the Rose Tree: Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World (May) by Jane Brown, which includes a listing of the best U.S. sites for seeing many varieties of rhodies.

Shakely at Clarkson Potter tries to find solace in the idea that gardening sales have perhaps fallen as far as they are going to. "We keep reading that the bottom is falling out of books, but certain categories are going to fall at different rates of speed. Lifestyle topics are always going to be of interest to people." She believes that changed expectations in the gardening category may be the key to successful publishing; rather than abandoning the field, she has signed on two new authors for 2007. Knowing how much to publish is the key, she says, even with star authors like P. Allen Smith and Ken Druse, both of whom have platforms that keep sales moving—Smith on the Weather Channel and Druse in magazines, newspapers and on the lecture circuit. "As long as you publish the right books in the category you can make money," she says. "In crafts we are able to put out 20,000 copies, a nice number you can start with and build a backlist from. This may be a model we can apply to other categories." Smith's March book, P. Allen Smith's Colors for the Garden: Creating Compelling Color Themes, had an announced first printing of 50,000.

Another publisher is less sanguine. "Quilting goes in five-year cycles," Sterling publisher Charles Nurnberg observes, "but gardening has never done this before. It had been at a very steady and predictable sale rate for years and years. The current slide is unexpected. The number of titles we're doing is substantially less—about 75% less. In the old days I might match someone and go head to head [in bidding on a new title], but now you've got to be careful."

Lionel Koffler, president and publisher of Firefly Books, takes a similar stance. "The market peaked six or seven years ago," he says. "As a category, gardening has declined, though there are always a few bright spots or trends. At the peak we published 13 gardening titles one spring. Now we have about 20 titles in print altogether. We signed a project for 2007 or 2008, but we will never go back to production as it once was."

One of Koffler's "bright spots" goes along with the prevailing notion of the garden as an extension of the house—a place to decorate, fuss over, live in and entertain in. One such book, Judith Adams's Landscape Planning: Practical Techniques for the Home Gardener has sold close to 65,000 copies since its 2002 publication; Liz Primeau's Front Yard Gardens: Growing More than Grass (2003) has sold nearly 60,000. "These titles remain strong and we continue to reprint them," Koffler says.

Sterling, too, continues to reprint backlist stalwarts. David Reed's The Art and Craft of Stonescaping: Setting and Stacking Stone—"about piling up rocks, basically," Nurnberg says—has sold 58,000 copies since 1999. Keith Davitt's Hardscaping: How to Use Structures, Pathways, Patios & Ornaments in Your Garden (June) epitomizes the new style of gardening book as it explores ways to treat the backyard as another room of the house. "In woodworking the areas that are selling are how to make decks, patios, benches—all things to make the outside prettier," Nurnberg says. "But they aren't about growing."

Sunset, retreating from the softened how-to market, has jumped enthusiastically into books on hardscaping. Editorial director Bob Doyle estimates a growth of 20%—30% in this sort of title versus a decline of about 20% over the past five or six years in pure how-to gardening titles. "It's books about the structures within the context of the garden that perform well for us," he says, with a nod toward the company's powerhouse title, The Western Garden Book, which is in a league of its own in terms of sales. (Retail sales exceed 5.5 million since the book's 1952 publication; the 2001 seventh edition has sold more than 600,000 copies.) "For us," Doyle says, "outdoor living and hardscaping have always been terrific, and they've gotten better in recent years." Along these lines is the publisher's just-released Landscaping with Stone.

Reader's Digest Books, traditionally a strong player in the field, has also tapped into the gardens-as-extensions-of-the-house trend with books such as this month's Dream Backyards: From Planters to Decks, Over 30 Projects to Create Beautiful Outdoor Living Spaces, from the editors of The Family Handyman magazine. "What we're seeing is that people want their yards to reflect their lifestyle," says Dolores York, executive editor of Reader's Digest's adult trade division.

Houghton Mifflin, traditionally a leader in the garden field with its Taylor's Guides, is sticking to what it does best—big reference works. "What has dropped off the list is the Taylor's 50 Best series," says Frances Tenenbaum, veteran garden editor and the author of Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (2003) and several books in the 50 Best series, including Perennials for Sun: Easy Plants for More Beautiful Gardens (1999) and Perennials for Shade: Easy Plants for More Beautiful Gardens (1999). These two continue to sell well, Tenenbaum says, but others—on shrubs, herbs and roses—have performed tepidly and will likely wither away. Another HM series, Taylor's Weekend Gardening Guides, is being put out to pasture. "They were expensive books to reprint, full of pictures," Tenenbaum says.

