These days, the most famous garden at the White House isn't filled with roses, but rows of tomatoes, peppers, and squash. And it's not just the Obamas who are digging up the backyard to grow vegetables. Statistics from the National Gardening Association show 43 million U.S. households planted food gardens in 2009—up 19% from 2008. At the venerable Burpee Seed Company, chairman George Ball reports the company saw a whopping 30% increase in vegetable seed sales in 2009.
The economy has definitely sent people to their backyards with a shovel and a hoe,” says Gibbs Smith's gardening category manager, Madge Baird. “If they gardened before the boom went bust, they've now increased their numbers of rows and crops. If they hadn't previously been gardeners, they're at least nursing a couple of tomato plants and maybe a cucumber in the flower garden or on the patio.”
Food gardening, notes Perigee editor Maria Gagliano, “appeals to a new generation of DIYers, who care about the quality of what they're putting in their bodies.” While the economy is still a factor, Gagliano says, “an even stronger pull is this generation's urge to be more self-sufficient and to connect on a deeper level with what they're eating. Much like the back-to-the-land movement of the '60s and '70s, we're sewing, pickling, baking, and planting our way to a simpler lifestyle. Only this time, we're doing it in our own backyards.”
So what can publishers do to cultivate a potential market of millions of enthusiastic new gardeners who may not know a Brandywine from a Cherokee Purple? One challenge, says Storey editorial director Deborah Balmuth, is that “many of these people are so new to gardening, they don't even consider themselves gardeners. Growing food is an extension of their efforts to be more independent and self-sufficient.” Storey is responding to the challenge with books like Barbara Pleasant's Starter Vegetable Gardens, which assumes no prior gardening knowledge and features 24 small-scale organic garden plans, each set up like a cooking recipe, with a list of ingredients and a basic plot plan.
“Today's new gardeners are a sophisticated bunch,” notes Timber Press associate publisher Mikyla Bruder. “They're active, media-savvy, and have high expectations for the content and design of their books. We're taking our cues from the success of the craft category and aggressively marketing books like Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner's The Nonstop Garden: Easy Designs and Smart Plant Choices for Four-Season Landscapes online to get the buzz going among young gardeners and DIY folk.”
An author's ability to reach out to these new gardeners using blogs or social networking has become key for many publishers. “Gayla Trail was one of the first young, hip, urban gardeners to host a robust interactive Web-based community,” says Clarkson Potter editorial director Doris Cooper. “That was as much a draw to us as her clever ideas and clear, prescriptive voice in acquiring Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces. “Cooper also notes the gritty, hip nature of many of the book's photographs—“it's gardening for newbies without alienating the tattoo crowd.” San Francisco Bay—area gardening maven Maria Finn had already cultivated an online audience through her weekly e-newsletter and blog (CityDirt.net), when Universe/Rizzoli came calling. Her book, A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Food in Small Places, says Rizzoli publisher Charles Miers, “is a small package that's not intimidating for new gardeners as well as a stylish package that can—as with all Rizzoli titles—seamlessly fit into the chic décor of a home.”
While Rodale publishing director Pam Krauss believes “consumers looking for natural gardening solutions tend to gravitate toward our titles, we don't take that for granted. We keep a close eye on what's happening within the gardening community and address the needs of those who are new to gardening or have a limited amount of time to devote to garden projects.” The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way, edited by Fern Marshall Bradley et al., is one of Rodale's most successful backlist titles (100,000 copies sold since 1996) and has been newly revised to help an up-and-coming generation of gardeners identify, prevent, and control pests and diseases without harmful chemicals.
“The profile of the so-called typical gardener is changing, in part because the reasons people garden have changed,” says Ten Speed publicity director Debra Matsumoto. She sees Sal Gilbertie and Larry Sheehan's Small-Plot, High-Yield Gardening: Grow Like a Pro, Save Money, and Eat Well with a Back (or Front or Side) Yard Organic Produce Garden appealing to a “heightened eco-consciousness that's often behind people's desire to grow their own fruit, vegetables, and herbs. There's no shorter carbon footprint than to go from your own yard to your own kitchen table.”
Baird at Gibbs Smith is on the lookout for titles that respond to people's need to “smell the soil and feel dirt in their hands,” like Nan K. Chase's Eat Your Yard! Edible Trees, Shrubs, Vines, Herbs and Flowers for Your Landscape, which “teaches readers how to expand the use of their yards for vegetable growing—including the landscaping.” Sterling publisher Jason Prince notes “a shift away from big, comprehensive books and pretty picture books” to titles like Kathryn Hawkins's Pot It! Grow It! Eat It!: Home Grown Produce from Pot to Pan, a combination growing guide and cookbook that celebrates vegetable gardening in windowsills, containers, balconies, and small backyards.
