Four Publishing Lessons Learned in the Garden

Frelinghuysen Greenwood 036 by glecharles
Frelinghuysen Greenwood 036 by glecharles

The gardener’s work is never at end; it begins with the year, and continues to the next: he prepares the ground, and then he sows it; after that he plants, and then he gathers the fruits….”
John Evelyn, Kalendarium Hortense, 1706

Winter in the Northeast can make Spring seem like it’s a whole year away, stripping nature bare in the coldest, harshest light and making it hard to remember the life-sustaining beauty that lies dormant, waiting for the right moment to blossom. But there’s a beauty to be found in that harsh light, too; one that requires you to look a little bit closer to see it, to understand it, and to fully appreciate what the future might bring.

It’s been an excruciatingly long Winter in the publishing world, and a number of magazines have succumbed to the bitter cold as hopes of a Spring reawakening faded away. Others are hanging by a thread, hoping the last of the snow is finally melting and warmer temperatures are just ahead.

For the past 18 months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a metaphorical redwood in publishing, the 105-year-old Horticulture magazine, first as Advertising Sales Director, and as of last October, Publisher and Editorial Director. It’s been an amazing experience, and my newfound appreciation for gardening was perfectly timed with our buying our first house last summer. Simultaneously working for Horticulture and in our own little garden at home, I learned some lessons that relate directly to working in publishing, especially during the cold, hard “winter”.

1) It’s hard work, requires a plan, and the pay-off takes time. That seems obvious, but in tough times, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. (And don’t forget the veggies!) Unless you’ve got a serious landscaping budget to work with, a well-designed, robust garden can take a few years before it’s something to behold in every season. It takes even longer when the garden’s been neglected for any time at all. For a magazine, focusing only on short-term goals is like planting nothing but fully grown annuals and trees. There has to be a clear, viable long-term goal you’re working towards, too.

2) Without gardeners, there are no gardens. That’s not literally true, of course, as nature does a perfectly fine job of things, but gardeners are like art directors and editors, bringing order to chaos. Anyone can buy cheap plants at Home Depot, or get some free from fellow gardeners, throw them in a pot and add water now and then — but for a truly exceptional garden, someone has to design and curate it. That someone probably isn’t the 16-year-old who mows your lawn every weekend, either. Publishing a magazine is no different; you need experienced, passionate professionals seeking out and curating the best content, and presenting it in an original, appealing context.

3) Weeding and pest control are critical. Weeds are sometimes called misplaced plants, transported from their natural environment where they might normally be a thing of beauty. In the wrong garden, however, they can quickly take over and you will spend more time getting rid of them than you do tending the plants you want to thrive. Similarly, there are a variety of insects, some beneficial and some destructive, and knowing the difference is critical to the health of your garden. In publishing, weeds can be unprofitable subscribers (or negative employees), while advertisers can be pests, some beneficial, some not! Being able to discern the difference, and getting rid of whatever doesn’t add value to the whole is absolutely critical.

4) Grow what you love, with love. Anything worth doing requires hard work, but there’s plenty of things not worth doing that require just as much or even more work. A garden full of plants you don’t love takes just as much work to tend as one filled with those you do, but the work will seem tougher and be significantly less rewarding. There are no easy jobs in publishing these days, so working for a publication you don’t care about can be stressful, even unhealthy. I’ve been very fortunate the past 2.5 years to not only work with some great publications, but also with some great people, and most recently, working with Horticulture and its staff has been an absolute honor and pleasure.

Over the past year, we made a number of changes to the magazine while still honoring its long-established commitment to gardening as a passion, and at the same time established a distinct online presence that’s been steadily growing. Among my personal highlights are surviving the near-disastrous downturn in advertising this year; the increased editorial focus we’ve put on the gardeners themselves; and the inclusion of poetry in every issue. The latter was a goal I set for myself years ago, should I ever have the influence, and to have accomplished it in perhaps one of the unlikeliest venues is something that will always make me smile.


If that last bit sounds oddly like a farewell note, well, that’s because it is. Kind of.

Starting week after next, I’ll be transitioning from the Publisher and Editorial Director role for the Horticulture community, to take over as the Director of Audience Development for F+W Media’s Writing and Design communities, a brand new position whose goal is to integrate our various marketing silos into a cohesive whole, and is roughly the equivalent of having been given a blank sheet of paper upon which to write down my ideal job!

(There’s another exciting change that hasn’t been officially announced yet, but I’m already working on it…)

I am incredibly excited about this new phase in my career — effectively coming back full circle to my first publishing job, in circulation, but with a broader perspective — and look forward continuing to share the experiences and lessons I learn here on the blog as they happen.

But first, it’s vacation time! (You can follow my Route 66 adventures on the personal blog, where I’ll be posting pictures and updates from our trip.)

3 thoughts on “Four Publishing Lessons Learned in the Garden

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.