Despite publishing's massive layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, many gardening publishers have noted an increase in their annual sales. This is due in large part to a renewed excitement surrounding books on organic gardening and, especially, sustainable gardening techniques. Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin says gardening publishers are releasing titles on sustainability to tap into peoples' desire to “live simpler, more affordable lives.”

Often, grim financial news brings resurgence in a 'back to the land' mentality,” says Storey's publisher Pam Art. “We saw this in the 1970s in the face of sky-high fuel prices and we're seeing it again. Gardeners in general are usually more aware of the environment, following environmental practices like composting, avoiding synthetic chemicals and pest deterrents.” Storey's answer to this “back to the land” movement is The Backyard Homestead, edited by Carleen Madigan, a former Horticulture magazine editor who learned many of the book's techniques while living on an organic farm in Boston. “The book is a compendium of advice on how to feed families using plants and animals raised at home,” says Art. “It shows readers how to grow fruits, vegetables and nuts; how to churn butter and make their own wine; how to raise chickens and pigs; and how to do it on less than a quarter-acre.”

Paul Kelly, St. Lynn's Press publisher, thinks the economic downturn is a boon for gardening books: “Because the ever-increasing price of food continues to be a major concern for consumers, new gardeners are becoming more willing to grow their food.” Sustainability meshes so well with gardening, he adds, because “at the root (no pun intended) of the home gardening movement is the thought of eating fresher, locally and healthier.” Kelly argues that when one makes the choice to eat a healthier diet, almost by default they become more attuned to the natural rhythms and cycles of nature—which in turn makes one more conscious of taking better care of the planet. The publisher's Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More by Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser, now in its third printing, “shows first-timers and old-timers alike that gardening offers many rewards, one of which is healthier and less expensive 'store bought' food,” says Kelly.

What might be termed the “old variety” of gardening books hurt the category's sales, argues Plain White Press publisher Julie Trelstad. “The flood of coffee-table gardening books imported from Europe nearly killed gardening publishing, not only because of their expense but they were not applicable to U.S. gardening conditions.” But because of society's current fascination with going green, Trelstad has noticed the “shift from ornamental gardening to food/sustenance gardening. People value organic food now and want to know where it comes from. Growing your own is the ultimate local food.” You Bet Your Tomatoes!: How to Grow Great-Tasting Tomatoes in Your Own Backyard. Or Garden. by Mike McGrath, out this month, will help facilitate this shift due to what Trelstad describes as its “funny, practical, inexpensive advice that will help me not only grow tomatoes but keep them alive, and will help me grow my own tasty, organic food.”

Coming next month from Eno Publishers is Rain Gardening in the South: Ecologically Designed Gardens for Drought, Deluge, & Everything in Between by Helen Kraus and Anne Spafford, which “teaches gardeners to use our most precious resource—water—wisely,” says publisher Elizabeth Woodman. “Rain gardens maximize rainwater, enhance the landscape and promote good environmental stewardship.”

Though a few publishers disagreed with the general enthusiasm encountered by PW, many supported their optimism with hard numbers. According to Baldwin at Chelsea Green, “This is the most significant category of books for us, accounting for 32% of our net sales in the last twelve months versus 22% in the previous twelve months.” She adds that net sales grew by an “astounding” 56% in the same period, while the entire list was up 5.4%. The publisher's bestseller has been Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest, which is up 91% in the last twelve months and selling almost three times as well as it did three years ago. Baldwin has high hopes for Coleman's The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses, which she explains champions the revival of small-scale, sustainable farming: “Eliot offers clear, concise details on greenhouse construction and maintenance, planting schedules, crop management and harvesting practices.”

Timber Press has had similar success. Publisher Neal Maillet disputes the naysayers, noting that the house's garden-book sales were up 12% overall in 2008. He claims that makers of garden products saw similar growth last year. “The rate of sales increases at indies and the chains was basically the same as our increase at Amazon. We've found it tougher to chase down some catalogue and special sales, but we're just not seeing our readers abandon the section. Garden topics are changing, but the numbers are up.” An interesting statistic cited by Maillet is the fact that 27 million households now grow vegetables and 33 million report taking care of their own landscapes. Those numbers, he says “are way up from a few years ago.”

Maillet concurs with Plain White's Trelstad that the so-called “beautiful garden books” are a thing of the past. There will always be a place for beautiful gardens, he says, but that concept means something very different in a post-bubble economy: “Yards are places where people are going to be restored and nourished, not places where they're planting annuals to flip the house.” Out next month is The Family Kitchen Garden by Karen Liebreich et al., which, in Maillet's words, “gives families everything they need to know to begin a vegetable garden together, and has recipes and projects that fit a family lifestyle.”

Though Chronicle Books struggled to sell gardening titles in the early to mid-2000s, they too have seen a significant growth in the category. According to executive editor Jodi Warshaw, “Sales fell flat on everything... so we stopped acquiring in the category.” She notes, however that “in the last year or so we've seen a big upsurge in gardening interest. We've witnessed increased media coverage and can't help but note the success of food gardening titles.” Chronicle's version of a recession-proof title is Garden Anywhere: How to Grow Gorgeous Container Gardens, Herb Gardens, Kitchen Gardens and More—Without Spending a Fortune by Alys Fowler. The book's theme, says Warshaw, “is that no matter how big or small your patch of soil, you can create a gorgeous garden on a budget.”