“Today's gardeners don't want to read the same guides or authors their mothers and grandmothers relied on,” says Perigee's Gagliano. “We want advice from someone like Annie Spiegelman (Talking Dirt: The Dirt Diva's Down-to-Earth Guide to Organic Gardening), whose values align with our own—someone who understands we want a smart, safe, and sustainable garden, and that we have what it takes to build it ourselves.”
With tens of millions of Americans now poring over seed catalogues and gobbling up books that will help them bring in a bounty of produce this coming summer, how do publishers make certain their titles stand out in what's quickly become a very crowded field—or rather, garden?
First and foremost, says Countryman Press publicist Tom Haushalter, do your very best not to intimidate the reader. “You don't want new gardeners to be daunted by the prospect of gardening, so one of the first pieces of advice in Raymond Nones's Raised-Bed Vegetable Gardening Made Simple is start small. For similar reasons, the book is modestly sized, not a brick of a thing bloated with color photographs or best-case scenarios. Its wow factor will be measured by the reader's full-color tomatoes come next August.” At Mitchell Beazley/Octopus Books, “we're after well-designed, practical, and easy-to-understand books,” says associate publisher Jonathan Stolper. “Carol Klein's Grow Your Own Vegetables provides straightforward, expert advice on how to sow, grow, harvest, store, and cook over 40 crops.”
And nothing like a stop-you-in-your-tracks title to catch a gardener's eye. Reader's Digest's Grow Your Own Drugs: Easy Recipes for Natural Remedies and Beauty Fixes offers easy-to-follow instructions for growing the ingredients needed for simple creams, salves, teas, and lozenges as well as bath bombs and shampoos. The book, which hit #1 on the Nielsen BookScan U.K., is authored by ethnobotanist James Wong, host of the BBC Two's popular show of the same name.
Timber Press is standing out by reaching out to the very youngest next generation of gardeners with Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle's How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. “Organic gardening and sustainability,” says Bruder, “has gained such a foothold in today's culture, we saw a great opportunity to go one step further and publish a book that helps grownups get involved in teaching children the value of gardening and eating locally.”
Regional gardening titles have long been a backlist mainstay for many publishers and continue to bring in a bumper crop of both new and longtime readers. Rowman & Littlefield editorial director Rick Rinehart sees regional titles such as Sally and Andy Wasowski's Gardening with Native Plants of the South continuing to sell while more general gardening books are suffering. “Most basic gardening questions can be answered on the Internet, so specialization is key, and targeted regional books make a lot of sense right now.” Chronicle executive editor Jodi Warshaw says she “can't imagine a time when regional guides won't be viable and competitive in the marketplace. Our bestselling gardening book is Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening, and we've just published a fully revised edition, Pat Welsh's Southern California Organic Gardening: Month by Month, aimed at the organic gardener.” At Oxmoor House, the backlist powerhouse Sunset Western Garden Book (its top-selling gardening book in 2007 and 2008) has spawned a veggie-friendly Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles, with advice for growing vegetables in urban and small space gardens. “It's a testament to the appeal of local growing information,” says publishing director Jim Child.
As noted in PW's March 2009 gardening feature, many publishers were—despite grim economic news—reporting an upswing in the sales of gardening titles. And it appears the category is still flourishing in ways that make it almost recession proof. “In a down economy,” reports Northshire Bookstore buyer Stan Hynds, “lots of people got square meals from square feet to help square the books. Sales of our gardening books were up more than 30% in 2009, with the biggest sales coming out of the vegetable gardening category.” In the gardening mecca of Portland, Ore., Powell's Home and Garden Books store manager, Susan Crittenden, tells PW that books on vegetable gardening ranked #1 in 2009—a barometer she sees as “a direct response to the recession. People who were never willing before tried gardening, and it didn't matter whether they were gardening in pots or yards.” But, she cautions, no matter how well written, books today “have to speak to people who want simple low-maintenance gardens—not exotic gardens with a huge plant palate.”
While publishers won't label gardening as immune to hard times, most are optimistic about the future of the entire category. “If history is any guide,” says Storey COO Dan Reynolds, “people who get into gardening through vegetables will evolve into flower and perennial gardeners.” Oxmoor's Jim Child sees the garden-to-table trend as a sustainable one: “as baby boomers age, there may be a significant demographic opportunity to develop an enthusiastic gardening market that also loves to buy books.” Stolper at Octopus encourages publishers to “nurture this resurgent interest with books that cater to beginning, intermediate, and expert gardeners. Moving beyond just books on vegetable growing, and providing a full range of gardening titles (everything from planning, creating, and maintaining all types of gardens) will be critical as this category's popularity continues to grow.”
And when the good times once again roll, will Americans still be as enthusiastic about homegrown tomatoes and eggplant? Absolutely, says Rodale's Krauss. “Even when the economy ultimately rebounds, it seems clear that we've all gotten hooked on the exhilaration that comes from eating food we've grown ourselves and feel really good about serving.”