Tenenbaum read the manuscript of retired book editor James Raimes's Gardening at Ginger as a favor for a friend, was won over instantly and signed it up for the spring list. The book, subtitled My Seven-Year Obsession with Designing and Planting a Personal Landscape, is "totally enjoyable," she says, "but if you're not interested to begin with, you might not want to read it."

Like Tenenbaum, Tom Fischer, editor-in-chief of Timber Press, sees a steady demand for serious reference works and is publishing into this niche, with titles such as Ceanothus by Davis Fross and Dieter Wilken and Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler. "Small printings help," Fischer says. "The trick is not to overestimate the appeal of any given title." Container gardening is a strong topic, Fischer reports, and notes a growing interest in flowering shrubs, rather than perennials. "We haven't felt the impact of any falloff yet," he says. "Our sales are good."

Suzanne Taylor, editor-in-chief of Gibbs Smith, stands out from the crowd of bad-news bearers. "Gardening is a growth area for us," she says. "We are having success with more regional titles and with books about larger design concepts. Gordon Hayward's The Welcoming Garden [Dec.] was about how to design a front garden that introduces people to your home. It was about gardening, but it takes home design outside. We are looking for more like this."

Bullish, too, is Barbara Euser, an independent editor and a master gardener who has taken essays by fellow master gardeners that appeared in her local paper in the Bay Area and packaged them as Gardening Among Friends (Travelers' Tales/Solas House, May). "The true pleasure of gardening is in digging in the soil yourself. It's a very basic feeling that millions of people share," she says. Master gardening programs in her area, she notes, are always oversubscribed.

What's a Bookseller to Do?

Facing shrinking lists in the category is difficult for booksellers, who have their own sagging sales to deal with. At Kepler's Bookstore in Palo Alto, Calif., backlist buyer Cynthia St. John is filling the garden shelves with remainders and sidelines. "There are not a lot of new titles," she says. "I'm bringing in things like garden totes, tool sets, plant markers and seed kits to get people interested. And I'm keeping the section fuller by stocking bargain books. It's disheartening." She also faces different books out so that people who come in regularly won't see the same titles each time.

B&N buyer Allison Korleski says the chain still does decently with how-to gardening books, but that once customers have bought a basic text, they don't rush out to buy another, which limits growth in that direction. So where once the shelves were filled with gardening primers, "now the real estate in the section is shifting to regional titles," she says, which is reflected in both overall book sales and the number of titles on the shelves.

At Borders, the garden market is "trending down," according to spokesperson Holley Stein. "It hasn't been dramatic, but it's true pretty much overall, with the exception of home landscaping."

St. John at Kepler's would like to see more books on improving soil and planting flowers. "There is demand in California. We can grow things year round. The customers haven't gone away. They want to see new stuff. Publishers should reissue, repackage, make prettier and update what they have, and the books will sell."

Pleas for regional recognition explain the push to produce garden books about particular regions or zones. Many publishers are now catering to it, as typified by Sunset's three-year-old Top 10 series, which is moving ahead cautiously—the January publication of Florida Top 10 Garden Guide and Mid-Atlantic Top 10 Garden Guide brings to six the number of books in the series.

Regional gardening titles are an important component of sales at Seattle's University Bookstore, where buyer Cathy Wright notes that the regional emphasis from area publisher Sasquatch suits the store perfectly. "People want to know what is going to work for them," she says. Other big sellers, reports Wright, are specialized titles from Timber Press, an increasingly strong presence in the lives of serious gardeners.

A relative newcomer to the scene, Cool Springs Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, is building a list almost exclusively comprising regional titles, using local authors who live and garden in their respective areas. So far, 24 states are covered in the Gardener's Guide series, and eight in the Month by Month Gardening Books. But even Cool Springs is having to rethink its strategy. "Sales are not hurting in our core market of regional and state gardening books," says associate publisher Cindy Games. "Where they are hurting is in the sell-through on national books, which is where the competition is. What's working are books on outside living, landscaping, books with less information, more inspiration—that's where the movement is."

Korleski at B&N is intrigued by two forthcoming armchair titles—Algonquin's $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander (see sidebar, p. 24) and Dutton's Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey Through Other People's Gardens by James Dodson (Mar.), which is being pitched as doing for competitive gardening what Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak did for competitive Scrabble. Korleski says she took a strong stand on both books and is curious to see what happens. "I'll be waiting to see if they will take the category outside of those who normally garden," she says.

Meanwhile, it would appear that those who normally garden—make that, who used to garden—have shifted their allegiance from the Smith & Hawken catalogue to those from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel.

For a listing of forthcoming gardening titles, see