At Rodale, senior editor Karen Bolesta says, “While we've trimmed the overall number of garden titles we publish annually over the past decade, we had incredible sell-in for our four winter '09 titles.” Bolesta echoed many of the same reasons for the increased interest in sustainability—but according to her, Rodale has been on top of this subject for some time. “This year marks the 50th anniversary of our go-to organic handbook Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, edited by Fern Marshall Bradley et al.,” says Bolesta. “We've revised and updated the entire 720-page book and added a brand-new section on green gardening, 'Earth-Friendly Techniques for a Changing Climate and a Crowded World.' ”

Another publisher that claims to have been ahead of the sustainability curve is Fulcrum Books. Says publisher Sam Scinta, Fulcrum has “always, during our 25-year history, made land stewardship and sustainability part of our garden book message. I think this is due in large part to the fact that we are based in the Rocky Mountain West, an area challenged not only by serious drought issues, but elevation and other harsh challenges as well.” One title that caters to these challenges is Durable Plants for the Garden, edited by James E. Henrich, which according to Scinta, “features the first 74 plants promoted by Plant Select, a unique collaborative venture aimed at identifying and distributing the best plants for gardens from the High Plains to the intermountain region.”

Coming from the University of California Press is another regional title—Glenn Keator's California Plant Families: West of the Sierran Crest and Deserts, says acquisitions editor Jenny Wapner, “provides a superb way for learning to identify California native and naturalized plants by learning to recognize plant families.”

Print vs. Online

A question that all publishers must deal with when releasing gardening reference titles during a recession is: why would anyone spend their hard-earned dollars on a reference book when much of the content can be found online? Rick Rinehart, publisher at Taylor Trade Publishing, has a few theories. “Book buyers are an elite group. And those who are gardening enthusiasts are an elite within an elite. They want to see their subject from many angles. Books do this.” Rinehart uses the Great Depression as a Web-based example. He says it is fairly easy to get a concise history of the Great Depression at Wikipedia, but since interpretations of the success of the New Deal are all over the place, the serious historian will want to go further than a Web page. So, too, with serious gardeners. Down to Earth: Practical Thoughts for Passionate Gardeners steers clear of the reference-style information provided in many gardening books. Instead, says Rinehart, “[author] Margot Rochester encourages readers to garden for self-gratification. Her goal is to enable gardeners to simplify tasks, thereby saving time and money.”

Speaking in support of reference books, Nancy Green, senior editor, Norton Books for Architects and Designers, says, “Books by knowledgeable writers are authoritative, are based on particular experience, and address issues that professionals are likely to care about.” She adds that the Web has not yet provided a match to good color printing, “which is important to gardeners who want to see what plantings look like.” Norton Books for Architects and Designers' The Vertical Garden: From Nature to the City utilizes, says Green, the expertise of “visionary French scientist and artist Patrick Blanc to explain how to create plant walls using over 1,000 plants.”

Gibbs-Smith, too, has utilized the know-how of artists to motivate readers. Art and the Gardener: Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design by Gordon Hayward “explains how, by looking at fine paintings, you can more carefully choose your garden style and define the relationship between house and garden,” according to editorial director Suzanne Taylor.

St. Martin's Griffin's Garden Mosaics by Tessa Hunkin and Emma Biggs centers on an art form rather than an artist. According to deputy publicity director Dori Weintraub, “Mosaic is an art form that decorates everything from cathedral walls to subway stations. Garden Mosaics showcases a wide range of outdoor projects... to make your garden special all year round.”

Algonquin Books associate publisher Ina Stern attributes the success of her gardening books to their narrative and illustrated formats, respectively. “Our illustrated books are meant to be shared and thumbed through,” says Stern. “Our narrative gardening books and garden essays have a personality all their own that you won't necessarily find on the Web, except perhaps on some gardening blogs.” A Rose by Any Name by Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello combines the information of a reference book with what Stern calls “illustrated miscellany. It's colorful, it's witty and it's a treasure trove of facts and trivia for die-hard rosarians.”

When asked what separated Findhorn Press books from typical run-of-the-mill gardening reference, publisher Thierry Bogliolo mentioned Findhorn's New Age/gardening synthesis. “Ellen Vande Visse's Ask Mother Nature: A Conscious Gardener's Guide, while filled with vitally important information about creating compost andnatural pesticides, is also a really funny read,” says Bogliolo. “The author discusses her many, often hilarious, conversations with the plants spirits (Deva) and the angelic realm, clearly underlining the challenges of co-creating with nature.”

One can only hope that the craving for books on sustainability is, well, sustained. These titles serve more of a purpose than providing economical and environmental advice—they are drawing readers into bookstores at a time when readers have less money and publishers publish fewer books.