By Mary-Kate Mackey
“So, what kind of writing do you do?”
A few years ago, I was attending my first American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference in New York. My fellow journalist had just asked the question I dreaded. She and I were sorting through a box of colorful ribbons that could be added to our name tags, describing various types of writing. Mine was not among them. I looked down at the patterned hotel carpet and mumbled, “I’m a garden writer.”
And the inevitable question came back, “What’s that?”
Even as I explained that I write for national magazines, her attention faded, and she looked over my shoulder.
Journalists derive a certain stature from the importance of their subject matter. War correspondents, health reporters, financial wizards, political pundits. Even at the university school of journalism where I taught writing, the subject of gardens was regarded as a bit fluffy, a bit optional—not the real stuff. A leftover prejudice linked it to the content of “women’s magazines.” And it didn’t help my ego that my words were secondary to the photographs in most publications. As my writing career was building, I bought into this attitude.
Until I didn’t.
The penny dropped when I discovered that even top writers cannot always write cogently about horticulture. A major magazine sent an important East Coast writer to cover a Northwest garden I knew well. Now I’m aware, many writers feel they can hold forth on any subject—and why not? They know they’re good researchers and excellent reporters. When the article appeared, I studied it because I wanted to learn from the best.
Total disappointment. This writer didn’t understand the genius he was seeing in the garden. He didn’t know what questions to ask. The photographs were great but the story missed by a mile.
That’s when it occurred to me. It’s not just banging the words together. Garden writing is a finely honed niche. Good garden writing digs deeper. The knowledge I had accumulated was out of sight, like the condition of the soil under my feet. I wasn’t giving myself credit for what I’d learned.
All those hours I’ve spent keeping up with ever-changing plant names—including how to punctuate the single-quotes—makes a difference. And how about the Latin and Greek descriptors that go with them? Over the years, I’ve gained an understanding of climatology, different growing zones, basic botany, soil variations, geology and geography. I’ve studied the history of gardening—lucky enough to sit in on a three-semester university class that began with the four rivers pouring out of the Garden of Eden.
And, like all garden writers, if I don’t know something, I’m surrounded by a support system of knowledgeable people who do. I’ve been attending GWA conferences since 2002. I’ve met an extended network of fellow writers, photographers, editors, plant growers, and garden product developers—all of whom are happy to fill up the holes in my hort education. These are the folks I call on when I want to know which vegetables grow best in short-season climates, or what’s happening with soil biota, or how many hardy ferns to include in the Sunset Western Garden Book.
As a member of GWA, I’ve received a variety of unfamiliar plants to grow and learn from. Through the ever-changing GWA conference locations, I’ve also experienced gardens all over the U.S. and Canada—some places I didn’t want to visit, but I’m so glad I did. I’m now more aware of what grows in different climates. A noxious weed like ivy in the Pacific Northwest is beloved in upstate New York. Details like that give me the chops to write for a national audience.
Garden writers’ subjects are also tied to teaching about vital issues in the greater world—climate change, food security, scientific inquiry, ecological preservation, and our need to connect with nature. We might be covering what happens in one back yard, but what we say has an influence on the choices our readers make—whether it’s pesticide runoff or organic practices. And those choices affect us all.
So, thanks to GWA, I now have a green ribbon that proudly says in gold letters, “garden writer.” And I’m going to make sure that the ribbon box at the ASJA conference this year has a place for us. We count. Our profession is important.
But you probably knew that. It just took me a few years to catch up.
Meet the Author
Garden writer Mary-Kate Mackey will be offering a pre-symposium workshop at GWA2017 in Buffalo, “Write Better Right Now—Practical Tips and Techniques to Power up your Next Project.” The six-hour hands-on session is based on her newest book, Write Better Right Now—The Reluctant Writer’s Guide to Confident Communication and Self-Assured Style (Career Press). Learn more about her services at marykatemackey.com.