How I Became a Garden Writer

If you think gardening is challenging…

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I never dreamed I’d be a garden writer. It just happened. I have a degree in mechanical engineering, and I worked for over 20 years in manufacturing. After I retired, I needed something to fill my days, so I started gardening. At first, it was a harmless hobby, but somewhere along the way I tripped and tumbled down the rabbit hole. I became obsessed with gardening. It was all I did. When I wasn’t working in the garden, I was attending a class about gardening or reading a book about gardening. One day I was taking a survey about gardening. My teenaged son was sitting next to me working on his homework. I didn’t know how to respond to a question, so I turned to him and said, “Jesse, how much time do you think I spend on garden-related activities?” Without hesitation, he answered, “All of it!”

I spent another 60 hours before I finally submitted it. Then I waited.

After a few years of gardening like a crazy person, my yard looked awesome. I was proud of it and thought it was good enough to be in a magazine. So I emailed pictures to the editor of Alabama Gardener magazine and asked if she would be interested in running an article about my garden. She replied that, yes, she wanted to feature it in the magazine. Could I have the article finished in time for the September issue? I told her no. I didn’t want to write the article. I wanted it to be good. I wanted her to send an experienced writer, preferably her best writer, to interview me and do the article. She said she didn’t have anyone in my part of the state, so the only way for my garden to be in the magazine was for me to write the article myself. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I agreed.

Oh my goodness, I worked so hard on that article. I probably spent 40 hours on the first draft. Then I asked my sister Pat to look at it. Pat is not your run-of-the-mill sister. She’s a famous author. You might know her as Patricia Wrede. Her books have been on the science fiction and fantasy best-seller list, and she’s an excellent writer and editor. Pat didn’t say my article was terrible; she just said it rambled and lacked a theme. She also gave me ideas on how to fix it. I spent another 60 hours before finally submit-ting it, then I waited on pins and needles to hear what the editor thought. She never gave me any feedback on that article, but she asked me to write a hot plant article. After I turned it in, she asked me to write another.

Now, if I was going to write more articles that other people were going to read, they were going to be the best darned articles I could possibly write. So I attended a writing workshop taught by a Pulitzer-prize-winning author sponsored by something called the Garden Writers Association. The quality of my writing improved dramatically. They assigned me the hot plant article on a permanent basis, and I wrote one for every issue. I also wrote garden profile articles about my friends’ gardens and various other articles. They say practice makes perfect, and I could tell I was getting a little better all the time. I wrote an article about tablescapes, and they not only ran it in Alabama, but they also ran it regionally—in nine different magazines in nine different states. Things were going great.

A Snippet from Peggy’s Back Page

Here’s one anecdote from “Peggy’s Big Adventure,” a piece she wrote for Alabama Gardener about going on a road trip with plant expert Dan Heims, President of Terra Nova Nurseries:

As the sun was setting on our last night, Dan and I were at a car wash vacuuming an inch of spilled potting soil from the floor-boards, wrapping small plants in newspaper, and bare-rooting over a dozen of the larger plants. You see, over the course of the trip we stopped at dozens of nurseries, and if a plant impressed Dan Heims, I bought it. The kid at the next vacuum was amused to learn that I planned to bring them all back to Alabama in my suitcase, and that I’d already shipped home my dirty clothes and spare shoes to make room.

He asked me, “Don’t they sell plants where you live?”

Then one day in 2013, my editor emailed all her Alabama writers with the news that Bill Finch was no longer going to write the back-page article, and she wanted to know who was interested in taking it over. ME! I was interested! But editors usually give the assignment to their best writer. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t up to this. I wasn’t even a real writer. I had just somehow fallen into it. I never replied to the email.

They gave the back page to Michelle Reynolds, and she did a great job. I continued writing other things for the magazine. One of the things I wrote was a blog on their website titled “Black Diamond™ crepe myrtles and Grandma’s Wisdom.” It started with a story about how my Grandma June taught me one of life’s great secrets when I was just six years old. My dad and I were visiting, and she said, “Peggy, do you want some ice cream?” I answered, “Daddy won’t let me have ice cream now. It’s too close to dinner. It’ll ruin my appetite.” Grandma smiled and said, “Go sit on your daddy’s lap, give him a big hug and say, ‘Daddy, I love you! You’re the best daddy in the whole world!!! Let’s get some ice cream!’” The next thing I knew, I was in the backseat of the Buick heading to Baskin Robbins.

The blog went on to explain how Grandma’s wisdom continues to serve me well. I use a modified approach to get free plants, such as the exquisite Black Diamond™ crape myrtle. I ended by saying the technique also works splendidly on husbands. My editor read that blog and loved it. She sent me an email saying it was precisely the sort of writing they wanted for the back page, and she asked me if I would be willing to split the assignment with Michelle. I finally decided that if my editor had such faith in me, I’d give it a shot.

That was three years ago, and I’ve been sharing the back page ever since. It’s my favorite assignment and some of my best work. It’s even garnered me fans. Recently, I was asked to give an hour-long presentation at the Alabama Master Gardener Association’s seminar. They are paying me money and everything. They‘ve always enjoyed my back-page articles and wanted to hear more of what I have to say.

Funny how life turns out. I never dreamed I’d be a garden writer, but that’s what happened.

What? Now I have to speak?


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